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Ima’s spicy karaage fried chicken sandwich is hot stuff

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There are few chefs in metro Detroit's Japanese restaurants who can send out bowls that stand up to what Ima chef-owner Mike Ransom prepares in his kitchens.

While eating the crispy fried-chicken don — one of the new bowls at Ima's recently opened location across from Wayne State — I pondered why that is. In the dish, Ransom mixes meticulously made spicy karaage chicken thigh, house pickles, napa cabbage slaw, furikake kewpie, lemon, chili threads, pickled ginger, scallions, and nori above sushi rice. The bowl is busy with contrasting and complementing flavors and brightened with citrus and acids, but it's seamless and smooth — not chaotic. And that's partly it. It's hard to think of a clumsy dish in Ransom's repertoire, and you see that sort of polish across Ima's menu.

At the new location (Ima's third, following the original in Corktown and a second in Madison Heights), there's room in the kitchen for a deep fryer, so Ransom offers plenty of new territory to check out. The karaage seems to be the main attraction. Ima marinates its boneless, skinless chicken in a tamari-garlic-ginger-citrus mix for about 48 hours, dusts it with two types of gluten-free starch, and deep-fries it twice to give it a thick, crispy crag. The citrusy marinade shines through. In the spicy version, Ransom also dips the bird in a house-made chili oil made with habanero, chipotle, ghost pepper, and other chilis. It's as hot as it sounds, but pleasantly so.

Aside from the rice bowl, the karaage comes in sandwich form. The chicken arrives on a soft and slightly sweet bun with napa cabbage slaw and furikake kewpie — a Japanese mayo — and lemon and house pickles on the side. Vegetarians can substitute tofu, and many of Ima's plates are or can be made vegetarian or gluten-free.

Ransom says he planned to include karaage on his menu at Ima's other locations, but limited space in his Corktown and Madison Heights kitchens prevented that. The sandwich works especially well here in that it offers students a hand-held carryout option. And the students seem to be into the new restaurant — during a recent lunch rush, I felt pretty certain that I was Ima's oldest diner, and I'm only 41.

Most of the dishes from Ima's other locations' menus are also here, and some familiar items are plated in new contexts. That includes the bright spicy tuna typically found on Ima's spicy tuna don; in the Cass Corridor, it's also offered in appetizer form. The dish holds a big dollop of ground ahi, fish roe, masago, kewpie, togarashi, sriracha, and sesame that arrives with fresh veggies, and chips made from thin slices of taro, a tropical root vegetable.

Also new is a selection of yaki udon. The Szechuan yaki holds thick, somewhat chewy wheat noodles in a gritty, punchy XO sauce with fermented black beans, soybeans, chili peppers, onions, garlic, citrus, and more. Also in the mix are a hint of mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, baby corn, and punches of umami in the spongy black mushroom. Ransom recommends ordering the dish with the glazed pork belly. My nose didn't run until the end, and I prefer it to be flowing after a couple bites of Szechuan cuisine. Several days prior, I had dined at Trizest, Madison Heights' awesome Szechuan restaurant, which packs in enough peppercorns and chili peppers that the competing sensations are disorienting. It'd be great to see Ima's Szechuan yaki pushed to that level.

The pan-fried yaki butter udon may be familiar to diners from Ima's previous posts. Its noodles come in a somewhat thick and heavy butter-sesame sauce with furikake and nutritional yeast that sticks to your ribs nicely during the cold weather. That's accompanied by beech mushrooms, crispy garlic, and shallots. The menu also holds a fine teri-yaki udon, its sauce made with plenty of ginger, garlic, brown sugar, and citrus to highlight the sweetness. Sauteed ginger and garlic are added to the noodles before the sauce, and the package is finished with more sesame seeds.

The new bo ssam lettuce wraps consist of big folds of crunchy green lettuce that package a mix of kimchi, shiso, and scallion along with your choice of protein. (The ginger beef fits well.) It's served with a ginger-black garlic glaze of soy, brown sugar, black garlic, and sesame, and the two packages are a nice, light start to a meal. The chili-black vinegar sauce with black vinegar, soy, sesame, and garlic makes the shrimp and scallion dumplings worth it just for the dipping.

For dessert, the Cass Corridor location offers several soy-based, vegan, soft-serve options. The menu is rounded out with an extensive beverage list that includes everything from Topo Chico and Mexican Coke to various teas and coffees to mocktails the chameleon with ume plum puree, lemon, simple syrup, and soda. The full-service bar with a selection of beer, sake, and cocktails is up and running after an initial delay on the liquor license.

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