It is the second semester of my junior year in college and everyone has left Ann Arbor. Maybe they were smart to leave, as temperatures become negative and the possibility that the administration might actually cancel classes for the first time in five years looms. Whatever the reason, the second semester of junior year is a time where a lot of us choose to study abroad. For foodies, this means endless gastronomically diverse culinary experiences around the globe –– spicy, fresh paella served in a sizzling carbon steel pan in Spain, all the textbook cacio e pepe in Rome, round crackling Napoli pizzas with fresh basil leaves and gobs of warm mozzarella swimming in the perfect smear of grassy tomato sauce, paper thin crepes exploding with swirls of nutella and sliced banana on the streets of Paris, glasses of chilled French white wine and dark moody Italian reds, cappuccinos and espressos and nutty biscottis.
The knowledge of the culinary world outstretched before me for thousands of miles in every direction has put me in a food lover’s rut. I am sick with envy knowing what culinary experiences lie waiting overseas, experiences that my classmates and friends who traveled this semester are currently discovering. The Instagram photos of their sensational meals in Europe, South America, Asia and Israel just don’t satisfy the craving I have to travel in pursuit of discoveries through the diverse culture of food.
In all my envy –– filling notebook pages with wishes and woes of meals in the Italian countryside and cafes with views of the Eiffel Tower, staring at Snapchat stories and photographs of every towering hazelnut ice cream in Prague and pool of hummus accented with a swirl of olive oil, imagining myself sipping the perfect midday aperol spritz over a copy of an old Faulkner I’ve read twice already –– I lost what the city that I call home means to me.
Ann Arbor, despite being a classic university town, houses more than your typical college food spots. It has a grown-up, culturally diverse, spirited food scene –– one that has been curated by a forward thinking community of intellects who constantly push the boundaries of the expected in all realms of life. The culinary spirit of our city spans miles and countries, time and space, all within walking distance and for far less than the cost of a plane ticket to leave Michigan.
Though I’m one to argue the Midwest doesn’t know a thing about pizza, there are certainly some Italian restaurants pushing themselves toward the wood fire, doughy-yet-crispy heart of an authentic Italian pizza, something I could devour in moments while burning the roof of my mouth on stringy cheese and tangy sauce. Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina is definitely pushing themselves to incorporate more authentic Italian flavors in their trendy upscale pizza joint, which features tons of hip finger foods and a too-good-to-be-true gluten free crust. When I am pining after the pizza of my childhood, or the pizza of any cafe in Naples, I am quick to order Bigalora –– a place I know I can trust to deliver flavors that put me on a plane to Italy within a matter of moments.
Ann Arbor has created a diverse flavor personality, not pigeonholing itself to be one specific flavor or cuisine. It ignores the conventional wisdom behind Midwestern cities and food, pushing itself to find an idiosyncratic culinary persona. Ann Arbor is breakfast food. It is really good burgers and the perfect menu that combines some of the sunny West Coast with a New York state of mind. Fleetwood Diner and Blimpy Burger are Ann Arbor classics that are perfectly suited for a city with such quirks and non-conventional taste. Both have been part of our community for over fifty years, generations of wolverines falling in love with the greasy paradise that characterizes each infamous spot to a T. Blimpy Burger is hailed as Ann Arbor’s best burger and onion rings (though it certainly has rivals) and Fleetwood Diner is the only place in the city, or quite possibly the world, that serves “hippie hash,” the perfect dish to represent the drunk, hungover, feel-good food of choice in Ann Arbor.
Discovering the not so hidden gems of Ann Arbor can make a familiar place feel more trendy, modern and novel. I don’t want to share one of my favorite hidden gems of Ann Arbor for fear I’ll draw more attention to it then it already has, but a favorite of mine is The Last Word –– Ann Arbor’s little slice of New York City embodied in a hidden speakeasy with access from a hidden door on W. Huron. I’m not sure how secret The Last Word really is, given that the wait time is always at least fifteen minutes even in the late hours of the night, but I can tell you that the wait is certainly worth it. The ambiance is underground chic, the atmosphere is like a whispered secret and the fried chickpeas and diverse, light cocktail list make the experience feel far away from home.
The commitment to flavor does not end there. With every restaurant on Main Street, State Street, in Kerrytown and everywhere between there is a potential, a heart beat, a journey. Miss Kim Korean food in Kerrytown is fresh, flavorful and exciting. The chicken avocado rice bowl, something seemingly simple in its nature and name, is an artistic creation, each bite pulling you further from the Michigan winter and closer to a place you can’t even begin to imagine. The entire menu is a culinary feat, a commitment to excellence, a force in diverse essense and gusto. There’s Zingerman’s –– a name that has become synonymous with what it means to Go Blue and a delicatessen specializing in hundreds of sandwiches packed onto homemade crispy bread that breathes as it holds together layers of sliced deli meat paired perfectly with salty cheese and homemade spreads. Jerusalem Garden, a corner of Palestine right in Ann Arbor as their website suggests, has the best falafel and perfectly seasoned lamb kabobs, all served with plates towering with layers of creamy hummus. Tomukun Korean BBQ and Noodle Bar manages to take over E. Liberty by way of aroma, and if that doesn’t pull you in, the promise of table top grills where you get the agency to be behind the flame definitely will. The SavCo restaurants, Wilma’s, Sava’s and Aventura, push themselves willingly toward a higher standard of excellence with every new menu addition and flavor profile. Aventura explores Spanish-inspired flavors, while Sava’s and Wilma’s provide us with zealous menus filled with student favorites. Cafe Zola’s eclectic menu and rustic interior is the perfect setting to try something new, from seared tuna with coconut rice to blistered truffle fries to their speciality cocktails and perfect savory crepes. Frita Batidos’s Cuban-inspired plantain chips with fresh, chunky guacamole and creamy, boozy milkshakes are a perfect break from reality and worth the trek even in subzero temperatures. As a foodie, you can wake up in Ann Arbor on any given day and have a world of options in front of you with so many still awaiting your discovery.
The streets of Ann Arbor are a culinary feat. The inspired restaurateur is at home in Ann Arbor, a place where we welcome a chance to try something we’ve never had before; you can leave a restaurant with a lesson on an unknown culture after trying new styles of food you didn’t know existed. We may be located in the Midwest without a view of the Eiffel Tower or the Seine, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have passion for the world of culinary art. A place is a point on a map, and just because it appears mundane doesn’t mean it has to be that way. We are lucky enough that Ann Arbor surprises us by being a little of everything and a lot of heart. A place you’ve lived for three years already may seem void of options; it may seem bleak and predictable, especially when you are someone infatuated with newness and ardent about the world of food. But there is a difference between assumption and reality –– there is a difference between complacency and movement. Between the ebb and flow of a college agenda, the forecast wavering between zero and negative 10 degrees, Ann Arbor is pushing itself. It is cooking. It is creating. It is expanding dining experiences like an absorbant sponge. It is hundreds of countries, hundreds of places, hundreds of stories molded into one city.