Pacific Rim: A worldly ’90s homage to Ann Arbor
It might be on a somewhat warmer winter day, with the miraculous force of the bright, warm winter sun, that you question the concept of home at perhaps the most unlikeliest of places: the intersection of Main and Liberty Streets — the heart of the fine dining restaurant scene in Ann Arbor.
Regional cooking, especially for those not native to Ann Arbor, may very well serve as the baseline, idyllic conception of home. A non-fussy yuxiang eggplant could be the hallmark comforter for those displaced from Flushing, New York or cities such as Chengdu within Sichuan province proper. The simple pupusa might make you pine for the comfort and hospitality of an El Salvadorian cafe most common across pupuserias abundant at Pico Boulevard of Los Angeles. Regional cooking, while not entirely well represented across Ann Arbor, are commonplace enough to satisfy your cravings for what you’ve been missing while you are away from home.
But there is a case to be made for the variety of restaurants that might not reflect the cooking endemic to a specific region. These restaurants may not blast radioactive amounts of Scoville units that miracuously bring balance to their dishes. They may not serve waterfalls of intestine soup that can only be described as “dank of the highest quality.” Some of these establishments might be ones which you simply dismiss as “fusion.”
Pacific Rim by Kana is among the latter of these restaurants — one that captivates some with its Pan-Asian theme while disgusting others who abhor the amalgamation of different, supposedly sacred, regional cuisines.
Residents of the ’90s may remember that Pacific Rim was once a Korean restaurant called Kana, well known for its signature strong ginger tea and dak bokkeum — a spicy Korean braised chicken dish analogous to the warming, comforting powers of a chicken paprikash. Kana, named after the Korean word 가나 meaning “to go” or “are you going,” was once a small stand near the U-M Medical Campus before moving to their current location at Liberty Street. Owners Byung Dok and Kun Hi Ko ultimately passed their restaurant to their son Y.B. Ko, who partnered with now chef-owner Duc Tang to reinvent Kana into Pacific Rim.
The reinvention of Kana into Pacific Rim was a transformation from that of a Korean diner-esque eatery into that of fine dining. “Pan-Asian” consists primarily of East and Southeast Asian dishes prepared and plated with French techniques. Tang’s dishes superficially resemble popular dishes of the ’90s and 2000s — though the influences from and ties to Kana are unmistakable.
A cursory glance at Pacific Rim’s Japanese-style sablefish immediately identifies one of the dish’s roots — sablefish, or black cod, was popularized by Nobu Matsuhisa during the ’90s, a variation of a Japanese marinating technique utilizing sake lees. A sablefish is an ugly fish unrelated to the cod that is commonly found in braised Korean or Japanese dishes. Sablefish is quite similar to the Chilean sea bass; both share an incredibly soft, tender yet flaky meat that seems to be near impossible to overcook. Thankfully, unlike the Chilean sea bass that has been overfished due to the popularity of that one Jurassic Park scene, sablefish is a sustainable alternative, though still relatively pricey.
Ordering Pacific Rim’s sablefish will get you a sweet, heavily browned piece of moist fish — the bare whispers of bitterness from some portions of the over-caramelized skin provides a much needed relief from the sweet-savory marinade that coats the gushing flakes of sablefish. The light tang provided by the tamarind within the soy glaze provides an excellent foil to what could otherwise be a stolidly sweet and savory dish. Nobu’s dishes are well-known to be showstoppers due to his Nikkei Peruvian roots — and Tang’s version of the sablefish might very well be a sexy black-tie version of a ’90s classic.
But when you order the sablefish, the fish is complemented with a coiled pile of japchae — glassy Korean noodles stir-fried with a medley of napa cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. You’ll find that unlike many renditions of japchae you may find across Ann Arbor’s Korean restaurants, the japchae served alongside your sablefish is neither soggy nor mushy. Your vermicelli noodles possess the al-dente bite coveted by Italians and Italian Americans — yet possesses a vivacious spring. You’ll find that napa cabbage and the noodles provide a necessary textural contrast to your fish.
The japchae tells as poignant of a story as the fish. The fish might provide you the context of Tang’s worldly experiences and skills, but the japchae proves Tang as a worthy successor to Kana’s rich history as one of Ann Arbor’s local providers of Korean cuisine.
Tang doesn’t fixate himself on the label of authenticity: his coconut-curry soup defies judgment as the soup lends itself equal characteristic of a hearty American root/squash soup as it does to a somewhat muddled Thai green curry. Is it heartwarming because of the innate resonance of consuming winter squashes and root vegetables during the winter, or because of the dry whispers of a herbal curry paste slivering past the impassive squash/sweet potato puree? It’s hard to tell, but you find yourself ignoring it — the soup is heartwarming.
You have two choices to round out your meal: a well-executed chocolate lava cake that is warm and fluffy on its exterior as it is piping hot and luscious in its interior. The coconut ice cream provides a nutty quality to your overall experience while the macerated cherries provide exciting tartness to an otherwise somewhat monotonously sweet dish. Eating Tang’s chocolate lava cake is a reminder of how innovative and genius the dish was in the ’90s — a delicious trio of string players whose performance is best seen live as opposed to experiencing the dreadful butchered renditions found at every chain restaurant and diner littering the Midwest.
But the ginger tea — unaltered from the drink found at the original Kana — might provide a lingering conclusion to your meal compared to the lava cake. Pungent through the spicy tartness of the ginger, the inclusion of the apples and jujubes brings a fruitiness that ever so gently tempers the ginger. A drink such as this is the perfect nasal-busting beverage for the wintery outdoors. Drinking the tea passed down to Pacific Rim from its predecessor Kana is as much a nostalgic conclusion to your meal as it is a curative drink that prepares you for the cold weather outside. The hospitality of Kana fills you in one last time before you have to leave.
Is it possible that Pacific Rim’s dishes might not speak to your conceptions of home after you finish dining? Perhaps not; your past life experiences may vastly differ from mine or Tang’s. But it’s decidedly Ann Arbor. Welcome home.
Pacific Rim by Kana is located at 114 W Liberty St, Ann Arbor, MI 48104.