Day 6 – October 7th
In honor of today’s University of Michigan vs. Michigan State night game, and to represent my alma mater with pride, I am going to take you on a culinary journey through my favorite eateries in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These iconic Ann Arbor haunts will invite you in with their charm, envelope your senses in a cacophony of incredible flavors, and leave you in a state of happiness that only a great meal can. Without further ado, here is my list of top 5 bites in Ann Arbor.
Hands down my most visited restaurant on this list. The incredibly modern and playful interior of Isalita is home to some of the best Mexican tapas I have ever had in my life. What you get from the moment you enter the space to moment you have your last bite is an incredibly refined dining experience that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is refreshing when you come across a restaurant that isn’t afraid of messing with traditional recipes in the pursuit of finding new and exciting flavor profiles – and this is exactly what the culinary geniuses in Isalita’s kitchen have done. With every sharable bite comes an unexpected combination of ingredients that pays homage to traditional Mexican fare while still exploding with new and delicious flavors.
Enter the Macho Nachos – My favorite dish and a great representation of Isalita’s prowess in making an old fan favorite something new and exciting. A perfectly balanced dish that has mastered the centuries long issue of nacho topping distribution and texture. The creaminess from the crema yings as the kick from the jalapeños yangs, the heartiness of the black beans plays beautifully against the freshness of the tomatoes, and the bite from the radish works completely in concert with the crunch from the homemade chips. Everything here has a purpose and after the first taste, you will never want another feeble mockery of nachos ever again, so be warned: all other nachos will forever pale in comparison.
One of the first restaurants I went to in Ann Arbor, Jolly Pumpkin has held a special place in my heart due to its quirky charm, fantastic food, and serious brews. Though a brewery first and foremost, the food is nothing short of wonderful. The hodgepodge nature of the menu calls to the off-the-path nature of the restaurant that is also evident in its endlessly creative decor. While others may criticize the restaurant for not sticking to a central theme, I think this is one of it’s best traits. You will find flavors that are sure to delight even the most stubborn palette. Hailing influence from all corners of the globe, there is something here for everyone. When deciding what to call my favorite, I couldn’t decide between the fresh asian layered salad, the robust tofu banh mi, or their incredible 100+ year-old starter dough truffle pizza.
In the end though, the real winner is the Truffled French Fries. Served in a spiral tornado with a ramekin of rosemary aioli, this appetizer is unapologetic in its earthy tones. Bite after bite, the salt, truffle and rosemary hit you with a flavor jab-cross-hook combination that makes it impossible to resist. Combine that with the perfectly crispy exterior and fluffy center gained from the shoestring cut and you have the best fries in all of Ann Arbor.
While you are there, I can’t recommend enough the Tortuga Ale Company Chocolate Stout. A perfect complement to any menu option.
Aventura is the full embodiment of Spanish culture in the heart of Michigan. With significant influences from traditional Catalan and Valencian-style tapas bars, the focus of Aventura is on the social experience that accompanies the food. Using food as a medium of cultural expression, the restaurant seeks to transport patrons from the sometimes tundra-esque climate of Ann Arbor to the simpler times of the Old World. Wine and cheese, music and atmosphere, candlelight and conversation – these are only vessels for you to enjoy the company you keep at Aventura. With a restaurant so heavily steeped in a cultural viewpoint, every bite is dripping of rustic techniques that emphasize the natural flavor profile of the ingredients without overpowering them. A true gift, as if each dish was prepared with a delicate hand from a masterful palette.
You can’t find a better example of that beautiful restraint and respect for ingredients than the Coles De Bruselas – Brussels Sprouts. Consisting of only 6 ingredients, the level depth that this dish obtains is truly spectacular. The crispiness of the brussels sprouts combined with the richness from the crema marries beautifully with the sweet candied pistachios and honey. The drizzled olive oil and sliced apples help to round the dish off and make you wonder how such a cohesive experience was wrought by such simple ingredients.
A newer addition to the culinary scene in Ann Arbor, Lunch Room is the epitome of Ann Arbor culture. Focusing only on incredibly flavorful vegan cuisine with a backbone in local and organic produce, the Lunch Room is a pillar of environmental sustainability in the community. I seriously debated its place on this list, because as a vegan restaurant, it is sure to alienate some more carnivorous readers and conjure up assumptions of bad-tasting “healthy” food. But enough with that noise – the food here is some of the most flavorful in Ann Arbor and will definitely shattered misconceptions that food with a purpose can’t taste good. In every dish, the investment and care of using only the best local ingredients really shines through to make every meal feel healthy and satisfying. I’m not just talking about the salads and lighter meals – indeed, some of what makes the Lunch Room great is that even with some of their heartier fares, you get a wholesome and nutritious feeling without sacrificing any of the flavors.
No dish is more deserving of sitting at the intersection of delicious, nutritious, and hearty than the Chili Mac. The ultimate healthy comfort food, this mac is made from butternut squash and red bell peppers. Before you raise your pitchforks and demand that traditions such as mac-and-cheese are better left unchanged, as a non-vegan, even I was surprised to find that each bite triggered found memories of eating the iconic food in my childhood. While not trying to be a complete replica of actual mac-and-cheese, this dish finds a way to harken back to those flavors while still bring a unique freshness to the table from the base vegetables. Combine that with Lunch Room’s incredible chili and you have yourself a winner that even the most staunch carnivores are sure to enjoy.
A local favorite – and for good reason – Chela’s is the institution in Ann Arbor that specializes in everything street when it come to Mexican cuisine. The small, but comfortable restaurant all but screams authentic cuisine and once you get your first bite, you’ll be hooked. From its unpretentious decor to its simple but high quality ingredients, each dish at Chela’s is prepared with unique flavors that are as dependable as they are delicious. Chela’s does not hide behind the frills of other well established restaurant in Ann Arbor – the flavors are good enough to speak for themselves.
For the amount of times I’ve been to Chela’s, no taco has consistently blown me away more than the Rajas taco. There is beauty is simplicity, and this taco definitely delivers on that mantra. Serviced on a double stacked corn tortillas, the Rajas taco has sliced and grilled poblano peppers, cheese, onion, cilantro, and a slice of lime – that is it. The char from the grill enhances the already punchy notes on the poblano peppers, making for a perfect complement to the fresh onion and cilantro. With cheese on top, plus the house sour cream and salsa, you have a taco that won’t stop delivering on the flavor.
There you have it – the top 5 bites in Ann Arbor! However, as I was writing this piece, I found that I couldn’t let go of some of the other amazing restaurants that held a dear place in my heart. The following are incredible restaurants that have honorable mentions in my list and are places you should visit as well.
And remember, GO BLUE!