There’s a story behind every dish at Miss Kim in Ann Arbor

Miss Kim offers familiar Korean dishes, such as kimchi (left to right), tteokbokki and Korean fried chicken with pickled radishes.

Aa young girl in Korea, Ji Hye Kim loved eating a popular street food called tteokbokki, pan-fried rice cake sticks bathed in gochujang sauce. When she didn’t have the money to buy it from the street cart, she would barter it at school (which was against school rules) – then get blackmailed by a classmate who had discovered his scheme. She then had to do her homework in exchange for her silence. It was all a web of deception, but Kim was willing to go to great lengths for tteokbokki.

Even if you never meet Kim, you get to know her personally at Miss Kim’s in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown, where, like tteokbokki, there’s a story behind every dish. The food is accessible and lends itself well to mixing and matching. Although the menu is well edited, there is still plenty to choose from, so your best bet is to have your server guide you in choosing your adventure. Personally, I say the way to go is to order a few items from each category and share everything, because Miss Kim – and Korean food in general – is friendly in nature and meant to be enjoyed with others.

The menu is categorized into snacks and salads, appetizers and main courses. Banchan, or side dishes, mark the beginning of any Korean meal. In the evening, we have dinner at Miss Kim, the free banchan is a bowl of koryo carrot salad. Floral, lemony coriander seeds add a splash of fresh flavor to sweet, crunchy carrots kissed by vinaigrette. Mashed potatoes are mashed and fried, then covered in a sweet and savory mixture of Korean chili flakes, pepper, salt and sugar. The crispy fried exterior embraces a soft, creamy interior. A salad that leans more toward a Michigan sensibility is Beet and Avocado Salad, with roasted beets (which come from local farms like Ann Arbor Seed Co., Goetz Family Farm, and Prochaska Farms) lightly dressed in a vinaigrette with chilli. A must is kimchi, which doesn’t just mean napa cabbage. Almost any vegetable can be made into kimchi, which Miss Kim does in-house. When we went there was napa cabbage and “moo” radish (me is Korean for radish). Kimchi offers the perfect balance of heat, sweetness, flavor and flavor.

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Kimchi can be made from any vegetable, but here Miss Kim’s chef and managing partner, Ji Hye Kim, uses traditional napa cabbage.

On the appetizer side, the stars were the crispy broccolini with fish caramel and the sweet chili back ribs, two dishes with strong flavors that burst from the plate. Broccolini is densely layered in flavor, with an umami-rich fish sauce caramel that resists the char and bitterness of broccolini, and has multiple textures with the crispness of the vegetable and the crunch of the cashews, enhanced by the radiance of fresh coriander. The ribs are tender, each piece infused with flavor and a sticky glaze just waiting to be licked off your fingers.

I hope you have now saved some space for entries. There are only a few dishes, but with different variations, including options for vegetarians, there’s plenty to dig into.

Tteokbokki is prepared here in three different ways: royale (vegetarian), rue (with gochujang, a spicy fermented chili paste; scallions; bacon lardons; and slow-poached egg) and pork kimchi (similar to rue style with the addition of aged napa kimchi). We had the street style (pork kimchi wasn’t available when I went), and the plump rice cakes had a satisfying bouncy chew that made them fun to eat, and a perfectly balanced sauce enhanced by the yolk poached egg.

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Tofu can often be a sad afterthought as a vegetarian option, but at Miss Kim it’s lightly breaded and fried into perfectly crispy clouds.

Tteokbokki is one of the dishes that reflects what Kim tries to do at the restaurant. Inspiration comes from a place of deep respect. Kim diligently researched the dish to trace its roots back to how it was prepared in the 18th century. She then combined this faithful search with her time growing up in Korea where she lied and traded tteokbokki. It all comes together on the plate, creating a dish firmly rooted in the tradition and honesty of Korean cuisine, but with Kim’s personal touches and vision for showcasing Michigan produce.

Korean barbecue is often seen as the way to go for people who are unfamiliar with food. Korean fried chicken is also high on the list of catwalk dishes, and Kim’s version is worthy of it. With a light and crunchy exterior, Korean Fried Chicken is executed perfectly, but it’s the sweet and salty soy glaze you’ll crave after the dish is long gone. Tofu can often be a sad and bland thought, especially as a vegetarian alternative to a meat dish, but at Miss Kim, Korean fried tofu is on par with fried chicken. Cubes of silken tofu are lightly beaten and fried into crispy clouds of perfection.

Bibimbap, which translates to “mixed rice”, with bibim meaning “to mix” and bap meaning “rice”, sounds minimalistic and deceptively simple, but it belies the amount of work that goes into a bowl. As the name suggests, bibimbap is meant to be mixed before eating, so each ingredient must be prepared in a way that brings out its flavor, texture, and color. Each component is carefully chosen to harmonize with the others. Miss Kim’s version includes fresh arugula, pickled cucumbers, seasoned bean sprouts, julienned carrots and a poached egg over rice. The homemade gochujang sauce ties it all together. Protein options include grilled chicken, pork, and beef on the meaty side, and mushrooms, tempeh, and avocado on the veggie side.

As I was about to bake my bibimbap, I offered a slice of pork belly to my table companion. After taking a bite, pure joy spread across her face. And when it was my turn, my face was a mirror image of his. Upon experiencing the crispy exterior of the pork belly enveloping the buttery, tender interior, we were both transported to our respective fond memories of roasted lechon, a staple of Filipino cuisine.

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The bibimbap features pork belly and fresh vegetables, topped with a poached egg.

That’s the power of Kim’s food. We may have different points of reference for food like a well-done piece of pork belly, but joy is a shared experience, providing the basis for new food memories. It’s food like this that drives you to make choices like barter and lie.

Alcohol consumption is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Korean culinary culture (not in a “Let’s light up” sense, but rather in a “Let’s bond and create good memories” style), and the beverage program of Miss Kim supports this social aspect. Much of this is soju, a clear vodka-like spirit made from rice, wheat, or barley. It is eaten pure and often flavored by infusing fruit or herbs. Homemade infusions include sapote, which has a mild, nutty flavor; rose, which strikes the perfect balance of being fragrant and floral without being fragrant; and chai, with warm and comforting flavors.

The ambience also adds to the conviviality of the food and drink. The minimalist white brick walls and exposed industrial elements are the perfect blank canvas for showcasing artistic touches like pendant lights and local artwork (when we visited, the bright and colorful sci-fi pieces of Gary Horton came out of the walls).

Beyond being a fun place to come hang out, what I really enjoyed about Miss Kim was her welcoming nature. The bathrooms are gender neutral and the service is warm and friendly in a way that makes you feel seen. When our server dropped off the bill, he said, “I appreciate you.

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The relaxed and welcoming atmosphere of Miss Kim promotes conviviality. A large communal table, for example, is suitable for everything from a birthday party to a group night out.

I have one review – two actually. First of all, the dessert menu leaves a bit to be desired, with only one chocolate cupcake from Zingerman, but that’s more of a personal preference since most Korean restaurants don’t usually have extensive dessert offerings. The other is that Kim is starting to make more Korean food again beyond the staples.

Before the pandemic, Miss Kim often hosted tasting dinners that showcased Kim’s research into regional and seasonal dishes and Korean cooking traditions. The trend of contemporary chef-led Korean cuisine has grown in popularity recently, with restaurants like Joule in Seattle and Parachute in Chicago both being James Beard finalists this year, and Kim herself a multiple-time semi-finalist. James Beard. As Miss Kim enters her sixth year in business, Kim’s profile rises nationally with recognition from James Beard as well as a spot on Food and wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs 2021. Chefs like Kim take an ingredient-driven approach, using the best possible produce – often locally sourced – and combining traditional and innovative techniques with a strong sense of place.

In Michigan, Kim is part of this generation of leaders who push the limits. Purists might say, “Well, that’s not how mommy or grandma do it,” but that’s beside the point (and who can compete with mommy or grandma, anyway?) ?). The fact that food evolves and grows is what makes it exciting; otherwise, might as well eat bowls of slop like Nebuchadnezzar’s crew in The matrix. Kim takes you and your palate not only to Korea via Michigan, but also to treasured memories with her inspired take on Korean cuisine.

Miss Kim, 415 N. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-275-0099; L,S Wed-Mon

This story is from the June 2022 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in the digital edition.