Non-California Adventure: Ann Arbor, MI
Once in great while, my job requires me to travel. Since my field is unglamourous, the destinations usually aren't either. New York? Miami? Las Vegas? Done them all, but always on my own dime.
No, when the company foots the bill, it's usually for a trip to someplace like Greenville, South Carolina or Hartford, Connecticut. Cities where people live and work, not where tourist come to play. But this isn't to say that these aren't worthwhile locales to visit. Downtown Greenville was contemporary with the requisite Southern charm and character. The restaurants offered stick-to-your-ribs food that still haunts my dreams. One of the best plates of fried chicken I've ever had I ate in Greenville.
A few weeks ago it was Ann Arbor, Michigan. Having visited Michigan only once before, in a city called Pontiac, I half expected Ann Arbor to be more of the same. Pontiac, from what I remember of that trip I took exactly a decade ago, was a blue-collar town with more fast food joints than anyone could ever need or want. But as soon as I arrived in Ann Arbor, I knew -- this ain't Pontiac.
Anchored by the University of Michigan at its nucleus, Ann Arbor is a college town brimming to its borders with coffee shops, book stores, and restaurants -- a midwestern burg with hints of Berkeley liberalism, a splash of Manhattan class, and the polish of Pasadena. But to compare Ann Arbor to other cities is to insult it. It's got a proud personality all its own.
And what I found on my own was only surface level scratch, confined to a few hours on a night I had free time. But I was so impressed by what I saw that on my flight back to Orange County, I made a vow -- to be better prepared the next time I was sent out this way. My mission: to eat where the locals eat; to walk where they tromp.
A scant few weeks later I learned that I would be returning to Ann Arbor for a second time. Without hesitation, I e-mailed Joy, a reader of this humble blog, who now lives in Irvine but used to be an Ann Arbor local. She graciously provided a list of her favorite haunts. I printed her recommendations, stuffed it in my travel bag, packed a camera, and booked an extra day at the hotel.
A2, as locals like Joy called it, has two institutions other than the University that are destinations in and of themselves: Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burgers and Zingerman's Delicatessen.
Blimpy Burgers was an enthralling experience. I was giddy with delight when I first saw the place. It's a small, greasy spoon with old swivel chairs. The line to order saddled up to a sizzling griddle and a bubbling deep fryer.
I was eager to eat, but one thing Joy said stuck in my mind. She warned that the people who worked there sported an attitude and expected that customers order with precision and without hesitation. I was thinking Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, but didn't really believe it.
Rude midwesterners? Impossible.
The first visit I made was on a weeknight. The joint was nearly empty, but alas, it didn't stop the young grill-man from yelling at a customer who was unwise enough to answer his cell phone in line.
"Take it outside! Can't you read the sign!?" he said as he pointed at it with his greasy spatula.
So before I saddled up to order, I wiped the smile off my face, righted myself, and rehearsed what I would say over and over in my mind.
"Double with egg, on an onion roll. Double with egg, on an onion roll."
As soon as I flawlessly rattled off my order, the guy plopped down two spheres of raw meat, the size of golfballs, directly onto the grill to heat. Then, without warning, he smashes it flat with his spatula to finish cooking on that side and then a final flip to finish. A fried egg, tomato, lettuce, onion, pickles and a slather of mayo later, my burger was ready to eat. An order of habit-forming, crunchy onion rings came in tall singular lacy gob that reached for the ceiling.
The burger was delicious. If I had to decribe it, it's as if In-N-Out and Fatburger decided to marry, have children, and move out to the Midwest. The patty is thin like In-N-Out's, but the add-ons like fried egg, chili, and bacon makes the burger endlessly customizable, à la Fatburger. They tout the fact that there's over a million possible Blimpy Burger permutations. With unconventional extras like salami, I don't doubt it.
On the second trip made over the weekend, a woman was flipping the burgers. It was then that I saw the trademark Blimpy Burgers attitude in its full splendor. No one was safe from her acid tongue. Fellow customers, her own co-workers, even small children -- if someone did something she didn't approve of, she'd have something to say to them. This was a mean woman who made mean burgers.
This time around, to accompany our Blimpy Burgers, we asked for the deep fried "Mixed Veggies". Mushroom, broccoli, cauliflower, onion and zucchini are dusted in a seasoned flour and cooked in gurgling oil to a deep golden brown. It was tempura-like in its execution, but exhibited a crumbly crunch instead of a light, lacy crisp. This was a side dish that's both dangerously addictive and unhealthy. Definitely the wrong way to get your daily recommended serving of vegetables, but why does it feel so right?
Krazy Jim's Blimpy Burger
551 S Division St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Zingerman's Deli is revered for being the best deli in America that isn't in New York City. Some folks in Ann Arbor might even debate that statement. They'd passionately proclaim Zingerman's as the best in the U.S.
I'll leave the verbal brawls to others who know better. But for what it's worth, I quite enjoyed the sandwich I ordered. Although I'm used to fattier, wetter incarnations seen in California, the carved pastrami and corned beef was just what I'd expect from a deli with Zingerman's reputation. Flanked by two kinds of bread with two kinds of cheese and slathered with a good deli mustard, it made for a hefty dinner.
Housed inside a cramped brick building, the store was well-stocked with hanging meats, cheeses, and canned goods. One shelf towered above all others with golden loaves of bread, some braided and some crusted with seeds; a gallery with edible works of art. This is the Louvre of food in Ann Arbor.
Next door to the deli, was Zingerman's "Next Door" which looked like a house the company took over to sell desserts and coffee. This was also where customers of the deli would be served if they chose to dine in. We did on our last visit and sampled an exquisite but simple slice of cocoa cake with a scoop of vanilla gelato while enjoying the spring air on their patio.
The employees, perky and cheerful students from the University, were all probably very happy to be working at the town's landmark. Or maybe it's perhaps because they get discounts on shots of espresso.
422 Detroit St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104