The Frugal Foodie: Katoi

    As a longtime lover of Jerusalem Garden, it was a little disconcerting this summer when I walked past the popular Ann Arbor restaurant only to find it empty. Then, a week or two later, another confusing walk-by revealed the old staple covered in graffiti, big black swirls of paint covering the storefront making it look like Keith Haring got lazy. What had happened? Had the restaurant closed? Was this a new one?

    The short answer was, kind of. Jerusalem Garden didn’t close, of course; it had just finally moved beyond its tiny, overcrowded home. The beloved restaurant now lives a block away in a much larger, newly renovated space. As for the new restaurant…

    Katoi, featuring creative twists on Southeast Asian and Michigan cuisine, started out as a popular food truck in Detroit. It did so well that the creator opened up a “pop-up” version of the restaurant this summer inside the newly-vacated Jerusalem Garden space, hence the facade’s edgy facelift. And that venture in turn was successful enough to keep the business going on through this winter and, hopefully, for years to come.

    Here’s the thing about Katoi: it’s good. Really, really good. As a customer who often gets bored easily, and as a student who hates expensive food, Katoi is a mecca of delicious, relatively inexpensive food. It has a fun vibe--the new owners painted the interior (which frankly used to be a little drab) bright red, and a few wall features like a large, old map of Asia add a slight personal touch.

    But nobody’s there for the atmosphere, anyway. The menu changes a bit daily based on seasonal ingredients, although several favorite dishes seem to hang around most of the time. A mix of meat, seafood, and plenty of vegetarian dishes, the menu should have something to please even the pickiest fad vegan or Paleo experimenter. Most of the food is fairly spicy; an order of the Thai tea made with coconut milk is perfect to cool down the fire.

    While the constantly evolving nature of the menu makes hard-and-fast recommendations a little tricky, there are several standouts you’d be lucky to come across. The chickpea tofu sounds weird--what is it? Hummus? Tofu? Other ingredients from your local Whole Foods? It’s actually a tofu variety made from chickpea flour rather than soybeans, making for a firm texture and pleasant flavor. It comes with plenty of fresh cilantro and a delicious spicy dipping sauce, perfect as an appetizer. The “chicky” sandwich, a Thai fried chicken sandwich, is unbelievable. The toppings and condiments are on point; it is served on a bread that soaks up all the flavor without getting soggy. Somehow, my leftovers tasted even better the next day when eaten cold. It was pure joy.

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    Other dishes were good, but didn’t leave as much of an impression. Noodles were fine and came with a flavorful broth, but just weren’t comparable to the restaurant’s alchemy with sandwiches (they also serve banh mi at lunchtime). As for desserts, Katoi offers a unique set-up I haven’t seen anywhere else. Patrons indulging their sweet tooth just stop by the Bon Bon Bon counter on the way out. Bon Bon Bon, another Detroit street food creation, set up shop within Katoi as a separate but connected business. Its creative chocolates are pricey, but cute, and come packaged in very cool boxes. Worth the splurge for the experience, but probably won’t become a staple of my visits to the main restaurant.

Atmosphere: 6.5/10

Food: 8.5/10