Sooki and Mimi Isn't an 'Authentic' Mexican Restaurant—It's Authentically Ann Kim (2023)

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Sooki and Mimi Isn't an 'Authentic' Mexican Restaurant—It's Authentically Ann Kim (1)

Photos by Caitlin Abrams

Aguachile with an assortment of vegetables

Aguachile with a heap of jewels—sapphires of mangoes, rubies of Beauty Heart radishes, Japanese cucumber, and orange cauliflower

The emerald pool of aguachile appeared before me, and I was transported. It glowed like the proverbial leprechaun’s pile of jewels at the end of the rainbow, sparkling with sapphires of mango, ruby petals of Beauty Heart radishes, golden segments of the cauliflower variety called cheddar for its bright orange color, pale green Japanese quick-pickled cucumber namasu, flamingo-pink fractals of Romanesco, and a black glitter of preserved lime peel scattered across like the fairy dust the dish required. I pulled back my face mask, dipped in a spoon, experienced an ecstasy of lime, freshness, vitality, earth—and knew at once to where I had been transported: San Francisco, or maybe New York. So this is why dinner for two was pushing $500!

What I found on my first visit to the new Sooki and Mimi was not dinner, exactly. This was Art with a capital A—and every course thereafter further proved the Art beneath my fork. A delicate and fragrant madeleine made from corn grown and milled by Native Americans from Ute Mountain in Colorado, paired with butter made from the United States’ only native wild chili pepper, the chiltepin. A “taco” of olotillo blanco Mexican heirloom corn pressed with a hoja santa leaf so that the tortilla resembled a preserved flower ready to frame. Upon it, piled high, a fine shred of kakiage vegetable tempura and bright school bus–yellow wheels of sweet-pickled kumquats, and beside it on the plate, a white smudge of pure ivory just-grated horseradish. Here was something uniquely Minnesotan—our great local chef Ann Kim, using the products evangelized by another local luminary chef, Sean Sherman of The Sioux Chef and Owamni, in the whimsical and erudite fashion of Gavin Kaysen’s tasting-menu restaurant Demi, and in the manner of a few dozen other of the world’s Top Best Extreme Magnificent Lofty Empyreal (got it?) restaurants.

Well, well, well, I considered, glancing around this thing that had been Uptown’s landmark restaurant Lucia’s and was now a recognizable sister to Ann Kim’s Northeast restaurant Young Joni—tropical parota wood, chunky tile, sage-green succulents, a general aura of the nicest possible home of married professors in the late 1970s. You get it, girl, I thought. You bring home those international awards.

“Are you going to bring up the anger?” asked my co-critic Steph March as she held one of bar star Adam Gorski’s smoky and ripe mezcal creations up to the light.

“Oh yes,” I promised as a tostada arrived, topped with white beans in brown butter and set with a ribbon of honeynut squash whorled into a sculpture of a ranunculus blossom.

•••••

Ann Kim moved to the Twin Cities when she was four and grew up the child of Korean immigrants in and around the Twin Cities. “My mother lived through the Korean War and other traumatic events. I wonder if it’s passed down epigenetically, why I have constant fear and I always worry,” Kim said to me when I talked to her on the phone for this story. “They were ashamed of themselves, my mother and father, because they didn’t emigrate as doctors or lawyers—my mother cleaned nursing homes; my father started on an assembly line and worked his way up to the post office.”

Kim grew up eating Korean food; her mom was renowned in the family for her particular unique gift—called sohn mat in Korean for “hand taste”—the special elevation of food that came about as a result of her touch, her hands. But Kim also grew up eating what we’d call fusion today, throwing together Korean foods and whatever was currently available. For instance, they used the Korean bean paste gochujang that her mother would make and American condiments like ketchup. They made potato salad for picnics with Miracle Whip and fermented vegetables. “I called it pseudo Korean Midwestern food. I went back to Korea five, six years ago, and my mother didn’t even recognize the street food anymore, dishes had changed so much. Food is evolution.”

Fed on Miracle Whip and improvised gochujang, Ann Kim grew up mainly in Apple Valley, at the knees of her beloved grandmother Sooki (a nickname for her mother’s mother, Sook Young Kim)and her white adopted grandma, Thelma Lange, known as Mimi.(Thelma was Kim’saunt's mother-in-law, for those keeping track.) “Mimi was a huge influence on me. She wanted us to fit in, to not be bullied. She’d buy us books—The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Dr. Seuss—take me to the Children’s Theatre. I think I became an actor because of her. And when I think of her, it’s her scotch and water, every day like clockwork, at four o’clock.” Kim became a superachiever, an Ivy League student. After graduating from Columbia, she worked at a law firm for a year, then moved back to Minnesota to start a career as an actor. When she was cast in Cinderella, it was on the same stage and beside the same actor, Wendy Lehr, she had seen as a child. Now that’s a Cinderella story!

But of course, everyone in the Twin Cities knows what happened next. Kim saw herself drifting toward a career in the back office of an arts organization and decided to make a change and open a restaurant—to her parents’ horror, because restaurants are where immigrants work because they don’t have a cushy Ivy League–grad job. She studied pizza and opened Pizzeria Lola in 2010 with her husband, Conrad Leifur. The two began a journey that was both, somehow, meteoric (a James Beard Award for best chef within a decade!) and measured. And so, even with the success of Hello Pizza (2013) and Young Joni (2016), she’s opened no second locations of anything, despite the offers. Instead, creative growth and brand stewardship have been prioritized over all.

Then in 2019, soon after Kim won her Beard award—the first Twin Cities woman to ever do so—rumors began to swirl that she and Leifur were opening something inspired by a trip to Valle de Guadalupe. All hell broke loose on the internet, as usual. Accusations of “cultural appropriation.” Social media swarms on Kim’s restaurants’ sites and other media sites. Angry Instagram comments. Pleas to critics to stop Ann Kim from making tortillas. Then came the pandemic. A year of racist monikers surrounding the virus and of anti-Asian hate crimes. A week after I talked to Kim for this story, the massacre of Asian women outside Atlanta.

I told Kim I thought it was strange that no one objected when Roy Choi burst to international prominence cooking Los Angeles street-style Mexican and Korean at the Kogi BBQ trucks in L. A., starting in 2008, birthing a whole niche of fast food known as K-Mex. (For more on K-Mex, see American Tacos, an excellent book by José R. Ralat, taco editor for Texas Monthly magazine.) I told Kim I thought it was ahistorical to locate corn in Mexico, when Indigenous people grew corn all over North America for thousands of years. And not just in places you intuit, such as California, but as a staple food throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, southern Ontario, and as far east and north as Maine.

Kim refused to join me in my outrage, but said, “This whole social media call-out culture—it’s been difficult. At first I wanted to tell people, I’ve been the victim of discrimination; I’ve been the victim of racism, and so I’ll admit at first all the outrage surprised me. But then I thought about it, and then it didn’t surprise me. People are angry, they’ve been pent up, they don’t have places to go, they’re struggling—and the one thing they have is their phone and their screen. So they’re responding to hearsay, to sound bites.”

She went on to add, “I will say I keep responding to people: Let’s have a real conversation, over the phone or face to face. And they vanish. Someone who called me out was being racist at the same time, telling me what ‘lane’ I could stay in, saying I could cook Chinese if I wanted. What? I’m not Chinese. So I’m ‘allowed’ only to cook anything Asian? Says who? At the same time, I’m very sensitive to these issues. Cultural appropriation exists. The idea suggests abuse of marginalized cultures by dominant ones for profit. But that’s not what I’m doing here. I’ve tried to make very clear that Sooki and Mimi is not any kind of ‘authentic’ Mexican restaurant. I hope to celebrate nixtamalized corn in a way that’s authentic to Ann Kim, a Korean immigrant raised in a Twin Cities suburb.”

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Sooki and Mimi Isn't an 'Authentic' Mexican Restaurant—It's Authentically Ann Kim (3)

Sooki and Mimi bathed in light

Sooki and Mimi bathed in light

•••••

Kim told me a story of the person who taught her to make tortillas and told her hand-tortilla-making was a dying art, along with the dying art of growing heirloom corn. He begged her to help carry the ancient ways forward. “He was elated!” she said.

No matter how elated he was at the time, he’d still probably be surprised to find Kim using those learned skills to press nixtamalized corn into a sort of tart shell for labneh cheese made neon pink with smoked beets. Or to create a taco base to support a beautiful, slick whole Maitake mushroom confit,seared till glossy,and meant to dunk into an intense, smoky vegan birria broth. Who eats like this? No one, ever before. This is very much Ann Kim food, which I tend to think of as very intense, paired with a companionable breathing space of quiet.

So, at Pizzeria Lola, the intensity is toppings; the breathing space is that uniquely airy and meaty crust. At Young Joni, the intensity is everything on the plates; the breathing space is the room, which feels like you are within an alive aesthetic thing—lifted up and held in it. Some rooms are like that. It is the same at Sooki and Mimi, which I suspect will quickly be known in town as Young Joni South. In the middle of the restaurant is a 10-seat tasting-menu area for communal dining or special-occasion tasting menus, for people who want them—rare though they will be, she insists. Kim tells me the expensive tasting menu sheopened with is temporary, but I don’t believe a word of it.

In fact, the tasting menu is something she never wanted to do, Kim says, despite building a whole area of the restaurant ready to do just that. “As frightening as it was, it turned out to be kind of a blessing. I could have died and never done a 10-course tasting menu. Now I know I can do it.”

Even after all the awards and success, it seems as though Kim continues to surprise herself. “This whole time, it felt odd to be called a chef,” Kim told me. “I think I’ve gotten better about it, owning that. It’s like: Hey, I’ve been in this business for 10 years; I have three, now four successful restaurants. We’ve built strong systems and structures. I have this imposter syndrome—I’m not really a chef. After a while, it’s like, shut up and own up to it!”

•••••

What most people will get at Sooki and Mimi, says Kim, once the real menu is in place, is a whole fish or Peking duck served Korean ssam wrap style, with all kinds of sides and tortillas to create the actual wraps. Maybe a heap of shrimp with salsa macha with tortillas. Maybe a few of her samosa-like Indian paneer-stuffed triangles, where the outside is tortillas. Maybe those out-there tostadas pressed with leaves.

I really loved my one single meal at Sooki and Mimi. It felt like the rarest of all things, an artist coming into her own. We used to argue about whether food could be art. At first, we concluded food was not art. It was a craft. Grandmas and drive-throughs made food too, and if they didn’t call it art, how could we?

But over time, consensus drifted the other way. If a checker-sized gel of avocado inset with cubes of pickled mango served on a porcelain antler before 20 more checker-sized bites on the theme of spring recalling oranges was food, was it not also art? It certainly wasn’t what grandmas or drive-throughs did. If artists like Lee Bul, one of the most important Korean artists of her generation, could use fresh fish to talk about identity and history and desire, why was what chefs were doing so different?

So we were left with: Food was not art—unless the chef was trying to accomplish art or unless the receiver of the food decided it was art. Humans make idiosyncratic judgments like this all the time, so it’s fine. If the artist Jeff Koons makes a balloon animal, it’s art. If your kid makes a balloon animal, it’s not. If a Greek potter makes something to hold wine, it is not art—unless it lasts 4,000 years and a museum buys it, and then it is.

•••••

Sooki and Mimi feels like an artist claiming her right to make art, or to be recognized for making art. This has not been easy for Kim. Personally, I have found the chorus of internet voices telling her to be quiet, stay in her lane, take up less space, and stay off the microphone to be infuriating. I, a longtime critic, believe anyone can criticize work—but if you try to keep someone from making their work at all, that’s a dirty trick. Actually, it’s unforgivable.

So far, Sooki and Mimi is not particularly Mexican. Kim’s pozole is more like a Korean hot pot, despite the slaty Michigan Potawatomi flint corn. There’s enormous Japanese influence here, as well as that through line you find in all Minnesota restaurants working with our excellent local farmers who are raising specialty ingredients—a practice, of course, kick-started a generation ago by chefs like former tenant of Sooki and Mimi, Lucia Watson. Kim’s menu is original. I’d never had hot little spheres of Korean sweet potato mochi donuts stuck to a plate with dulce de leche caramel and served with a spicy, bitter, and lively Mexican drinking chocolate. I’m glad I have now—they were surprising and delightful.

“Who is Ann Kim?” Ann Kim asked me as we spoke, like so many times over this remarkable decade in her life since she first started spinning pizza. “So many times as a child, I did what I did to survive. I don’t know if I was able to identify who that person was till recently. But I see now. I feel alive. I feel like I’m doing something that has purpose and meaning, like I’m contributing to my community. And I’ll be damned if someone’s going to suppress that in me. I didn’t work this hard, and my parents didn’t work this hard, to be silenced.”

1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., 612-540-2554, sookiandmimi.com

Originally published in the May 2021 issue.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl was born in New York City little aware of her destiny—to live well in Minnesota. Dara writes about food, people, places, and now and then, things! She has five James Beard awards out of 13 nominations, and has won three CRMAs.

Read more by Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

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