Lin Cui, owner of Tianchu, a new Korean restaurant on William that opened March 2, came to Ann Arbor via Hungary. “After seven or eight years, I tire of a country. I like to travel, I like to move,” explains the forty-year-old Korean, who was educated in China then migrated to Japan. Her sister, also a wanderer, was recruited to teach English in Hungary in the 1990s. “My sister wrote and said: ‘You should come to Hungary. Europe is really relaxed.'” Lin–as her business card calls her–was living a fast-paced life in Japan at the time and thought it sounded good. So did her parents. While her sister taught English, Lin started a Korean restaurant in Hungary, the first Tianchu. She learned to speak Hungarian, a notoriously difficult language. “At first it was so hard, I wanted to go home, but my whole family was there. So I learned.”
Hers was one of a handful of Korean restaurants in Hungary, and she says it was successful and well known. But she was restless, and so was the rest of the family. Gradually the entire clan made its way to southeastern Michigan. Her sister now lives in Novi with her husband, who works for Bosch. Lin, her husband, her fifteen-year-old son, and her parents live in Ann Arbor. Her mother does most of the cooking at Tianchu, a name Lin translates as “celestial kettle.” The shy granny in the quilted coat stirring pots in the kitchen, Cui says firmly, is “a really cool mom. A really modern woman. Twenty years ago, no one wanted to leave Korea, but she encouraged us to travel.”
Tianchu isn’t exclusively a Korean restaurant, but it’s not a diner hybrid either, like many local Korean restaurants. Instead of bacon and eggs, she rounds out the traditional Korean menu with Chinese and Taiwanese dishes and–“because I know people like it”–bubble tea.
Her Korean food is highly authentic, she says: bibimbop (which on campus probably needs no introduction), japchae (stir-fried cellophane noodles with veggies and beef), jajangmyeon (noodles topped with black soybean paste), galbi (short ribs), and bamboo bowl tofu (a soup served in a carved-out bamboo boat). She makes her own kimchi. Waiter Suzi Chou, from Taiwan, recommends the mapo tofu, saying it tastes like home cooking to her.
Formerly the home of grungy undergraduate fast food stop Rio Wraps, the space is now unrecognizably elegant. It’s sparkling clean, painted a gentle peach, and furnished with polished wood tables and Asian art. “I wanted to make it pretty,” Lin says, “so people feel comfortable.”
Tianchu, 613 E. William. 769-1368. Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
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