I live to discover the delicious in unexpected corners of Queens, whether it’s a Tibetan restaurant in the back of a cell phone store or a Malaysian joint in Flushing with a graveyard shift specializing in kari laksa. So when I heard about Mu Ramen, Joshua Smookler’s nighttime popup inside of a Long Island City bagel store, I was especially intrigued.
So I set out for Bricktown Bagel & Café on a night that was indeed quite brick. Joining me on the frigid Saturday after Thanksgiving was my pal William who knows a thing or two about Japanese food. The first thing that surprised me was that Mu’s chef, Joshua Smookler, was Asian. What’s not so surprising about the Korean-American chef with the decidedly non-Korean name is that he has a monomaniacal fascination with ramen.
The Per Se alum wasn’t always in love with the Japanese noodle soup though. While living in Los Angeles Smookler gamely accompanied a ramen-obsessed friend to many of the city’s hot ramen-yas including Yamadaya and Santouku. “Every single time I went to a place,” he recalled, “I’m like, I don’t get this ramen thing, it’s not for me.”
Smookler’s passion for ramen was ignited when he tried his first taste of Ippudo’s Akamaru ramen when he moved back to the East Coast. “The light bulb went off. This is what ramen’s supposed to be,” he said. The newly minted ramen convert ate there about 60 times in two months. As a solo diner he was able to sit at the counter and avoid the East Village spot’s infamous lines.
“For literally like a month and a half all I did was try to make ramen,” he said. “Day after day, just experimenting. Finally, one day I put it together, and I was like, this is very close.” After further refinement Smookler even snuck in some of his broth into Ippudo and had his pals do a side by side tasting. “Not a single person said Ippudo’s was better.”
At Mu Smookler serves what he calls Tonkotsu 2.0 ($15), while his wife Heydy does double duty as waitress and hostess. “It comes with toppings already, it’s like a pizza,” she explained to a Brazilian couple who, like Mu’s owners, are Long Island City locals.
It takes two days for Smookler to prepare the broth, which uses six different types of pork bones including shanks, whose rich marrow flavors the soup. It is one of the lighter bodied tonkotsu ramen’s around.
“I like more of a clean mouth feel instead of this heaviness,” Smookler says explaining that many cooks enrich their broth with additional pork fat, “but a lot people say that’s not really tonkotsu, and I’m like well, yes it is.” Topped with a slick of mayu (black garlic oil) and wobbly bits of tontoro (pork jowl), the soup is still plenty rich and complex.
William declared his bowl of spicy miso ramen ($15) to be the best he’s ever had in New York. The noodles in the fiery broth are thicker and chewier than the thin strands in the tonkotsu to balance the hearty broth. It was so hearty that my pal left me half. I enjoyed the crunchy planks of corn sheared from the cob and the savory mushrooms. Best of all the combination of pork and chili took me back to eating dried spicy Italian sausage as a kid. Talk about comfort food! “That has a lot of Josh’s personality in it,” Heydy said. Her better half revealed one of the hearty bowl’s ingredients, gochujang, the staple Korean ingredient of fermented soybeans and red chili peppers.
On Saturday Mu also had a special double soup ramen made with wasabi oil and assorted dried fish. Smookler said he has many other special ramens up his sleeve; this week it will most likely be seafood. Before we left he summed up Mu’s raison d’ être: “I wanted to make sure it’s as least as good as Manhattan if not better.” One thing’s for sure, it’s the best ramen you’ll ever eat in a bagel shop.
Mu Ramen, 51-06 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City, Tues-Sat 6:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.