Mu Ramen – review

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Mu Ramen

Would you be bothered if people watched you eat? I don’t mind if people see me do a great many harmless things, but for some reason chewing for a crowd feels a little unnerving. Well, that’s the way it is at Mu Ramen, the 20 (highly coveted) seat room in Queens, where homesick Japanese ex-pats and lovers of ramen from all across the 5 boroughs perch themselves for hours on benches surrounding the brick walls, staring and glaring at the lucky few who have graduated to back-less stools at the single communal table. Every one of my attempts (both failed and successful) at coiling a thick noodle neatly into my wooden spoon, every use of my chopsticks (both adept and disastrous) and every time a nugget of smoky ground pork escaped my grip and splashed back into the deliciously dark and sublime broth, I could feel the daggers, sniggers and snorts from the audience behind me: “Novice.” “Space waster.” “Unworthy.” “Manhattanite.”

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Mu Ramen

The only thing that shifted my focus from the crowd to the food – was the food. New York native Joshua Smookler who did kitchen stints at Per Se and Buddakan before opening this mega-popular ATM in Long Island City, boils bones and other carefully selected animal parts for hours and hours yielding 4 of the most delectable ramen broths in the western hemisphere. But more about them later. His 9-item menu is super simple and to the point with Treats (appetizers), Ramen (the reason we crossed the East River) and Toppings (to take the Ramen up a notch or two), but if you flip it over, you find yourself time-traveled back to Queens with three steak options, a pasta and the Harlan hamburger. Who orders a hamburger in a Ramen shop? We did. It’s a medium-rare hockey puck of chopped short rib, smothered in a super-jammy onion relish with a nest of shoestring fries and a square of melted cheese under a sesame bun. Certainly does the job – but by no means the main event.

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Harlan Hamburger, Mu Ramen

We started with something called U & I. It’s a combination of sushi rice, nori flakes, spicy tuna chunks and 3 slithers of Japanese sea urchin with salmon roe and a dollop of wasabi. It looks like a Sunomomo bowl, but the trick is to try and get a smidge of each ingredient onto the same chopstick without mixing them in order to fully appreciate the salty crash of the ocean – meets a jellyfish sting of spicy heat – meets a creaminess that folds everything into total sublimity. Next, we climbed into a bowl of charred and smoky, citrusy, salty yuzu-lemon Edamame. After finishing my “fair” share, I began to suck the remaining grains of lemony salt from the empty shells. This is most likely the moment I forgot I was being watched.

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U & I, Mu Ramen

Tebasaki Gyoza was our third “Treat” and perhaps the only real miss. When I lifted one of the scalding chicken drumettes, I became aware of two things: they are heavier than your regular breaded, deep-fried wing and they are also miraculously oil-free. The drumette bone has been replaced with a large nugget of brioche and foie gras, but as fetching as it might look – all bronzed, puffed up and seemingly crunchy, the rather gummy breading hid whatever flavor might have come from the rather mushy, fleshy stuffing. If I had a wish, it would be for chef Smookler to come up with another crowd-stopper like U & I while leaving the brioche and foie gras poultry stuffing to Daniel Humm at The Nomad.

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Tebasaki Gyoza

We tried 2 of the 4 ramen options. The Mu Ramen (a beef broth from oxtail and bone marrow) was unfortunately not available. We also skipped the I’ll Shoyu duck-based broth in favor of the two pork versions. Tonkotsu Ramen (the most frequently ordered item by my shoulder-to-shoulder neighbors) is a delightfully creamy broth with thin noodles, pork morsels, egg and vegetables. Not overly salty, very lean and wonderfully silky. They could have just as easily served it as tea.

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Tonkotsu Ramen, Mu Ramen

On the steamier end, the Spicy Miso ramen features a clear, dark, rich and wonderfully umami broth with scallion, strips of corn, ground pork clusters, thick noodles, sesame and a tinge of heat thanks to the chili oil. Once the solids were gone, I lapped up the remaining liquid like a good little Hello Kitty. Speaking of Tokyo, most of their Ramen broths tend to be more fish-forward, but either of these outstanding contenders can certainly hold their own next to any of those I sampled in the corridors beneath the Maronouchi station.

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Mu Ramen

As I rose from my seat, I could feel the spectator glares behind me turn into eager and appreciative smiles. While maneuvering my way out between their knees and umbrellas, I couldn’t help wondering if it would be too much to ask for a round of light applause for my performance.

Mu Ramen. 1209 Jackson Ave, Queens, NY. No website. Cash only.

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