I had the good fortune of living for three years in Fukuoka, Japan, a city famed throughout the island nation for its tonkotsu ramen. The noodle soup comes in several iterations, but tonkotsu is the richest, with an intense, creamy broth that is made by simmering pork bones for days at a time. I found my dream tonkotsu in a little shop called Danbo, across the street from a suburban train station. Diners were meant to slurp the noodles but leave most of the broth behind, as it essentially constituted a heart attack in a bowl; it was a test of willpower not to drink it all. I haven’t encountered tonkotsu here in New York that manages to recreate the depth of flavor that Danbo offered, but Long Island City’s newly opened Mu Ramen (12-09 Jackson Avenue, Queens; 917-868-8903) comes close, while also doing something all its own.
Mu Ramen began as a pop-up in Bricktown Bagel, until praise from the New York Times left owners Joshua and Heidy Smookler so inundated with customers that they canceled their events to focus on opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The new spot debuted last week, and on Saturday night, a line of people was already snaking down Jackson Avenue for the 5:30 opening, despite the persistent rain. The 22-seat room puts diners beside each other at long tables, which are embedded with micro Japanese gardens. Service was warm but a bit flustered — understandably so, as all seatings were already fully booked by 6:30.
The menu features Japanese flavors with an occasional New York Jewish twist. The “okonomiyaki,” for instance, is more reminiscent of blini than the traditional cabbage-and-noodle pancakes, and is topped with smoked trout that could be straight out of a Yom Kippur break-fast, if not for the addition of scarlet tobiko. U&I is a rice bowl with super-fresh uni, whose brininess doesn’t overwhelm the ikura (salmon roe) and chunks of maguro (tuna) that come with it — though at $15, it’s a bit pricey by Queens standards for a small portion.
Mu’s eponymous ramen also takes inspiration from Jewish delis — the soup incorporates brisket along with oxtail and bone marrow, and is brightened with half a sour pickle. The tonkotsu ramen has the right look, for sure — milky soup, springy noodles, fatty slices of pork, scallions, dollops of black garlic oil — and while it doesn’t quite meet my perhaps unrealistic standards as set by Danbo, it comes closer than any other bowl I’ve had in NYC. Get it with nitamago, a seasoned, soft-boiled egg. The spicy miso ramen, also pork-based, has thicker, udon-type noodles, and is seriously livened up with the deep flavors of red miso and chile oil; corn offers a sweet counterpoint.
Mu Ramen’s complex and inventive flavors will likely keep the crowds coming for some time, so it’s best to get there early. Once the shop gets its liquor license, it could be unstoppable — nothing goes better with tonkotsu than a glass of Japanese beer.