Acclaimed Long Island City noodle destination Mu Ramen has closed — but not by choice. Chef and co-owner Joshua Smookler, who opened the ramen shop with wife Heidy He in November 2014, is alleging that his landlord illegally terminated his lease despite an ongoing moratorium on commercial evictions in New York City. “This closure is not because we wanted to close,” he says. “It’s because the landlord took over the space.”
Like countless restaurateurs across the city, Smookler temporarily shuttered Mu Ramen following the state-mandated shutdown of indoor dining in March 2020 and never reopened, unable to turn a profit from outdoor dining due to the ramen shop’s limited sidewalk space. The plan was to wait for the return of indoor dining at 50 percent capacity, but when that time arrived last month, Smookler learned a new business had started operating out of the former home of his restaurant. His lease, he claims, still had close to a decade left before it was set to expire.
“There is a moratorium on evictions for commercial spaces,” Smookler says, citing the New York state law that protects businesses with fewer than 50 employees from eviction through May 1. “We did not get any eviction notice.”
It’s not clear at this time whether Smookler was wrongfully evicted from the property. Jerry Leung, founder of Beyond Property Group and landlord of the building where Mu Ramen is located, claims he attempted to contact Smookler before bringing a new tenant into the space. “Everything was done legally,” Leung says. “Numerous notifications were sent to the restaurant. There’s no forwarding address for him. He’s nowhere to be found.”
Both Smookler and Leung claim they have been unable to reach one another since last fall. Smookler, who left New York state to stay with his parents shortly after the start of the pandemic, says he last heard from Leung in November 2020, when the pair were discussing possible rent negotiations over text. He reportedly has not heard from his landlord since, despite sending multiple texts and emails.
When asked about the messages, Leung clarified, “I don’t need to speak to him anymore.”
Smookler and He have not been paying rent on the Mu Ramen restaurant space due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, he says, but they planned to use a grant from the American Rescue Plan to help cover unpaid rent and outstanding vendor payments. That may no longer be an option. “I understand that [Leung] is probably in a position where he has to pay his bills,” Smookler says. “But to not even let us know and then just aggressively take over a space — it’s pretty hurtful.”
In addition to losing the Mu Ramen space, Smookler claims he still had personal belongings in the restaurant, including furniture and custom light fixtures, whose whereabouts are currently unknown. A representative with Kuku Chicken, the restaurant now operating out of the space, says that those belongings were missing from the space when their lease began on March 1, 2021.
“It doesn’t look like a full restaurant was there,” according to the representative, who asked to remain unnamed in this article. “I don’t know how it looked like back then, but some tables and chairs were missing. You can tell it’s been vacant for awhile.”
Longtime fans of the noodle shop will recall that Mu Ramen started as an after-hours pop-up at nearby Bricktown Bagels in November 2013. The husband-and-wife team, alums of Per Se and Buddakan, respectively, had a cult-following right from the start. Diners from across the city joined neighborhood locals in forming long lines after New York Times critic Pete Wells named the restaurant’s miso and tonkotsu ramens his favorite in New York City.
The morning after the Times article, the Smooklers shuttered their pop-up due to a flood of new reservation requests. The couple focused instead on opening Mu Ramen at its most recent home at 1209 Jackson Avenue, where they had just signed a lease. Their brick-and-mortar ramen shop opened a few months later in November 2014.
Mu Ramen is listed as “temporarily closed” on Google at the time of publication and Smookler says he’s contemplating legal action to reclaim the ramen shop’s former home. It’s not clear at this time if there are plans to reopen the restaurant elsewhere.