Muku Japanese Ramen
326 14th St. NW
Tel: (403) 283 6555
Discovering that the first ever, Calgary-based restaurant specializing in only Japanese Ramen had opened for business, I knew that I had to make a visit to eat at Muku on my recent Alberta trip. By reading third party reports and through discussions with friends who have already eaten here or knew something about it, I had built up some expectations ahead of time. Although I am someone who has had hundreds of varying bowls of ramen in Japan, I do not consider myself a full fledged “rameniac”, but do feel that I’ve accumulated enough ramen experiences over the years to allow me to accurately evaluate if it meets a certain standard of what you would expect from a really good bowl in Japan – especially the tonkotsu variety which is a personal favorite.
Muku has taken over the former Globefish location, that gave rise to the growing fushion maki revolution that seems to dominate the scene these days. Two and a half years since first opening its doors (including the birth of a second outlet), it appears that a larger and more spacious location for restaurant number one was required and fortunately for the owners, they were able to take over a building right next door. But what to do with the old location? Turn it into a new concept (for Calgary anyways), and see if a stand alone ramen shop can survive. Their journey has just begun.
Introducing Muku’s Tonkotsu Ramen. Relatively low to mid-range consistency broth in terms of its richness. The oily component of it was quite noticeable, and it didn’t have the white flecks of fat that you’d see at say Kintaro in Vancouver. The range in which you can prepare the base broth using pork bones can result in varying textures and consistencies, so there is no “right” or “wrong” here, just different levels. The resulting mix comes down to your personal preference. Having said that though, there is one consistent element – that is the flavor of the broth. Ideally, the finished soup should be one that is complex, creamy with distinct scents and taste properties derived from the long cooking process involving the pork bone and marrow. Here at Muku, this is where it was weak in my opinion, and the general oiliness made it seem even more “watered” down in trying to compensate for the absence of a multi-dimensional flavor.
The noodles, granted what you can source in Canada, is limited and their choice wasn’t all that bad. They were cooked, or rather on the undercooked side or katamen. I wish they would give you some options as they do in Japan on how you’d like to have your noodles done, as Muku’s was a bit less cooked than I would prefer. It would be fine if they were of a more thinner variety as they would soften while in the broth while eating, but this was not the case here. Again, this is personal preference.
Next, the toppings. As you can see in the visual above, there were some slices of chashu, as well as some smaller chopped bits that were a bit leaner. I must say I’d never seen this dual cut of chashu before in a bowl of tonkotsu ramen. It stuck me as odd. Then there were the two pieces of baby corn, again an oddity. I would much rather prefer some fresh cob corn, but only in a miso ramen soup as it is just not a usual occurrence in tonkotsu broths. Finally the slices of ordinary sushi gari - another unorthodox twist. They really should have beni shoga that you find at Menya in Vancouver, for the reasons I listed in that post. In terms of authenticity, its like replacing butter with margarine in a pastry recipe.
My dining companion had the Miso Tonkotsu Ramen. Probably one of the least mainstream pairings of the four base broths you find in ramen, but it does exist in some parts. Unfortunately, Muku’s take on it really blew me away (in a negative way). For a premium over the regular Tonkotsu Ramen, you get a single dollop of miso paste! Now if you have had a proper miso-based ramen before in your lifetime, you know very well that it is supposed to be incorporated into the broth, adding more body and depth of flavor. In terms of balance, it should be slightly on the side of the tonkotsu, but clearly in greater proportions than what this drop could do here. The way it was lying on top of everything like that dreaded spicy sauce that many people put on their creative sushi rolls, just about made me wish there were some heavy handed ramen policemen, who could charge them with this injustice to the ramen world.
Given the unsteady reports of customers coming in, including many who still confuse this place as serving more than just ramen and step inside only to walk out (some of them no doubt still confusing it for Globefish) or those out there that think that they need to add other “noodles” to the menu, ala soba or udon (which is another insane proposition I won’t get into as I can already feel the Ramen Gods have had enough suffering), I think a hard challenge lies ahead for Muku. That is to increase awareness among the masses and educate customers as to the finer details and appeal of ramen. Will it one day line up on the podium with the likes of Japanese staples such as sushi and tempura in the West? Time will only tell.
Calgary is at a slight disadvantage compared to the west coast (e.g. Vancouver, California) for the sheer greater numbers of people who already have a greater understanding of ramen living there (either permanently or short term ex-patriots), not to mention already existing ramen choices. As well, the incredible culture of ramen in Japan is so difficult to convey, in its importance in pop food culture. I sense that Muku’s ownership will struggle to achieve the same level of popularity they have with their other chain for these vary reasons. Though I wish them well, my fear is that a wave of first time ramen eaters will begin to think that some of the elements they find here are the norm – when it clearly is not – and the taste is among the better representations of tonkotsu ramen – again, not true in my opinion.