I looked down at a cauldron of bright red spicy duck ramen and thought, "I may not survive this." I've eaten steaming bowls of Tsukemen under the Tokyo subway station, back-to-back-to-back bowls of Ejji Ramen's entire menu, and two days in a row of TenTen Ramen's offerings, but Mi & Yu's ramen—steaming hot with massive hunks of five-spiced pork belly and beef short rib meatballs bobbing in broth—was the first that left me equal parts giddy and gun shy.
Confronted with a bowl like this, there's only one solution: put your head down and only lift it up for the occasional slug of water. After all, you don't want your noodles to get soggy. Or at least that's what chef Edward Kim hopes for at Mi & Yu (1016 S. Charles St.,  388-9295, miandyunoodlebar.com), the latest noodle shop to open in Baltimore's recent ramen boom.
Kim, who previously made a name for himself in the city's dining scene as head chef of Ixia, Soigne, and Saffron, opened the Federal Hill space as a way to fill what he felt was a void in the city's ramen scene. "If you're looking for authentic ramen, there're plenty of places that do that [in town] already. We wanted to do something different," he said during a recent visit. And he's right, because while he may use traditional cooking methods for his ramen, it's the different ingredients and spices he uses that really makes Mi & Yu shine.
While the ramen may be untraditional, the space itself is as close as I've seen to an authentic Japanese noodle joint. Housed in a tiny spot just a stone's throw from Cross Street Market, Mi & Yu has a large communal table, two counters along each wall, and two small nooks for two on each side of the entrance—24 seats in all. And that's it. Cylinders of chopsticks act as the tables' only functional decoration with large pitchers of water spread throughout for sharing (you're gonna need those, as Mi & Yu doesn't have a liquor license or allow BYOB, but does sell sodas).
The space itself works, though. Japanese noodle houses are loud, busy, steaming places that are meant for quickly enjoying your meal, talking very little, and moving on. Mi & Yu captures that perfectly. On multiple visits I watched as all walks of life—cops on a quick break, dates awkwardly discussing life goals, hipsters far from their typical enclaves—huddled in line, ordered, and grabbed a seat next to strangers and excitedly enjoyed their ramen.
The basic order system is that you pick your protein (soy-miso braised short ribs, buttermilk brined fried chicken, herbed short rib meatballs, roast duck carnitas, or five-spiced BBQ pork belly), choose your noodle (ramen, pho, or udon), pick your broth (spicy kimchi, spicy sambal duck, savory miso, or savory adobo duck), and wait for your order to be called. Price is based on you protein choice. There's also a vegetarian broth with fried tofu available for you non-meat eaters out there.
The spicy sambal duck broth with ramen noodles and pork belly ($13.50) was the boldest of all the bowls my friends and I tried. It was spicy without a heat that kills you and salty without going overboard. The broth is made with roasted duck bones in lieu of traditional pork and chicken bones, which limits the amount of fat while still producing a rich base that holds up to the spices. The first test of a ramen is the broth and this one instantly had me hooked with its strong base accentuated by its piquant, red, chili-forward sambal.
The pork belly was an ethereal thing in its own right: Four thick slices of meat were coated in a barbecue-esque five-spice sauce that was wonderfully caramelized around the tops and bottoms of each slice. The result was an additional sweet, spicy, and deep umami component to an already-decadent cut of pork. It was so good we even went back to the counter to snag an additional side order to fight over.
A bowl of savory adobo duck broth with ramen noodles and buttermilk brined fried chicken ($12.75) that my cohort ordered had the same base as the sambal duck, but with a less spicy, Philippine-inspired adobo seasoning. Recommended if you still want a deep meat flavor without the heat that comes with the sambal, this milder broth allowed the flavors of the soft-boiled egg (unmarinated, in keeping with its untraditional style), Napa cabbage, raw red onions, cilantro, slices of jalapeno, and daikon salad that accompany all bowls at Mi & Yu to come through more.
While the buttermilk batter of the chicken held up surprisingly well in the broth and the chicken was moist, I would probably opt for the short rib meatballs instead. They were moist with very little filler, and after soaking in the ramen, each bite was a blissed-out mix of beef and broth.
The vegetarian broth with seared tofu ($11.50) had an impressive level of flavor and depth despite its restrictions and our vegetarian friend was perfectly happy with her bowl. Eventually, the tofu got mushy from the broth, but that was a minor gripe. Another nitpick, and it's hard to complain about getting too much food, but Mi & Yu should really consider offering a small option, because finishing one of its massive, filled-to-the-brim bowls is a feat of gastronomic dexterity.
On my final visit we scored a coveted bowl of the beef dashi ramen. Explained as a broth made from the braising liquid of the beef short ribs, it's typically only available once a week (check its Facebook page for posts saying it's available). People around me raved about it as I sat down, and while I agree it was damn good, I'd consider it more a traditional beef stock than ramen—still, it was one of the most intense beef stocks (almost a consomme) I've ever had. Less salty than the other broths I tried, it paired perfectly with their thick udon noodles. It was an unabashed take on ramen that served as a reminder that chef Kim isn't playing by the book, and it's paying dividends at Mi & Yu.
Mi & Yu is open Monday-Thursday noon-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday noon-11 p.m., and Sunday noon-9 p.m.