New York chef to open Animo in Sonoma

Chef Josh Smookler and his wife Heidi Hu have big plans for the new location.|

In a little building with palm trees, a small wall, and a mostly protected patio next to McDonald’s, a new flavor is brewing.

Realtor Ryan Snow said Chef Josh Smookler and his wife Heidi Hu have leased the property with plans to open Animo restaurant. In a phone call Monday afternoon, Smookler told the Index-Tribune that he and his family moved to the Valley in December, and have enrolled their kids in local schools.

Longtime residents remember this spot as a former location of Moosetta’s Piroshky, a Chinese cafeteria, and a series of Mexican restaurants, the last of which was Las Diablitas.

Chef Smookler is Korean and was adopted by a New York Jewish family and raised on Long Island. His multicultural background first led him to Japanese food, although he had to teach himself to make ramen.

Having first sold ramen out of a bagel shop, Smookler opened Mu Ramen in New York’s Long Island City in 2014 after a stint in Los Angeles where he sampled lots of Japanese raw foods and ramen.

New York Times critic Pete Wells wrote that Smookler’s Mu Ramen was worth a trip outside New York City, perhaps because Smookler also served foie gras-stuffed wings, oxtail and bone marrow ramen.

A former wine director, Smookler told that “I started in the wine business because, when I was a teenager, I thought wine was for affluent, educated and sophisticated people. I wanted to impress women. It felt like it had more cache. Silly, right?”

In 2020 Smookler closed his ramen restaurant in New York during the government-ordered pandemic shutdown and never reopened it.

Many remember Sondra Bernstein’s “Ramen Wednesdays” at Suite D and her take-out ramen at the Girl and the Fig, as well as her ramen pop-ups in the Springs where Sonoma Eats is currently located.

But Smookler is breaking out of the ramen bowl with his new venture here in Sonoma.

He says he has always told people to do what they love, and now he is going to follow his own advice and do what he loves – Basque-inspired fish, pork, and beef. He expects to feature four or five fish dishes, three special cuts of Iberico pork, and five cuts of beef, all while sneaking in some Korean flavors along with the Basque.

The location next to McDonald’s on Highway 12 just north of Verano Avenue needs lots of work to fix a leaky roof, replace equipment and clean out the mess. Both Joshua and Heidi have been working hard to make all of the necessary improvements needed to pass inspections, but they don’t have a time frame for opening just yet.

In other news on the block, nearby Happy Dog restaurant has a new owner, but it is unclear what will become of the space.

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