With the opening of their second store, in Commack, Mogu Modern Chinese is a little closer to its goal of changing the Chinese food landscape on Long Island. A tight menu of Chinese-American classics is prepared here without woks or fryolators, and if the greaseless egg rolls are stuffed with mushrooms and leeks and served with sriracha aioli, if the “popcorn” wontons are crisped and browned in an air fryer, if the “Kung Wow” chicken lacks any hint of glop — they are all recognizably good, old Chinese takeout.
While authentic, regional Chinese cuisine is taking hold all over Nassau and Suffolk, Mogu founder Mike Wang noted that traditional mom-and-pop Chinese takeouts are under threat. Among the challenges they face are the physical challenge of cooking everything in screaming-hot oil in a heavy wok and, most of all, a profound labor shortage. "Cooking in a wok requires tremendous skill," he explained when the first Mogu, in Farmingdale, opened in 2020. "With fewer people coming here from China, and very few children of Chinese immigrants interested in doing this — it’s increasingly difficult to find people who know how to cook this way."
Wang was born in China but grew up in his parent’s Chinese takeout restaurant, Jen’s, first on Conklin Street in Farmingdale and then on Hicksville Road in Massapequa, where it still thrives. He fulfilled his parents’ dream by attaining a doctorate from an Ivy League university, but found himself drawn back to their business. Taking over the restaurant wasn’t an option — for all his degrees, he lacked the skills — but it pained him that "when they retire, their legacy will disappear."
And so, working with his mother, Jen Li, and MIT engineers, Wang came up with an "automatic wok-cooking platform" (SAM: "Smart Automatic Master Chef") whose blade mimics the flipping action of an expertly wielded wok and whose superheated surface can sense the ingredients as they cook. Each dish has its own algorithm and "cooks" need only add the requisite ingredients (which are precut and apportioned in another Mogu facility) and SAM does the rest.
Since Mogu opened in Farmingdale, Wang, Li and their partners, Pat Spates (co-owner of SeaQua Deli in Massapequa, St. James and Patchogue) and Ben LoManto (of Vespa Italian Chophouse in Northport and Vespa Italian Kitchen & Bar and Harleys American Grille in Farmingdale) have been plotting their next move. During the worst of the pandemic, the Route 110 location — smack dab in the midst of a lot of businesses whose employees were working from home — generated less of a lunch crowd than had been anticipated. But third-party services delivered takeout far and wide. “We had a lot of customers coming to us all the way from Commack,” Wang said. Data from the third-party delivery services confirmed that Commack could use its own Mogu.
The Commack store has a larger kitchen and smaller seating area than Farmingdale, but the décor is the same jaunty blend of warm wood and leafy greens. Some of the dishes added to the original menu include dumplings (pork, vegetable and spicy “Impossible” beef), seared Brussels sprouts, mei fun (thin rice) noodles with a choice of protein (or, in the Singapore style, with curry sauce) and cold sesame noodles.
The Commack store also debuted a new feature: a self-serve kiosk that’s an alternative to ordering at the counter. Wang is working on an app as well as a completely self-serve store. The next generation of SAM (double-decker!) is also in the works.The Mogu team plans to open locations in Hauppauge (June), Woodbury (October) and Melville (2023). They also operate a Mogu with an abbreviated menu at UBS Arena in Elmont.
Does Wang foresee a day when Mogu is fully automated? Not a chance. “In the end, it’s all about a balance between technology and food,” he said. “You don’t want to lose the soul to the machine, you want to use the machine to bring out the soul of the food.”
Mogu Modern Chinese Kitchen is at 6228 Jericho Tpke., Commack; 631-257-3832, moguchinese.com