Emeril Lagasse, the jovial master of the culinary catchphrase, has been known to exhort his studio audience to “feel the love” as he adds a dash or two of something special to a dish. Indeed, love is that extra ingredient many chefs say they add to make everything they prepare taste better. To these chefs, cooking with love is not a labor of love because the gratification they receive is as intrinsically nourishing and pleasing as their cuisine is pleasurable and fulfilling to the diners who partake of it.
Asian cultures have known for time immemorial that cooking is more than providing sustenance to sate hunger. They believe cooking and eating can create spiritual awareness and foster community as well as inspire the heart. The Chinese term dim sum, in fact, translates to “touching the heart.” In Japan, there’s a similar term–“Kokoro,” which is translated as “heart and soul” and is often attributed to the deeply satisfying experience of a meal which does indeed nourish the soul and touch the heart.
Kokoro is also ascribed to rice, the heart and soul of Japan’s culture. Rice is not only the basic staple, it has deeply historical and spiritual connotations within traditional Japanese villages where rice farmers share water resources and cooperate with each other in the harvest of their primary food soure.
Rice is the principal product grown in Niigata, the prefecture in which Takako Bowen, the owner and chef of Albuquerque’s Kokoro Restaurant was born and raised. Looking out over the Sea of Japan and backdropped by mountains on three sides, Niigata is widely considered to grow the highest quality rice in Japan, a rice famous throughout the country for its exquisite taste. “Highest quality” and “exquisite taste”–those are also apt descriptions for the cuisine at Takako’s restaurant, too.
Within weeks after its launch in May, 2007, reports started circulating in foodie circles that Kokoro was in rarified air as one of the most authentic and outstanding Japanese restaurants in the metropolitan restaurant. Some even compared Kokoro to Noda’s Japanese Cuisine, considered by many to be perhaps the best Japanese restaurant in the Land of Enchantment.
Four months after it opened, Kokoro earned three and a half stars from Andrea Lin, the Albuquerque Journal’s tough-grading restaurant critic. Scant weeks later, Jennifer Wohletz, the erstwhile restaurant critic for the Alibi also waxed eloquent about Kokoro. As much as I value the opinion of my erudite colleagues, it took persistent emails from several faithful readers of my blog to prompt my inaugural visit.
My mistake! For nearly two years, I deprived myself of some of the very best Japanese food in New Mexico–food that is healthful (Takako is a nutritionist), fresh, affordable and obviously prepared with love. It’s also fast, but not fast in the heat lamp enhanced ways that American fast food is fast. More than anything, it is absolutely delicious! It’s easy to see why comparisons to Noda’s aren’t considered blasphemous.
During our inaugural visit we ran into Douglas who is absolutely captivated by Kokoro. He eats there six days a week, sometimes twice a day. “Why,” he reasons, “should I eat anywhere else when no other restaurant is as good?”. Though I’m not nearly as monogamous when it comes to restaurants, this is one restaurant that warrants frequent return visits. This is one restaurant that nourishes the soul and touches the heart as it sates the appetite.
Kokoro is located in a small strip shopping center just west of the Coronado Mall, somewhere between San Mateo and San Pedro. Takako previously ran a small sushi shop at the University of New Mexico Student Union Building, but opted to start her own business in a larger area. Kokoro is still a diminutive dining establishment with just a handful of tables, with limited seating also available on a bar-like table facing the window.
A surprisingly ambitious menu belies the restaurant’s size. It’s a menu that invites diners to give pause to read about proper Japanese etiquette. Did you know, for example, that it is a cultural taboo to pass food between people from chopsticks to chopsticks as this is a practice reserved for funerals where cremated bones are passed from person to person? That pause will be momentary because you’ll want to peruse the menu for something wonderful to eat. After you order you can study the rules of etiquette as well as the map of Japan on the restaurant’s eastern wall.
Beverage options inclue green tea and Ramune, a unique Japanese soda widely known for the distinctive engineering of its bottle. Made of glass and sealed with a marble, the bottle is opened by a puncturing device which pushes the marble inside the neck of the bottle where it rattles around while you drink it. If you’ve never had Ramune before, you’ll find it takes practice to stop the marble from blocking the flow of liquid.
The menu doesn’t list appetizers per se, but the “side orders” portion of the menu does include more than a dozen tempting preprandial delights including Oshinko, a simple Japanese pickled vegetable starter which includes cabbage, cucumber, carrot, daikon, dry chili peppers and more. Other side orders include miso soup, edamame, seaweed salad, egg roll, potato croquettes and so much more.
If, on the day you visit your tastes aren’t leaning toward the exotic, you can never go wrong with gyoza, pot stickers filled with pork and chicken. Available deep-fried or steamed, these six to an order gems are superb. The gyoza wrappers, being slightly thicker than wonton wrappers, mean these pot stickers are formidable enough to withstand a dip or dousing in the sauce. The basis for this sauce is soy sauce, but its pronounced tangy acidity suggests a higher proportion of vinegar with just a hint of hot pepper oil. In any case, it’s a welcome departure from the standard sweet and savory sauce usually served with pot stickers.
Make it a practice when you visit Kokoro to check the specials of the day, scrawled on a slate board positioned on the counter separating the small dining area from the kitchen. If Crab Cream Croquettes are listed, consider them a must have. Resembling two oblong crab cakes sheathed in coarse panko breadcrumbs and served steaming hot, these are unlike most crab cakes. They are unbelievably creamy, a composition of minced crab, mashed potatoes and cream with a deep-fried coating. Interestingly, they are served with ketchup and not some more exotic sauce.
When a restaurant serves miso soup that’s more than merely good, it should get your attention. Kokoro’s miso soup is top tier, as good as you’ll find in Albuquerque. It’s served steamy hot and will warm the cockles of your heart as it goes down.
Respondents to one survey in Japan indicated they ate curry an average of 62 times a year, making it one of the island nation’s most popular foods–even though it’s categorized in Japan as a “western dish.” For some reason, Japanese curry hasn’t caught on as well in America as Thai curry or Indian curry. Perhaps that’s because there are few restaurants that prepare it as well as Kokoro does where it is served with potato croquettes, chicken Kara-age, Chicken Cutlet, Pork Cutlets or by itself,
A popular way to order curry at Kokoro is with the restaurant’s “Just Curry” dish, a small bowl of curry served on white rice with pickles. One reason this dish is so popular is because it’s small and inexpensive ($3.50 as of March, 2010) enough that you can order another dish. The curry is dark brown, almost like a homestyle beef gravy with a glistening sheen around a mound of brilliantly white rice. It’s the type of curry for which you’d want bread to sop up every delicious remnant.
The curry is redolent with ginger which, coupled with pork cutlets, reminds me somewhat of sauerbraten prepared in the traditional Rhineland style (with crushed gingerbread spice cookies). The pork cutlet curry is apportioned generously with six white meat pork cutlets absolutely devoid of excess fat or sinew. The cutlets are golden brown with a crunchy panko breadcrumb coating.
Kokoro’s menu dedicates almost an entire page to maki sushi (the type of sushi in which thinly sliced fish and/or vegetables are rolled inside vinegared rice) and donburi. The rainbow roll, while nicely arranged isn’t the designer rainbow roll sushi restaurants serve when their intent seems to be to impress with esthetics moreso than with taste. Kokoro’s rainbow roll instead is festooned with generous amounts of tuna, salmon, shrimp and avocado so ultra-fresh and delicious, you might think you’re in Los Angeles and not Albuquerque where some sushi tends to be of grocery store or airplane food quality.
Donburi is a general Japanese term for “bowl,” however, the term also refers to a bowl of cooked rice with some other food served on top. Some donburi dishes, unagi or tuna for example, might remind you of eating sushi in a bowl which is essentially what you’re doing. In Japan, donburi is considered a traditional fast food offering though Americans aren’t adept enough at chopsticks to consume it quickly.
For a multitude of magnificent tastes in one bowl, try the chirashi donburi, a large ceramic bowl with tuna, shrimp, eel, egg omelet, salmon, imitation crabmeat, kampyo (dried gourd), seaweed salad and smelt eggs on top of sushi rice. Because this entree is akin to sushi in a bowl, it also includes a dollop of wasabi if you like your seafood and rice incendiary. The seafood is surprisingly fresh and Kokoro doesn’t scrimp on portions. Two can easily share this donburi.
Another excellent donburi dish is the Katsu Donburi, a Japanese rice bowl brimming with steamed rice cooked in a sweet, but subtle soy sauce with egg and onion topped with five panko breaded pork cutlets. This is a very filling dish with a multitude of simmering flavor surprises, not the least of which is the sauce imbued rice prepared to perfection. The egg is cooked, not fried, and may have a texture you’ll have to get used to, but it melds well with the other ingredients.
One of the more endearing aspects of a meal at Kokoro is the staff’s willingness to accommodate diners with unique requests. During our first visit, for example, my Kim wanted yaki soba noodles served with chicken kara-age, deep-fried marinated chicken. There’s no such entree on the menu, but the staff certainly takes a “have it your way” attitude. The deep-fried chicken is a real winner. It is tender and juicy on the inside with a crispy exterior. The noodles are perfectly prepared.
Kokoro is the optimum combination of terrific and authentic Japanese dishes served by a friendly, hard-working and accommodating staff. This bright, bustling little restaurant is one of the best choices in the city for great Japanese food. It will capture you heart and soul!
Kokoro Japanese Restaurant
5614 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 9 May 2009
LATEST VISIT: 6 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Gyoza, Ramune Soda, Pork Cutlet Curry, Yaki Soba Noodles with Chicken Kara-age, Chirashi Donburi