Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 815 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6100 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

Kokoro Japanese Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Kokoro Japanese Restaurant, a little gem

Kokoro Japanese Restaurant, a little gem

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.

A map of Japan is painted on one wall at Kokoro

A map of Japan is painted on one wall at Kokoro

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.

Miso soup at Kokoro

Miso soup at Kokoro

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.

Crab Cream Croquettes with Ketchup

Crab Cream Croquettes with Ketchup

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.

Gyoza at Kokoro

Gyoza at Kokoro

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.

"Just Curry" served on white rice with pickles

"Just Curry" served on white rice with pickles

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.

Pork Cutlet Curry

Pork Cutlet Curry

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.

Chirashi Donburi, like sushi in a bowl

Chirashi Donburi, like sushi in a bowl

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.

Rainbow Roll (tuna, salmon, shrimp and avocado on the outside with cucumber and imitation crab inside the roll)

Rainbow Roll (tuna, salmon, shrimp and avocado on the outside with cucumber and imitation crab inside the roll)

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.

Yaki Soba with Chicken Kara-age

Yaki Soba with Chicken Kara-age

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.

Katsu Donburi (Pork cutlet cooked in soy sauce with egg and onion)

Katsu Donburi (Pork cutlet cooked in soy sauce with egg and onion)

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
(505) 830-2061
1st VISIT: 9 May 2009
LATEST VISIT: 6 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Gyoza, Ramune Soda, Pork Cutlet Curry, Yaki Soba Noodles with Chicken Kara-age, Chirashi Donburi

Kokoro Japanese on Urbanspoon

  • Andrea says:

    I love Kokoro, I’m so glad you went!

    May 18, 2009 at 5:40 PM
  • Marilyn says:

    The quality of the dishes definitely transcends ethnic subcategories. This is just plain some of the best food in ABQ.

    July 24, 2009 at 10:16 AM
  • Oddity says:

    One of my last visits was durring lunch and I had found myself getting one of the few tables before the restaurant became full. People had come through the door for orders that had been called in before. Busy. They had let me sit in peace while I went over my Calculus notes and enjoyed the teriyaki chicken bento. Deliciouse.

    Do not know how many times I have visited Kokoro and I plan to as many times as I can. I have fallen in love with the size of the dinning area and the view from the window. Have seen sunny days, rain, and (one rare occasion) snow enjoying the deliciouse entree’s. Think I enjoy the most when I find myself alone watching the cars go by, listening to the kitchen, and enjoying the food.

    Have found the food to be filling but not heavy. I can still move and be satisfied unlike most restaurants where I leave with the feeling of a boulder in my stomach. Wonderfully done, my best to the cooks and everyone at Kokoro.

    Delicious.

    July 27, 2009 at 12:17 AM
  • CK says:

    I eat here every payday! Not that it is expensive but I’m a working girl. This is like eating in Japan. Fresh, light and made with joy by the women who run it! Don’t miss out on eating here! It’s a special island in Albuquerque!

    August 13, 2009 at 8:43 PM
  • Luke says:

    I’ve eaten here twice and have been very impressed. I’m a big fan of katsu donburi and really enjoyed the offering at Kokoro. Have also tried the tonkatsu bento box which was equally delicious. Both dishes were very authentic, well sized (especially the donburi) and reasonably priced. My only complaint is that they don’t make the gyoza in house- this would really take things to another level in my opinion. Having said that i can understand that it may not be worth it considering how finicky they are to make…

    October 26, 2009 at 6:28 PM
  • chieko says:

    Reminds me of my mother’s cooking. I’m so glad they have curry. I love their chirashi. The place is a wonderful little gem. As my Japanese mother would call it: “down home Japanese cooking”. Tatako is a sweetheart and her kids are great, too.

    I wish they had sake and beer. Maybe some day.

    Great place and very reasonably priced. Had trouble deciding what to order but everything I’ve had has been delicious and authentic. I will be telling my friends and everyone else, too.

    December 18, 2009 at 10:53 PM
  • Julia says:

    My family was in Albuquerque today, and I made them bring a bento box back to Santa Fe for me. Yes, the food is THAT good.

    I visited Japan in 2000, and ever since that time have been looking for traditional Japanese home cooking, like we got in the guesthouses that we stayed at. This place serves just that kind of food, cooked perfectly. It’s exactly what I imagine my Japanese grandma would serve me (if I were Japanese, that is). The bento box is my favorite because it includes a lot of different little things like Japanese potato salad, a unique seaweed salad and pickles.

    Don’t forget to buy one of the mochi balls sold at the register. They are a bit of an acquired taste, but totally addictive.

    I almost have a hard time believing that New Mexico has such an authentic Japanese restaurant when most big cities do not. For example, Los Angeles has tons of Japanese restaurants, but you really have to go out of your way to find a place that comes this close to real Japanese home cooking. We are very lucky to have Kokoro.

    February 20, 2010 at 5:08 PM
  • Boston Bean says:

    Gil:

    No way! I gotta go, cause if Gil says go, we go. That’s the rule, man.

    I hope you didn’t step into a strange time-space continuum on this one. How could New Mexico have decent Japanese in that hole in the wall? There are about seven Japanese people in the entire state and they are visiting from California.

    Maybe all that chile you eat is affecting your buds. You might need a chile sabattacal. Come back to Boston and we’ll give you some soothing Puerto Rican eats to help them recover.

    And what’s up with NM restaurants that get high rankings but are in those dumpy little dives in strip malls, or bowling alleys, or old bus stations and whatnot?

    It’s like wearing sweatpants to church.

    The Bean

    March 7, 2010 at 4:54 PM
  • Buenos Dias says:

    “seven Japanese people in the entire state”? Being a Japanese person myself, I would highly disagree (and I am not from California, nor is my family) but I digress from the point of the food praise I am about to lay down. Kokoro is certainly a very authentic Japanese restaurant serving the absolute best Japanese food in Albuquerque and possibly the state. The last time I visited I had the katsu donburi and was in heaven. Reminds me of the food that my family makes. The staff is friendly and very helpful in making you come to a selection from their eclectic menu. Highly recommend!

    March 8, 2010 at 10:22 AM
  • R says:

    Screw my diet… I haven’t had great Japanese food since I went to Japan in 2006. Thanks so much for the review… I’m going here as soon as I possible can. Now is there a place here that serves good Japanese ramen like the one I had in Kyoto??

    March 9, 2010 at 3:35 PM
  • Jennifer says:

    I lovelovelove this place! I’ve been there twice in the past week… tried the beef soba and the rainbow roll. Both excellent. I can’t wait to try every single thing on the menu.

    March 31, 2010 at 9:27 AM
  • D. Minjock says:

    This place is fantastic. I had Yaki Udon with chicken and my sweetie had Oyako Donburi.
    Both dishes were wonderful. We are exited to stop in again and try more offerings from the menu.
    I would recommend this place to anyone who loves Asian food.

    July 5, 2010 at 8:25 PM
  • Ruben says:

    A friend at work was in the mood for some sushi. I quickly looked up sushi on this great site and found this review. Great call Gil. My friend and I both thoroughly enjoyed our lunch.

    Gil, let me know about your availability for lunch next week. The Hotdogueros still sound intriguing. Smokehouse burgers sounded great too, but it’s a bit of a drive for me these days.

    July 9, 2010 at 10:07 PM
  • Cornelius says:

    I could eat gallons of their curry

    July 22, 2010 at 6:26 AM
  • BettyLouAnn says:

    Went to Kokoro and Noda both tonight, looking for dinner. Both were closed. Kokoro appeared to be out of business. Noda said it was closed in order to look for a new location. I have never eaten at either place and would love to find good Japanese food in Albuquerque. I was most disappointed that they were closed.

    January 7, 2011 at 12:38 AM
  • rpl says:

    Noda’s is closed and owners have retired to Japan. There are hopes that the next generation will open a new spot at a different location. Kokoro had a sign up last week announcing a closure for vacation, but I can’t be sure if it is reopening.

    January 7, 2011 at 1:52 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    Just for the record we drove by and Kokoro is open.

    January 11, 2011 at 2:35 PM
  • Marc says:

    Hands down Kokoro is the BEST (homestyle or otherwise) Japanese restaurant in ABQ. I wish I could eat there more often. I recommend the Kare Age Curry, as well as their awesome soba noodle or ramen noodle soups (I like mine with a potato croquette)…The spicy tuna roll can’t be beat too!

    My birthday is just around the corner, and I will defnitely be there 8)

    April 13, 2011 at 8:07 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    1st visit and tried the Pork Cutlet Con Curry pictured above. I think there may be a tad of photographic distortion as my piece was bigger, albeit just the right portion size for my lean appetite….as was my cutlet. I’m going to give it 9 of 10 chopsticks for taste and presentation plus being a bargain for under $10 including (complimentary) green tea and miso soup ! (Ok Ok….I’m not sure how one would fare with just one chopstick yumming up some curried rice !)
    ‘Chow’

    April 27, 2011 at 8:24 AM
  • Casey says:

    This is where I’m headed for lunch today…..I can’t wait.

    April 19, 2012 at 9:00 AM
  • Justin says:

    Based on this blog and friends recommendations, I finally visited this little gem. I went back again the same week! I have yet to try a sushi or fish dish as both times I had to try the curry. I can’t get enough, so tasty and perfectly spcied. Thanks for reviewing!

    October 23, 2012 at 9:42 AM
  • Hope says:

    Hi Gil! Got back from Italy a few weeks ago and couldn’t wait to get real Japanese ( well, after green chile), Kokoro was closed with an ambiguous sign, same deal yesterday – do you know what’s up? Thanks!!!

    August 17, 2013 at 8:06 PM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      Hi Hope

      Welcome back. I thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through your adventures in Italy and hope you continue to blog. You have a very enjoyable writing style.

      Kokoro is closed temporarily. Kokoro’s July 15 update on their Facebook page indicates “Hey Kokoro fans! We been getting a number of questions about our re-opening date. This date is still indefinite but we’ll let you guys know so keep an eye out for our post! We also would like to thank all of our loyal customers- you guys are the best! Have a great day.”

      Gil

      August 17, 2013 at 8:28 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    After more than two weeks in Japan we found several places which bore a strong resemblance to Kokoro. A few were just as good but none were better. Takako decided that she didn’t want to continue with the restaurant but her friend wanted to keep it open and they found an enthusiastic cook who was about as talented as she had been. We were horrified to find it “temporarily” closed.” It is a tiny restaurant and the neighbors report that the cook went on to bigger and more lucrative things. The Facebook page now says that it will reopen next year but the neighbors and I doubt this will happen. I wish I were younger and a decent Japanese cook so I could step in to replace this loss.

    October 30, 2013 at 1:05 PM
  • BOTVOLR says:

    I called K this past week to try to clarify. Got transferred to a different number and fellow said the owner was away due to a parental illness. No definite re-opening could be stated, but maybe first of the year.

    (BTW: Pardon, am Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos. Computer crashed. Am trying to get back up to speed and used BOTVLR cuz had to resign-in per new email addy/computer/etc.)

    October 30, 2013 at 1:56 PM
  • BOTVOLR says:

    Per it being the first of the year, gave a call. Unfortunately, status remains the same as noted above.

    January 3, 2014 at 6:29 PM
  • Bruce Schor says:

    Yo, BOTVOLR
    Did you comment under you alias?
    Besides dropping the “O” per your previous comment I don’t recall seeing the new name.
    And I do follow your trail closely.
    Hope you had a very good New Years Eve.

    January 4, 2014 at 4:21 PM
  • Marla Kay Blount says:

    I drove by Kokoro on April 23 and saw newspaper print on all the windows but the door was locked and the sign was gone. I went next door and inquired. The man there said they are going to reopen and the original chef and owner is coming back!!! He had no idea when but I am ready!! I was eating there several times a week and sometimes twice a day. I loved all their food but Tuna Soba is my favorite plus the sushi was also
    so fresh and delicious!

    April 28, 2014 at 2:11 PM
    • Jim Millington says:

      I certainly hope the guy next door was right.

      April 28, 2014 at 3:29 PM

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*