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–“Magokoro,” which is translated as “heart of truth” and is considered the basic attitude toward life. Magokoro is used to convey “sincerity, pure heart, uprightness.” It is, generally, the sincere attitude of a person in doing his or her best.
Doing her best is precisely what Takako Bowen, the owner and chef of Albuquerque’s Magokoro Japanese Restaurant has done since launching her restaurant in May, 2007. Her best is the best many of us have experienced. Originally called Kokoro, the restaurant blossomed much like a cherry tree in the Land of the Rising Sun, quickly earning a faithful following. 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 area. 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 (eight years later when she returned to Kokoro, her high opinion had not changed). 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, a very contented diner absolutely captivated by Kokoro. He told us he ate at Kokoro 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.
On July 15, 2013, an event transpired which, to many of its adoring fans, warranted a flag flying at half mast. Kokoro shuttered its doors, indicating on signage posted to its doors and in its Facebook page that the closure was temporary. Months passed. Concern and speculation were rampant. Diners experienced withdrawal symptoms. On August 21st, 2014, the sun broke through the overcast skies–Kokoro reopened. Much rejoicing ensued. In 2015, Kokoro changed its name to Magokoro, but rechristening, a small facelift and a few additions and subtractions to the menu were the most significant changes to the restaurant which had so besotted Duke City diners.
Magokoro 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 where she could feed a larger demographic. Magokoro remains a diminutive dining establishment with just a handful of tables amd limited seating also available on a bar-like table facing the window. It’s not uncommon for every seat to be taken and eager diners lined up against the wall waiting for a seat to come open.
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.
The menu showcasing “honest food from the heart” offers ten appetizers which are available for both lunch and dinner. Sushi is no longer available and there is now a very clear demarcation between the lunch and dinner menus. The dinner menu focuses on ramen and Tsukemen (a term literally means dipping noodles. Noodles are served with dipping soup and toppings on the side). The specials of the day for Tuesday and Friday include Sake Chazuke (Grilled salted salmon with Japanese pickled plum, green onion and dry seaweed and rice served with broth) while the Thursday and Saturday specials include Unagi Donburi, my favorite item on the menu.
Magokoro dedicates an entire section on the menu to “Teishoki,” a Japanese term which means “meal sets.” A typical meal set at Magokoro includes miso soup, rice and three sides of the day. The sides are served in ramekins and may include two- or three-bit sized portions of pickled vegetables and a tofu cube topped with a miso-soy glaze which resembles flan with a caramel sauce. Meal sets are generously portioned and will leave diners sated.
Beverage options included 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.
Let’s face it. Miso soup has become a rather bland and boring filler to pass the time before something else is served. We expect it to be unexciting and aren’t disappointed when it arrives as such. 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.
10 May 2009: 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.
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 Magokoro does where it is served with potato croquettes, chicken Kara-age, Chicken Cutlet, Pork Cutlets or by itself,
6 March 2010: A popular way to order curry at Magokoro 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 ($5.50 as of January, 2016) 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.
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.
10 May 2009: 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.
10 May 2009: 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.
2 January 2016: Among my favorite Japanese dishes is Unagi Donburi, a marvel of utter deliciousness. Unagi. which translates from Japanese to fresh water eel, is a delicacy in Japan, prized not only for its flavor but also for its legendary stamina-giving properties. Unagi isn’t so much an acquired taste for queasy Americans as it is an acceptance that what they’re eating is icky, slimy, serpentine eel. Prepared well, it’s richly flavored with a texture that is crisp on the outside but succulent and tender on the inside. The sweet-tasting, soy-based “unagi sauce” may remind you of teriyaki, but it’s thicker and more smoky. Magokoro grills its unagi to perfection and serves it in a bowl with rice and avocado.
5 January 2016: Among the most popular dishes on the Teishouki section of the menu are shrimp, seafood and vegetable tempura. If your experience with tempura, especially tempura vegetables, is that everything is overly coated in a thick, crunchy batter and individual components all taste the same, Magokoro’s tempura will give you the redemption you need. The tempura vegetables (onions, red peppers, yams, edamame) are a delight to eat with a light tempura batter that allows each vegetable to shine (you haven’t had red peppers until you’ve had Magokoro’s version). They’re served with a very thin and light sauce that complements each vegetable.
Magokoro 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!
Magokoro Japanese Restaurant
5614 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 January 2016
1st VISIT: 9 May 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Gyoza, Ramune Soda, Pork Cutlet Curry, Yaki Soba Noodles with Chicken Kara-age, Chirashi Donburi, Tempura Vegetables, Unagi Donburi