Kawaii Boba Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico
I have a confession to make. I just don’t get anime…and can’t figure out the pokemon craze. That’s a rather starting admission for an Information Technology (IT) professional to make. Maybe I need help? After all, for your stereotypical male IT professional, anime and pokemon are just steps in the typical progression of IT affectations. They’re the logical graduation that follows a rather unhealthy obsession with Princess Leia and all things Star Wars. Which reminds me, I found Star Wars silly and boring. Since I’m airing dirty laundry, I may as well admit I’d just as soon watch paint dry as play a video game. Any video game. Nor do I ever celebrate Pi day (March 14th) and my Kim had to explin what Star Wars Day (May 4th) means (May the fourth be with you).
My male colleagues in the IT profession, several of whom still live in their mom’s basement, are probably apoplectic about these revelations. They probably think I don’t like dinosaurs either. Well, er… All these heretical confessions probably mean I’ll have to renounce all my IT certifications and turn in my beanie. Next thing you know my techno-nerd colleagues will hack my computer to infect it with images of Princess Leia in her bikini slave outfit. For them, Princess Leia is the pinnacle of pulchritude, the sultry seductress they’d most like to date…if only they weren’t afraid of women.
For those of you even worse off than me, those who might think Anime is a little town in the southwest corner of the state, I’ll try to explain what anime is…or at least what I think it is. Beyond being the Japanese word for “animation,” anime is a descriptor for animated cartoons. Anime-obsessed IT professionals seem to gravitate toward female characters, typically generously endowed with big…er, eyes among other features. They can recite from memory the 50 hottest anime girls of all time. Yeah, there is such a list. And, by the way, there’s no such thing as an anime comic book. Comic books, all comic books, are called manga.
I was surprised not to find a convention of IT professionals, nerds, geeks, brainiacs and Poindexters at Kawaii Boba Tea, an anime-themed cafe on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side. Maybe they were all trying to levitate out of bed using the Force. At Kawaii, we found ourselves surrounded by anime characters, even in the restroom (where some of my colleagues might go to perform a “download routine”). A large screen television is tuned to anime. Even the name Kawaii is anime-centric. It means “cute” and has nothing to do with a Hawaiian Island.
For every one of the unenlightened among us who will never get anime, there are people like Jaylena and her dad who share a love of all things anime…and they’re not even IT professionals. Jaylena, a West Mesa High School student, can’t get enough of it. She and her dad created all the anime characters portrayed on the walls of their small cafe. They’re very well drawn and well…rather cute, too. Lest you think I might be a late convert, once we saw the menu, all puzzlement was forgotten as to what IT professionals find so “fascinating” (to quote another favorite of the profession) about anime.
For IT professionals powering up their toy-Yodas for a fix of boba, ramen and anime, Kawaii is located off Orilla Road in the same strip mall complex that houses the second instantiation of Village Pizza as well as Thai Boran. It’s also home to Flix Brewhouse, a movie theater which purports to serve “amazing food.” IT professionals might go there to catch the 400th or so installment of Star Wars, this one featuring the ageless Keith Richards as Chewbaca and Luke Skywalker wearing dentures and Depends. By now my IT colleagues are sending me threatening messages in binary code.
All humor at the expense of nerds everywhere aside, Kawaii is a cafe with serious food chops. Jaylena’s grandmother is the longtime chef at Krung Thai. She’s a local legend when it comes to the preparation of Thai and Lao cuisine. You won’t find any Thai or Lao cuisine on the menu at Kawaii, but you will find a something for everyone selection of boba tea and delicious food to go with them. You can choose green or black tea for your base or have your drink blended (what my nerdy friends might call a mixed drink). If you’re looking for something creamier, you can have a milk tea. There are nearly twenty flavors from which to choose–everything from blueberry to watermelon (but no durian).
There are four entrees on the menu: miso ramen, tonkotsu ramen, udon, a guydon bowl and a teriyaki chicken bowl. Five starters will get you started off on the right foot: Kawaii baos, Kawaii BBQ buns, takoyaki, Spam musubi and edamame. It’s a rather small menu, but it’s befitting the Lilliputian space in which food and drink are served. Service is prompt and friendly…and if you have any questions about anime (as we did) Jaylena will tell you all you need to know.
Albuquerque was late to the party (big surprise, right?) when it comes to a trend that began sweeping the nation in the 1990s. That trend was boba tea which didn’t hit the Duke City until about a decade later. Two decades later, boba tea continues to grow in popularity. So do boba cafes which specialize in large, colorful tapioca balls that float inside the drink and often clog the oversized straws. The name “boba,” by the way, refers specifically to these chewy little pearls. My Kim, who loves tea enjoyed the Love Dream, a house blend made with strawberry, watermelon and lemon smoothie with mango stars and heart jellies.
As perhaps the only person in the world not to like tea (and anime, pokemon, Star Wars, Harry Potter (oops…let that one slip) and dinosaurs), I opted for something entirely different. Fittingly because (very nerd-like) I like words and portmanteaus, my choice was the Chamango (smoothie with chamoy sauce and topped with mangoes and a candied straw). The assertive wonder that is chamoy (a syrupy sauce made from pickled fruit mixed with spicy chiles and a salty brine) paired with the sweet (though slightly out-of-season) mangoes is a match made in anime heaven.
Also known as steamed buns, bao is a complete meal conveniently packed away in a white, warm, soft bun. That’s how the Food Republic describes these delicious balls of dough. Most of us would describe them as a snack. Seriously, you can’t eat just one, especially if they’re as delicious as the Kawaii Baos (two steamed buns with chicken, chile sauce, cucumber kimchi, and pickled vegetables (red onions, jalapeno, and cilantro)) at Kawaii. The bread from which bao are made is a delightful combination of texture (soft and fluffy) and sweetness, the latter courtesy of sugar. This is an Asian carb experience which fittingly rhymes with “wow.”
Although the cafe’s name only sounds Hawaiian, one appetizer is most decidedly from the Oahu State. That would be Spam musubi, a very popular snack in Hawaii that very closely resembles sushi. Comprised of only five or six ingredients–chief among them lightly fried Spam, an entire sheet of nori (edible seaweed), vinegared rice and soy sauce–it’s a form of “surf and turf” aficionados of Spam embrace. Whether or not Spam musubi will catch on in the way sushi did remains to be seen. Let Kawaii help you make your own decision.
Chef David Chang contends that “ramen is not one thing; there are many, many different types.” While it may be true that a variety of types of ramen exist, the one type you’ll find at virtually every ramen restaurant is tonkotsu ramen. Kawaii’s tonkotsu ramen (pork soup broth, ramen noodles, pork charshu, naruto (fish cake), soft-boiled egg, mushrooms, green onion, corn and dried seaweed) is creamy, milky and thick with a cloudy sheen that comes from a broth made from pork bones. It’s one of those comforting elixirs that’s especially appreciated in winter, but enjoyable any time of year.
The miso soup made from dashi and miso paste often served at Japanese restaurants has little semblance to miso ramen which is several orders of magnitude better. Miso, a Japanese fermented soybean paste, is one of three basic ramen flavors, the other two being Shio (salt) and Shoyu (soy sauce). Miso ramen is a very hearty soup with a robust, tangy flavor which stands up to a variety of flavorful toppings. Kawaii’s miso ramen (miso soup broth, ramen noodles, pork charshu, naruto (fish cake), soft boiled egg, mushrooms, green onion, and dried seaweed. Roasted black garlic oil available upon request) is terrific, a very enjoyable panacea for the ills of hunger.
This review is dedicated to my friend Ken Vanl, an IT professional in every sense of the word and member of the 501st Legion (whatever that is). Ken has forgiven me for referring to his Star Wars figures as “dolls” and even for pointing out that his stormtrooper costume is about as intimidating as an ice cream salesman’s uniform. He may not forgive me for having visited an anime-themed cafe without him.
Kawaii Boba Cafe
3200 La Orilla, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2020
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Miso Ramen, Tonkotsu Ramen, Spam Musubi, Kawaii Baos, Chamango, Love Dream