Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review of Kokoro

I have decided that in addition to doing cooking posts, I'm also going to post quasi-reviews of some of the restaurants we frequent and love. The first restaurant to get this honor is going to be Kokoro. If you live in Albuquerque, I highly suggest you go there. Like tonight. It's on Menaul, just west of San Pedro, on the south side of the street. It's in a little strip mall just west of Arby's. Look for the black and red sign.

Anyway, on the stuff that really matters: the food. This is a traditional Japanese restaurant. When I say "Japanese", I want to be very clear about one thing: I don't mean that Amercanized teppanyaki crap. I mean this is what your Japanese grandmother would cook for you, assuming, of course, that you have a Japanese grandmother. They have a fairly extensive menu, on which you are bound to find something you will LOVE. The menu is broken down into categories. It starts off with sides, which can double as appetizers. You can make a full meal by ordering a couple of these. They have the expected gyoza (potstickers), which are probably the best I've ever had, and eggrolls. Kokoro makes a fantastic dish called potato croquettes. They are basically deep fried mashed potatoes. They have a very unique flavor, and are served with a delicious sauce. One of Ethan's friends thinks it tastes kind of like a Japanese Worcestershire sauce.

You can see in this picture how light and fluffy the insides of these little beauties are. I love them.

You can order the croquettes as a side, as we did on this visit. You also have several entree options that include these delicious fluff balls. They pair particularly well with the Japanese curry Kokoro has (more on that later). There is also an undon or soba noodle soup that contains these, as well. That is a really good dish for the winter. The heat of the soup and the heartiness of the croquettes melts away the cold and makes you feel warm and good about all things.

Kokoro has the best miso soup I think I've ever had. It has a more pronounced miso flavor than other soups I've slurped down. They don't skimp on the tofu chunks and seaweed, either. I'm convinced this soup can cure just about anything. It's far more effective for colds than chicken noodle soup (I have taken it upon myself to test this theory in the past. The things I suffer, all for the love of food...). It has magical hang-over annihilating powers. It repairs low spirits. It warms your heart, belly, and soul. Seriously, this is not just your average, run-of-the-mill miso. This is what all miso soup wants to be when it grows up.

Every time we go, Ethan and I tend to have a hard time deciding on what to order. You could do no wrong here. We have worked our way through the majority of the menu and have yet to get something that was not delicious. Sure, there are a few things I might not order again, but it's not because they weren't good. They just aren't quite my flavor. A perennial favorite is the chicken kara-age curry. This contains chunks of white and dark meat chicken that has been marinated to a totally flavorful and tender state. It is then battered and deep fried. Even though this chicken is fried, it is never heavy or greasy. The batter lends itself to a crisp perfection that perfectly envelops the meat. This is served with a heaping portion of rice and is on a bed of curry sauce.

The Japanese have developed a very unique curry that is quite unlike its Indian and Thai counterparts. It is not nearly as searingly hot as Indian curry, and has a far more subtle taste than the Thai incarnations. It is velvety smooth in texture, with a complex, almost sweet flavor. This dish has become one of my all time favorite comfort foods. The way that all of the flavors and textures combine is just beautiful. It is served with a small portion of pickled radish that lends a great salty flavor and unexpected burst of taste to it. It is a rare visit to Kokoro that one of us doesn't have this in front of us.

                                                                           Just Curry

Kokoro also has several other options for the amazing curry sauce. You could get the aforementioned potato croquettes, a fried pork cutlet, a chicken cutlet, and a great dish called Just Curry that is great when you want to do something different, but know that hankering for the curry Just. Won't. Go. Away.

They also have a great selection of donburi dishes. Donburi is basically a bowl of rice, with some sort of topping on it. This can be anything from the beef gyudon donburi, which is very thinly sliced peices of beef that are sauteed with onions and soy sauce, to an unagi donburi, to the sake cha-zuke, which is a salmon fillet with nori and green onions in a broth, so it's almost like a soup. Almost anything you want to put on rice, they have.

One of the things I really love about Japanese cooking is you can really tell which dishes were meant to be eaten in the cold depths of winter, and which are meant to cool you off in the middle of the summer. There are a ton of hot, hearty noodle dishes to warm your belly with the impending cold weather that's just around the corner. I love the udon noodles. They are thick and wide, with a good texture that you can really bite into. There are several good noodle soups to choose from. My favorite, hands down, though, has to the tonkotsu ramen.

The instant ramen that college kids everywhere are familiar with shouldn't be allowed to share the same name as this dish. This is what the instant crap was trying (and failed) to recreate. It has the wavy, long noodles you'd expect, but there, all similarites end. These noodles are made fresh, in house. Which, my research has led me to believe, is a long, painstaking process. It involves stretching the dough for hours, which is what gives ramen is characteristic wave. Anyway, back to the Kokoro ramen. Like the udon, there is a good texture for your teeth to bite into, and unlike the stuff you get on the mac n cheese aisle of the store, there is no telltale sheen of oil floating on top of the broth. The tonkotsu ramen has a pork flavored broth, with a delicious, tender pork cutlet floating in there. I know it sounds simple, and it is, but sometimes simple is just GOOD. This is one of those times. A great cold-weather dinner.

They've also got a few awesome warm-weather dishes up their sleeves over at Kokoro, as well. On our visit today, both Ethan and I favored these dishes, holding on the the last vestiges of warm weather we're likely to see till our cruise. Ethan got the tuna soba dish. Soba is yet another Japanese noodle. This one, though, is made from buckwheat flour, so the noodles themselves have a distinct flavor, which lends itself well to simple, cold dishes, as you are not relying on a sauce for the flavor. Kokoro takes the cold soba, piles a generous portion into the bowl, tops that with fresh green leaf lettuce, and places thin chunks of raw tuna on the lettuce. The whole thing is topped with smelt eggs. This dish has excellent presentation. The green of the lettuce, the pink of the tuna, and the orange of the smelt all blend and play off each other beautifully. Once you start eating  it, the slightly brown of the soba comes into play as well. This whole thing is finished with a sauce, served on the side, that is at once sweet, salty, and hot. All in all, when you want to fill your belly with a refreshing dish on hot day, this is an excellent option.

                                                 So pretty you almost don't want to eat it....


Kokoro has a small, but outstanding sushi menu. you won't find any fancy rolls on it, but what you will find is quality, fresh seafood. They serve it the way the Japanese have been for many a year: simply. Most of what you will find is traditional ingredients rolled in rice with nori. Their spicy tuna is one of the few truly spicy rolls I've had. Their kitchen does an great job of not letting the heat overpower the delicate taste of the tuna, and I can not say how much I appreciate that. They do have a few more American-style sushi rolls, but none of the crazy stuff you'll see at Shogun or Japanese Kitchen. The craziest it gets at Kokoro is their caterpillar roll, which has unagi and cucumber inside, and avocado on the outside. Their tempura California roll is also killer, and just about the only California roll I'll eat.

I also went the sushi route today and got the chirashi donburi. It's basically a deconstructed roll. Like all donburi, it starts with a bed of rice (sushi rice, in this case) and has different sushi components on top. Kokoro includes tuna, salmon, unagi, an egg omelet slice, seaweed salad, smelt eggs, imitation crab, and kampyo (a type of marinated gourd), with the requisite wasabi and pickled ginger. I modified it a little, as I am not the biggest fan of raw salmon. I love the stuff cooked, but raw, it's just a bit too oily for my taste. I left that off and got a double portion of tuna instead. I also really am not a fan of smelt eggs. Something about the way they just burst in your mouth puts me off of them. Those were left off the dish as well. I have never had any problems modifing dishes there, although usually, the original is perfect enough to not need it.

If you've never had unagi before, Kokoro is a good place to try it. The pieces are always small, so they are manageable and not at all overwhelming. It is cooked perfectly, every time. The natural creaminess of the eel is fully showcased. Knowing what these little guys look like alive, it never fails to astound me at how good they taste in death. The barbeque sauce that the unagi is usually coated in can verge to cloyingly sweet sometimes. Not at Kokoro. They use just enough to bring out the taste of the eel without overriding it.

I had never heard of kampyo before eating here. I don't think I've seen it anywhere since. It has a sweet flavor and a very interesting texture. It's soft without being mush, sweet without being cloying. Slightly salty. Altogether delicious. You can order it as part of the chirashi meal, as a roll on its own, or in the futo maki roll, which also has egg omelet, cucumber, smelt eggs, and imitation crab. I would highly recommend trying kampyo at some point.

Chirashi donburi. From the bottom green blob (which is wasabi) and going clockwise: pickled ginger, imitation crab and egg omelet, seaweed salad, kampyo, unagi, shrimp, tuna, and cucumber in the center.

One of the best things about Kokoro is how affordable it is. You can feast and eat like a king for a very reasonable price. The menu pricing ranges from $1.25 for a side of rice, to $10.95 for the chirashi donburi. Most of the sides are priced between $2-$3.50, which means you can easily try new things. The sushi rolls go from $2.50-$8.50. Several of these would easily make a full meal for two people. Most of the entrees are between $7-$9. They don't really have a whole lot in terms of dessert, but do carry a good variety of a candy called Hi Chew, which is kind of like Starbursts. It has a really good chewy consistancy, and all of the flavors actually taste like the fruit they're supposed to. I am a big fan of the cantaloupe (no worries about listeria here!) and the grape flavored ones. Kokoro also has several types of mochi desserts to take with you.

If you haven't ever had any Japanese drinks, you are in for some fun! Kokoro carries the popular soft drink called Ramune. It's in a super cool bottle. They have both the original and strawberry flavors. The original has a very mellow, sweet flavor, which is a nice shift from the super-sweet American soft drinks (I'm talking to you, Dr. Pepper). To open a Ramune, you have to knock the marble that seals the bottle down into the purpose-designed area for it. If you've never done it before, it can take a few attempts, which are good for a few laughs.

                                                 Setting up to knock the marble in
                                                            There it goes!!
                                                       The whole bottle, with the marble in it.

All in all, Kokoro is a great place to eat. I love it, and greatly appreciate that they have such high-quality food at an incredible price point. I think that Albuquerque is truly lucky to have this little gem, which is why I'm telling you about it. If you've never been, please go. Try it, and leave me a comment about what you got and what you thought about it. It's the small, local guys we need to be supporting to help this economy out of stagnation. If eating at a really good restaurant is the price I have to pay, then I am thrilled to do it. Now, what are you waiting for?? Go!!!!

Kokoro Japanese on Urbanspoon
Open Monday-Saturday 11:00 am to 8:00 pm
Closed Sundays


  1. How do you call yourself my best friend and yet you have never taken me here?

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