Once upon a time, I read in a now-forgotten cookbook that “There is no such thing as al dente in Japanese noodles.”
That author had never had a proper bowl of ramen.
To be fair, a proper bowl of ramen is a rare thing. As viewers of the classic Japanese film Tampopo and the less classic American film The Ramen Girl know, the quest to create a proper bowl of ramen can turn into an obsession with perfection. Perfect broth, perfect toppings, and perhaps most important, perfect noodles. Ramen noodles should be firm to the bite, served and eaten quickly so that they don’t turn soft in the broth. Turning out such noodles requires attention and careful timing; at Kokoro they take this so seriously that ramen is only served at dinner, and then it is the only thing on the menu. And you can’t get it to go.
In order to serve fresh and quality ramen, we will not be offering takeout as an option. Thank you.
As with Italian noodles – but by no means to such an extent – there are regional variations in shape of ramen noodle: thickness and waviness vary, as does the style of broth. Kokoro mostly uses the familiar thin, wavy noodle we’re used to seeing, but the Kara Miso bowl pairs a thicker noodle with spicy miso broth for a different, really tasty spin.
Another unusual take is the Shio Lemon. Lemon slices float in its delicate, lemon-scented broth; the chewy noodles are topped with lusciously roasty-flavored chunks of grilled chicken and a pile of green onions. The dish is simple and hauntingly, scrape-the-bowl delicious. (Seriously, Arne kept trying to spoon up broth well after there was any left to be spooned.)
Kokoro does a beautiful job with the classics, as well. The Tonkotsu Ramen – definitely the richest ramen we tried (we haven’t had the Seafood Shio, which lists butter in the ingredients list, yet) – boasts an incredible creamy pork broth, two delicious slices of grilled pork belly, and half a seasoned egg. The soy sauce-laced Shoyu Ramen is delicate and complex, slightly sweet, with two paper-thin slices of colorful fish cake (naruto) added to the list of toppings from the Tonkotsu. I’d be delighted to eat any one of these bolws of ramen anytime.
However. My emphasis on the ramen so far in this review might lead to readers overlooking Kokoro’s lunch menu… and that would be a shame. As fantastic as the ramen is, I like the lunch menu even better. Honestly, I’m kind of obsessed with the lunch menu; I’ve eaten there for lunch at least once a week since the first time I visited on my friend Christina’s recommendation.
The lunch menu is more varied than the dinner menu, broken up into four sections: Curry, Donburi, Ten-Don, and Teishoku.
The first dish I tried was the Spicy Kara-Age Donburi, a large bowl of rice topped with incredibly moist and tender fried chicken chunks, spicy sauce, and a few leaves of lettuce for color. Served alongside was a bowl of classic miso soup and a dish of pickles. The pickles were tangy and salty, the miso soup excellent, and the chicken perfectly cooked, its exterior crunch contrasting with juicy insides. The spicy sauce was, to New Mexican tastes, just slightly tingly – my server’s question “Is it too spicy for you?” was pretty funny – but delicious.
)Rice is a staple at Kokoro, served with every one of the lunch entrees, and it is beautiful. Each grain is distinct, with a nice chew, but it holds together in clumps that are easily handled with chopsticks. I noticed it especially on the Curry Tonkatsu plate. It was served in a gleaming half-dome, carefully topped with two peas, and it maintained its integrity even when awash in the most delicious curry sauce I’ve ever tasted. A whole different food from the Golden Curry I make at home, this rich brown sauce had no vegetable chunks to distract from its slightly hot, complexly spiced lusciousness. The tonkatsu itself, a juicy slab of pork crusted in panko crumbs and fried to greaseless perfection (like all fried foods at Kokoro), was a wonderful foil and canvas for the curry sauce.
The third lunch entree I tried was the Aji Fry Teishoku. I highly recommend the teishoku entrees to bento-box lovers; though there is no box, the featured dish – in this case, beautifully fried small mackerel – is served with a green salad, miso soup, rice (of course), pickles, and a selection of three side dishes. On this day, the side dishes were a kombu seaweed salad with an unusually delicate texture, a square of fresh tofu glazed with miso sauce, and chicken salad with parsley. Though I recommend the aji more highly as a side dish – it comes with a dipping sauce then, which really brought out the flavor of the fish and the delicate scent of the breading – this was a fantastic meal.
Americans tend to associate Japanese food with sushi and expensive, exquisite kaiseki cuisine, but Kokoro serves something different: Japanese comfort food, the kind of delicious food of the people that fills the pages of the wonderful Japanese Soul Cooking cookbook. (As is fitting for food of the people, nothing on the menu will cost you more than 12 dollars.) I can’t seem to get enough of it.
Through all of my meals at Kokoro, one thing (besides the 50-cent mugs of lovely green tea) has been constant – the sight of Takako Bowen, Kokoro’s owner and chef, through the pass-through to the kitchen. I’ve never spoken to her, but I sure am happy she’s here in Albuquerque, bringing satisfying Japanese food to the desert.
Kokoro is located at 5614 Menaul, between San Pedro and San Mateo.