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Kokoro Japanese Restaurant: Genuine Japan
Friday, 11 February 2011
Photo by Wes Naman
From hearty ramen to delicious donburi, Kokoro Japanese Restaurant serves tasty dishes in traditional style

By Kevin Hopper
Pretend for a minute that you are from another country, visiting America for the very first time and starving for your first taste of standard American fare like hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs, barbecue, donuts, etc.

How wonderful does that sound?

Now, take that same scenario and apply it to food standards from foreign countries that have served to pique your own culinary interests. Crepes in Paris? Fish tacos in Todos Santos? Tapas in Barcelona? Rare beef pho in Ho Chi Minh City?

Suddenly, hot dogs, pizza and hamburgers don’t sound so appetizing.

For the sake of this particular food review, let us focus on the everyday, inexpensive fare of Japan. Take sushi for example. As difficult as it may be to believe for American fans who exalt nigiri and sashimi, sushi in Japan is not only inexpensive, it is so widely available it can literally be found inside every 7-11 convenience store.

Example #2: ramen noodles.

ImagePerhaps the most damaging dagger the great American marketing machine has thrust into the culinary gut of the esteemed Japanese food culture comes in the form of a brick of dried noodles known as ramen. In the U.S., this familiar instant noodle packet is considered to be a last resort dish found in the deep reaches of every office kitchen cabinet or starving college student’s dorm room. Without a doubt, ramen is the ultimate peasant food stateside. At the same time, sushi is considered an expensive delicacy in the U.S. So it may come as a surprise to local diners that, in Japan, both sushi and ramen are in direct comparison to hamburgers and chicken noodle soup.

I know this because my usual dining companion (aka “the wife”) has lived in Japan and continually exalts the common food items found there. So when we entered the doors of Kokoro Japanese Restaurant, a small and modest spot located in a nondescript Menaul strip mall, I immediately sensed her excitement. This continued to increase throughout our visit, first with the fact that green tea wasn’t brought to us, we had to fill our cups up from a large pot of hot water and drop in our tea bags — this, my wife noted, was very Japanese — and second, with the list of menu items that aren’t typically found at your standard sushi restaurant.

We started with a simple bowl of rice topped with Japanese curry and oshinko (Japanese pickles), called Just Curry ($3.50). This can also be ordered with breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet for $8.95. It’s as simple as the Japanese sun is red, but oh so delicious. This also came with a cup of miso soup that seemed fresher than others I have tasted around town.

ImageWe also just had to order another of my wife’s favorites: potato croquettes ($8.95), panko breaded mashed potatoes lightly deep-fried and served with “bulldog sauce,” a sweet version of barbecue sauce without the smoky flavor — crunchy on the outside, gooey mashiness on the inside and the sweetness of the sauce rounding out the flavor.

Of course, ramen had to be ordered, since there are very few local Japanese restaurants that offer traditional ramen on their menu. Though soba and udon noodles are found everywhere (including here), for some unfortunate reason ramen bowls are rare. Luckily, Kokoro offers a very traditional version. When it was served, wifey’s eyes turned from saucers to platters. Out of the three flavors the restaurant offers — tonkatsu (pork), wa-fu shoyu (soy sauce) and miso — we chose tonkatsu, which went down well, especially given the low temperature outside. This is essentially comfort food of the highest order, in my eyes, just as comforting as a steaming bowl of green chile stew.

What was strange about our visit to Kokoro was the fact that we didn’t order a single bit of sushi. We will, of course, in the many return visits we have planned, but for those looking for nigiri and sashimi specialties, know that Kokoro is more of a Japanese diner than a sushi bar. They do have a number of rolls available at very moderate prices, and if the chef is not too busy, she may be able to prepare nigiri, but only if you ask nicely.

Instead of ordering rolls, we decided upon the chirashi donburi ($10.95), which was a sort of deconstructed sushi dish. A bowl of perfectly steamed rice is topped with tuna, salmon, eel, tamago (egg) and a variety of other interesting toppings. Though I found it a bit difficult to eat with a pair of chopsticks, the bowl was yet another common Japanese food preparation that further piqued my curiosity of Japan and had my wife feeling a little closer to her former home. The same will likely be true for diners familiar with authentic Japanese food.

Kokoro Japanese Restaurant
5614 Menaul NE, 505.830.2061
Hours: 11a-8p, Mon.-Sat.;
closed Sun.

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