The Japanese word kokoro translates loosely into something between heart, soul and feeling. It’s an ambitious, humble and entirely fitting name for the tiny strip mall enclave on Menaul between San Mateo and San Pedro, where the food is at once simple and meticulously prepared in a setting that’s as no-frills as a monastery.While pretense is low at Kokoro, confidence is high. Few restaurants would be able get away with abruptly shutting their doors so the chef can take a year off in the motherland. Owner/chef Takako Bowen did, causing extreme consternation among local Japanese food fans. Upon her return the menu was downsized, with sushi being dropped entirely. And still, the place is packed.Dinner is a noodle-borne slurpfest, while lunch is a more diverse affair, with ten-don bowls (tempura on rice), donburi bowls (non-tempura things on rice), teishoku aka meal sets, and a long list of curries. Perhaps no Japanese dish is more humble than curry. Originally brought over to Japan by the British, the roux-based Japanese curry is spicy but understated, quietly adding fat and flavor and making everything it touches taste good. The dullish brown curry dishes are contrasted with a side of bright pickles that look like candy: red radish, green fiddlehead, yellow gourd.There are probably coastal villages in Japan where a seafood curry like Kokoro’s would be considered a pedestrian affair, but here in Albuquerque it’s borderline spectacular. A bowl of that dark brown sauce, jammed with scallops, mussels, squid and shrimp, seemed very kokoro, at least according to my limited understanding of the word. Likewise, the miso soup that comes at lunch was uncommonly rich with a smoky edge. That, and a large cup of green tea for 50 cents, will help get you through any cold afternoon.But the small, open kitchen can still crank out culinary visual art as well, such as the pomegranate shrimp, which practically tap dances on the plate. The shrimp are uncurled to arrow-straight, deep fried and held together by an onion ring. This knot of tempura is served on greens—organic, promises the menu—and drizzled with a thin pomegranate sauce. The scallop ten-don was a mixture of juicy, tempura-fried scallops with various tempura’d veggies, including kabocha squash, zucchini, string bean and yellow bell pepper, all piled atop a bowl of rice and drizzled with what tasted like tempura dipping sauce.While neither lunch or dinner menus have appetizers, the list of side dishes—including the pomegranate shrimp, above—fills the same niche. And many of these sides, like the Aji fry mackerel, are also on the lunch menu as centerpieces of their own curry or teishoku meal set. These include the Shumai, steamed shrimp dumplings that are a mainstay of Chinese dim sum, and masterfully rendered at Kokoro, and the potato crouquettes, panko-coated, deep-fried balls of mashed potatoes, for the vegetarian or less adventurous.Of all the sides, the Aji fry is the most special. The small fish are split down the middle and fried, splayed, flattened, and served with a very gingery dipping sauce. Dipping the oily, crispy fish in that sharp sauce makes for a striking thing to eat.Dinner, with the exception two dry noodle dishes and the list of sides, is focused on ramen soup. At 10 bucks a bowl, you can afford to try them all sooner or later. But if you have to pick one bowl and aren’t averse to a little pork in your soup, the choice is easy: the kara miso. It pulls you into its earth-toned embrace, clouds of brown miso with red and green shards of pickled ginger and minced scallions, respectively, with a whiff of sesame oil and fragments of seaweed, bathing the pile of supple noodles and marbled slabs of pork belly in the middle of that excellent, excellent bowl.Of the two cold, non-soupy noodle dishes on the dinner menu, the tuna soba is the one to get. It’s Kokoro’s only current raw fish dish, and a masterful one at that. A bowl of cold soba noodles is topped with chunks of maguro (tuna) and a scoop of bright orange masago (capelin roe), and flanked by a dish of Japanese chile sauce that’s meant to be dumped over the whole business. The simple, elegant wow factor on the tuna soba is through the roof. The other cold noodle dish, alas, didn’t do it for me. Shiro Goma is a pile of cold ramen noodles, topped with bamboo, pork and egg, alongside a bowl of white sesame sauce. It’s a bit like a broth-free ramen bowl, with sesame sauce instead of broth. It’s OK, but more wows can easily be found elsewhere.Many longtime fans of Kokoro will surely miss the diversity of options from the larger menu, especially the raw fish dishes like the rainbow roll or chirashi bowl. I miss them too, but I can’t hold it against someone for not dealing in raw fish—or a cumbersome menu—if they don’t have to. And clearly, Chef Takako doesn’t. By focusing her energy on fewer items, her craftsmanship, artistry and, dare I say, her Kokoro, shines all the brighter.
Kokoro Japanese Restaurant5614 Menaul NE830-2061kokoroabq.com Hours: 11am to 3pm, 5:30pm to 8:30pm Tuesday through SaturdayVibe: Pragmatism rules.Booze: No Extras: Japanese books and magazines to read while waitingThe Weekly Alibi recommends: Kara miso ramen, Aji fry, seafood curry, scallop ten-don, tuna soba