If I close my eyes, it’s almost like I’m eating at the same ramen house I’ve been frequenting since I was in high school.
“Ma’am, have you been to Shinjuku before? You look familiar.”
This exchange with a server, conducted in Tagalog begins my meal at Kokoro Ramenya. It’s well known that Kokoro’s head chef, Susumo Murata, used to be in the employ of Shinjuku, perhaps one of the local pioneers of ramen along with Ramen-Tei. I’ve been eating at Shinjuku since I was a teenager and it’s one of my go-to places for all reasons (late night, bad mood, comfort food, etc.) My server, Emily, points out that along with the chef, she and several of her colleagues used to work in Shinjuku, thus the reason why she thinks she’s seen me before.
Manila’s surge in ramen houses provides food lovers a delicious education in these bowls of bounty. No longer just noodles and soup, I’m learning a lot from my visits to various ramen-yas. Kokoro’s specialty is a tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu) broth. Its thick cloudiness is the result of boiling pork bones which exude their fat and collagen through several hours over high heat. After such labor, it’s not surprising that the broth possesses layers of complexity, salty and milky, sometimes even creamy.
This is what I get in Kokoro’s star dish, the Hakata Karaka (P345), so named because it’s a specialty of Hakata-fu in Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture. Ramen of this type include broth and noodles that surround a surfeit of toppings specifically beni-shoga (pickled ginger), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), and kikurage (tree ear mushroom). The ground beef mixture that you see above is spicy and is what differentiates Kokoro’s Hakata Karaka from its more benign counterpart, the Hakata Classic (cover photo; P325).
When at a new restaurant, I make it a point to ask my server what his/her favorites are; it never fails to light up their faces and is infinitely more helpful to me than uttering what I regard as the vacuous, “What are your bestsellers?” Emily is no different and she excitedly points to the Gekikara Ramen (P275). This is what my Bin orders and I like this better than the Hakata Karaka. The Gekikara is miso-based so in addition to the creamy broth, there’s a nuttiness that elevates the flavor even more. As you can see in the photos, its broth is more ochre in color and not white like the Hakata. The Gekikara seems to heave however with an excess of bean sprouts, cabbage, and other greens, so it feels terribly healthy. But that is never a bad thing. I just want more noodles though.
Though comparisons between the two are rife, Kokoro looks and feels better than Shinjuku. High ceilings, an open kitchen that faces diners, and tableware in stone-glazed ceramic are droolworthy. Service is solicitous but not overly so although I’m not sure why our original order of Spicy Tuna (P255) came to table first as Crispy California Maki (a wildly popular dish here) and finally morphed into Spicy Tuna Maki (above; P195), which we settle for lest we wait any longer and have it as dessert instead of an appetizer. Sushi and other nori-wrapped things aren’t strengths of Kokoro, I feel. Focus on their pork dishes or anything with noodles, and not just the ramen either. Explore the Tsukemen, Hiyashi and Gomamiso, cold noodles all, with various dipping sauces.
The Gyoza (P155) though, tastes exactly like Shinjuku’s but is more fastidiously fashioned – look at those pleats – and are more properly cooked here with contrasts of smooth and crispy. The Ebi Tempura (P275) suffices as does the Sauce Yakisoba (below; P235) which differs from the more plainly-named Yakisoba in that it has pork instead of seafood. And no, the Sauce Yakisoba isn’t especially saucy.
I visit Kokoro in the evening but I highly recommend that you come here when there’s still daylight, preferably late afternoon approaching sunset. If you sit facing the windows, there’s a good view of the bay and if you’re lucky, you may be rewarded with a sunset while enjoying your ramen.
2/F Avenue of the Arts Bldg. (housing Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Army Navy on the 1st floor)
1388 Roxas Blvd. corner Sta. Monica & LM Guerrero Streets,
(02) 254 9716 / 254 9438
On Facebook: Kokoro Ramenya