Kawaii, for those not up on the lingo, is Japanese for “cute.” It’s a term applied to just about everything from anime characters to pop stars to collectable vending machine figurines of animals wearing costumes of other animals. It’s also the name of a Japanese cafe on Albuquerque’s West Side, which happily embraces all things kawaii.
Few people need introducing to boba tea and ramen these days. The Asian casual dining staples have gone from exotic curiosities to everyday consumables in the last dozen or so years. If you’re craving chewy wheat noodle soup, there are a dozen or so choice restaurants in Albuquerque. And if you need some tapioca pearls in the bottom of your tea, there are a number of places to choose from. But when it comes to satisfying that one-two craving on the other side of the river, Kawaii Boba Cafe is the place to pause.
Kawaii is a simple, counter-service cafe located in the parking lot of the (sadly still closed) Flix Brewhouse. Its walls are festooned with saucer-eyed anime characters, and the bright wood trim gives the place a clean, fresh vibe. It’s not a fancy dinner joint. It’s the sort of easy meet-up place where friends can congregate and enjoy a hearty afternoon snack (probably while flipping though American reprints of Fruits Basket).
The menu is dominated, unsurprisingly, by boba drinks ($5.50 for a regular size). Choose from milk tea or green tea varieties. Add boba (tapioca pearls), poppers (tiny spheres filled with flavored juices) or jellies (chewy little bits of fruity goodness). Kawaii features a few localized specialty drinks including a “Chamango,” which combines a mango smoothie with Mexican chamoy sauce. Personally, I like a good taro milk tea. Kawaii’s drinks skew toward the intensely sweet (in case names like “Choco Berry” and “Love Dream” didn’t tip you off).
Foodwise, Kawaii has a decent menu of ramen offerings. The ramen runs the gamut from traditional miso (soybean paste) and tonkatsu (pork broth) to black garlic and a spicy “Fire” bowl. I opted for the black garlic ($12.45) and was not disappointed with the salty, unctuous broth. Black garlic has a sweet, silky texture, and it makes for a tasty, slightly more complex base on which to pile various ingredients. Kawaii employs the typical pork charshu (roasted pork belly), soft-boiled egg, green onion and seaweed. The seaweed combines with a couple flavorful slices of narutomaki (spiral fish cake) to give the soup a nice surf-and-turf balance with the fatty pork. The noodles aren’t as toothsome as in some ramen restaurants, but they get the job done. The bowls are also reasonably sized compared to the culinary marathons some ramen restaurants serve.
If you’re not in a ramen mood, you can dine on a teriyaki chicken bowl ($11.95) or a gyudon bowl (sliced beef with onions and pickled ginger). You can also choose from an assortment of steamed buns, including the Kawaii Bun ($6), filled with chicken, chili, kimchi and a topping of pickled jalapenos, red onions and cilantro. The wealth of pickled veggies makes for a bright (and spicy) bite that cuts through the sweetness of Kawaii’s other indulgences. No need to save room for dessert, either. It’s sitting at the bottom of your boba cup!
Kawaii Boba Cafe
3200 La Orilla Rd. NW Suite E
Mon.-Sat. 11am-9pm, Sun. 10am-9pm