In Tatsu-ya’s Austin restaurants, Japanese food gets a Texas twist

S4ri Kum

The chefs behind Ramen Tatsu-ya are building a culinary ‘multiverse’ with tiki drinks and Texas brisket

A giant Maneki-neko greets diners at the entrance of Domo Alley-Gato in Austin.
A giant Maneki-neko greets diners at the entrance of Domo Alley-Gato in Austin. (Photos by Erin Krall)

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AUSTIN — When customers order the Skeleton Cruise, Tiki Tatsu-ya puts on a show.

The hot, new tiki bar’s giant cocktail — a potent blend of Japanese whisky, rum, Chartreuse and tropical fruits — arrives on a skateboard-size pirate ship adorned with tiny skulls. Dry-ice fog spills out of the boat as a server carries it overhead, all while flashing lights and rumbling audio simulate thunder and lightning.

On a recent visit, everyone inside stopped to admire the presentation. A young table dressed for a night on the town all had their phones out, hooting and cheering for their Instagram-able order. Built for four to six people, the drink costs $99.

The whole production is one example of how the coolest restaurant group in Austin keeps raising the bar for creativity. At one genre-bending restaurant after another, the brain trust behind the Tatsu-ya brand unveils theatrical flourishes and original flavor combinations that draw from Japanese and Texan culture.

In the 10 years since opening Ramen Tatsu-ya, the owners have grown bolder with their experiments. Their portfolio now includes ramen shops in multiple cities, an izakaya-meets-smokehouse, a tiki bar with a Hawaiian-leaning menu, a stand-up patio-bar snack spot, a high-end hot pot restaurant and a soon-to-open ramen-plus-Texas-barbecue location.

Their restaurants, consistently well-reviewed and admired by local diners, command attention from national tastemakers. It all started in an Asian strip mall off Austin’s far-north Route 183.

A local’s guide to Austin

In September 2012, chefs Tatsu Aikawa and Tatuya “Tako” Matsumoto opened the first Ramen Tatsu-ya with Aikawa’s younger brother, Shion Aikawa. Tatsu came back to Austin after gaining experience in the Beverly Hills Japanese restaurant Urasawa. When he returned, he reconnected with Matsumoto. Both were also hip-hop DJs with a proclivity for sampling and mixing sources that would come into play throughout the history of their combined brand, Tatsu-ya.

According to Shion, the first Ramen Tatsu-ya opened during “the height of summer,” not exactly peak demand for hot noodles. But word of the high-quality ramen spread quickly.

“We thought we were only going to do 100 bowls of ramen,” he said. “But … we had a lot of friends in the service industry, and we had artists, DJs and musicians that came and showed up there that first day. We did 300 bowls.”

Ramen Tatsu-ya was an instant hit, generating lines out the door for years before spawning two more locations, south of downtown and in East Austin. The restaurants became known for their delicious 60-hour-cooked tonkotsu pork bone broth with menu variations such as “The OG,” showcasing chashu (pork belly), as well as flavor-boosting add-ons such as a “corn bomb” with butter and honey or a “spicy bomb” made out of red-pepper paste.

By 2013, Bon Appétit included Ramen Tatsu-ya in its Top 50 New Restaurants list. A few years later, Time Out ranked it as the best ramen in America.

“Bottom line, I just want to trip people out.”

— Tatsu Aikawa

While Matsumoto has continued working on Ramen Tatsu-ya, Tatsu Aikawa began branching out into other types of restaurants. In 2017, Tatsu launched Kemuri Tatsu-ya, which combines Japanese drinking food, Texas smoked meats and other shareable small dishes with an izakaya-style bar. The East Austin restaurant features unconventional dishes such as a jellyfish menudo salad containing hominy — like the Mexican soup it’s named after — alongside smoked brisket boasting a sesame pecan rub and an edamame verde that blends Texas herbs with a shiso leaf pesto. All can be washed down with elaborate craft cocktails and extensive lists of sake and shochu.

Kemuri was also a hit, named the best new Austin restaurant that year by Eater Austin, Austin Monthly and the Austin Chronicle.

From there, it was a sprint: In 2018, Tatsu-ya opened an outdoor alleyway standing-bar called Domo Alley-Gato (it reopened recently after a long pandemic pause). In addition to drinks, it serves dishes such as karaage, fried gyoza and the Karē Ban Ban Dog: a teriyaki beef frank with domo karē chili (curry chili plus honey aioli and cabbage) on a panko-fried brioche bun.

A guide to local favorites in East Austin

DipDipDip Tatsu-ya, the company’s take on shabu shabu, came next, introducing a twist on Tex-Mex queso with shiso and kosho pepper, and steamed buns and eggplant relish on the side. The molten cheese dip pairs surprisingly well with servings of high-end beef and pork that name-check ranches in Oregon, Texas and Japan.

Tiki Tatsu-ya opened after a pandemic delay in 2021, offering not only a California-style tiki bar experience, but a place that meets the brand’s high standards for quality and presentation. The Tatsu-ya restaurants regularly sport full-wall murals from local artists. Everything from the typefaces on the menus to music playlists to serving dishes are meticulously curated.

Tatsu has always paid close attention to detail, according to Shion, critics and others. It’s not unusual for Tatsu to try more than 400 iterations on the same noodle recipe, “tweaking the recipe one milligram at a time,” as he describes it by email.

Never ‘cookie-cutter’

Tiki Tatsu-ya got more elaborate as its development went on, as Tatsu dove deeper and deeper into the shared culture between Japan and Hawaii. “I wanted to pay homage and respect to the people and the land,” Tatsu said, adding he wanted to honor the friendships between Hawaiian people and the nisei and sansei communities, terms for the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants.

While each restaurant has a wide range of fans, they also seem designed for different scenarios. Tiki and Domo Alley-Gato are tailor-made for a group of drinking buddies out on the town. Kemuri is great for late-night shift workers looking to unwind. DipDipDip is a guided journey befitting a special date night.

Ramen Tatsu-ya, which has added a Houston outpost and expects to open two more around Austin by the end of the year, now attracts families with its reasonable prices; customers can get a hearty bowl of ramen and a drink for about $15.

DipDipDip also serves ice cream at a separate storefront, and Tatsu-ya is working on a new as-yet-unnamed ramen and Texas barbecue concept housed at the former home of the restaurant Contigo in East Austin.

Matthew Odam, the longtime food critic for the Austin American-Statesman and Austin360, says the high food quality, attention to detail and the element of surprise have helped the Tatsu-ya name carry a lot of weight.

“They’re unique in their creativity in this market and you just never know what to expect from them,” Odam says. “They’re not interested in doing cookie-cutter stuff, and what they’re doing can’t be replicated.”

Shion Aikawa, who now serves as the Tatsu-ya brand’s senior vice president of culture, says that while some of the Tatsu-ya menus seem unorthodox, they all make sense to the team. Tatsu-ya’s restaurants draw inspiration from its founders’ mix of immigrant and native Texan upbringings. Shion and Tatsu Aikawa were born in Japan and raised in Texas. Matsumoto is a second-generation Japanese immigrant.

“That is part of our culture,” Shion Aikawa says, “The reason Kemuri made sense for us was because my mom would always have us backyard grilling on the Weber grill. It took months for us to get packages of stuff from Japan. We’d have T-bone steaks and marinated chicken alongside mackerel and ate it with rice. We’re not apologetic about who we are.”

Building a ‘ramen multiverse’

Tatsu Aikawa says his overall mission for all the eateries, the “big picture,” he says, is to “educate people on Japanese culture. I want them to get excited and explore the different subcultures of Japanese cuisine.”

Like the rest of the Austin restaurant industry, Tatsu-ya is facing labor shortages, inflation and supply chain issues (fryers can take months to order and receive). Tristan Pearman, the company’s vice president of brand and development, says the company is interested in continuing to expand in Austin, but also to continue carefully moving into other cities.

Pearman says part of Tatsu’s vision is creating a “ramen multiverse,” not unlike Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. In that ecosystem, the company’s restaurants aren’t competing within the company, but rather complementing each other to tell a larger food story. For now, at least, that multiverse will be exclusively enjoyed by Austin and Houston diners.

“Obviously, there’s Dallas. There’s San Antonio. We’ve been very adamant about leaving it Texas first and foremost before we venture into, say, Vegas or Florida,” Pearman says. “I know there’s lots of ideas and I’m hopeful that even half of them come into fruition.”

Whatever happens next, Tatsu Aikawa says, he hopes all his work shares the Shokunin spirit “of pursuing never-ending perfection.” And, as the restaurant concepts keep exploring new territory, he says, “Bottom line, I just want to trip people out.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2022/07/18/austin-restaurants-tatsu-ya-expansion/

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