At Tatsu-ya’s Austin restaurants, Japanese cuisine gets a Texan twist
The chefs behind Ramen Tatsu-ya are building a culinary ‘multiverse’ with tiki drinks and Texas brisket
On a recent visit, everyone inside stopped to admire the presentation. A young table dressed for a night out on the town had all pulled out their phones, screaming and clapping for their Instagram-enabled order. Built for four to six people, the drink costs $99.
The entire production is an example of how Austin’s coolest restaurant group continues to raise the bar for creativity. From restaurant to restaurant, the brains behind the Tatsu-ya brand unveil theatrical flourishes and original flavor combinations that draw inspiration from Japanese and Texas culture.
In the 10 years since Ramen Tatsu-ya opened, the owners have become 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 standing patio snack bar, an upscale hot pot restaurant, and a soon-to-be – open ramen-plus-Texas-BBQ.
Their restaurants, consistently highly rated and admired by local diners, are attracting the attention of national tastemakers. It all started in an Asian mall off Route 183 in the far north of Austin.
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In September 2012, chefs Tatsu Aikawa and Tatuya “Tako” Matsumoto opened the first Ramen Tatsu-ya with Aikawa’s younger brother, Shion Aikawa. Tatsu returned to Austin after gaining experience at Japanese restaurant Urasawa in Beverly Hills. Upon his return, 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 “at the height of summer,” which isn’t exactly the peak of demand for hot noodles. But news of the high quality ramen spread quickly.
“We thought we were only going to make 100 bowls of ramen,” he said. “But…we had a lot of friends in the service industry, and we had artists, DJs, and musicians who came and showed up there on day one. We made 300 bowls.
Ramen Tatsu-ya was an instant hit, generating lineups for years before opening two more locations, south of downtown and in East Austin. Restaurants have become known for their delicious tonkotsu pork bone broth cooked for 60 hours with menu variations such as “The OG”, featuring chashu (pork belly), as well as stimulating additions like a ” corn bomb” with butter and honey or a “spicy bomb” made with red pepper paste.
In 2013, Bon Appétit included Ramen Tatsu-ya in its list of Top 50 New Restaurants. A few years later, Time Out rated it the best ramen in America.
“Bottom line, I just want to trip people up.”
While Matsumoto 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 drinkable foods, Texas smoked meats and other small share dishes with an izakaya-style bar. The East Austin restaurant offers unconventional dishes such as a jellyfish menudo salad containing hominy — like the Mexican soup it is named after — alongside smoked beef brisket with a sesame and pecan medley and an edamame verde that blends Texas herbs with shiso leaf pesto. It can all be washed down with elaborate craft cocktails and long lists of sake and shochu.
Kemuri was also a hit, named Austin’s best new restaurant that year by Eater Austin, Austin Monthly, and the Austin Chronicle.
From there it was a sprint: in 2018, Tatsu-ya opened a stand-up bar in an outdoor alley called Domo Alley-Gato (it reopened recently after a long pandemic hiatus). In addition to drinks, it serves dishes such as karaage, fried gyoza, and Karē Ban Ban Dog: teriyaki beef frank with domo karē chili (chili curry plus honey and cabbage aioli) on a panko brioche bun. .
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DipDipDip Tatsu-ya, the company’s shabu shabu, came next, introducing a variation of the Tex-Mex queso with shiso and kosho pepper, steamed buns and eggplant relish on the side. The melted cheese dip pairs surprisingly well with premium portions of beef and pork that verify the name of 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 venue that meets the brand’s high standards of quality and presentation. Tatsu-ya restaurants regularly feature murals by local artists. Everything from fonts on menus to music playlists to serving dishes is meticulously organized.
Tatsu has always paid close attention to detail, according to Shion, critics and others. It’s not unusual for Tatsu to try over 400 iterations on the same noodle recipe, “tweaking the recipe one milligram at a time,” as he describes it over email.
Never “cookie cutter”
Tiki Tatsu-ya became more elaborate as it developed, as Tatsu delved deeper and deeper into the culture shared between Japan and Hawaii. “I wanted to honor and respect the people and the land,” Tatsu said, adding that he wanted to honor the friendships between the Hawaiian people and the Nisei and Sansei communities, terms for the children and grandchildren of Japanese immigrants.
Although 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 in town. Kemuri is ideal for night shift workers looking to relax. DipDipDip is a guided journey worthy of a special evening.
Ramen Tatsu-ya, which added an outpost in Houston and plans to open two more around Austin by the end of the year, is now attracting families with its reasonable prices; patrons can get a hearty bowl of ramen and a drink for around $15.
DipDipDip also serves ice cream in a separate storefront, and Tatsu-ya is working on a new, as-yet-unnamed Texas ramen and barbecue concept, set in the former home of the Contigo restaurant in East Austin.
Matthew Odam, longtime food critic for Austin American-Statesman and Austin360, says the high quality of food, attention to detail and element of surprise helped the Tatsu-ya name carry a lot of weight.
“They are unique in their creativity in this market and you never know what to expect from them,” says Odam. “They’re not interested in doing cookie-cutter stuff, and what they’re doing can’t be replicated.”
Shion Aikawa, who now serves as Tatsu-ya’s senior vice president of brand culture, says that while some of Tatsu-ya’s menus seem unorthodox, they all make sense to the team. Tatsu-ya’s restaurants are inspired by its founders’ blend of immigrant and Texas upbringing. Shion and Tatsu Aikawa were born in Japan and raised in Texas. Matsumoto is a second-generation Japanese immigrant.
“It’s part of our culture,” says Shion Aikawa, “The reason Kemuri made sense to us was that my mom always grilling us in the backyard on the Weber grill. It took us months to get packets of stuff from Japan. We had sirloin steaks and marinated chicken alongside the mackerel and ate it with rice. We don’t apologize about who we are.
Building a “Ramen Multiverse”
Tatsu Aikawa says his overall mission for all restaurants, the “big picture,” he says, is “to educate people about Japanese culture.” I want them to get excited and explore the different subcultures of Japanese cuisine.
Like the rest of Austin’s restaurant industry, Tatsu-ya faces labor shortages, inflation, and supply chain issues (fryers can take months to to order and to receive). Tristan Pearman, vice president of brand and corporate development, said the company wants to continue to grow in Austin, but also continue to move cautiously into other cities.
Pearman says part of Tatsu’s vision is to create a “ramen multiverse,” much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In this ecosystem, the company’s restaurants do not compete within the company, but rather complement each other to tell a larger food story. For now, at least, this multiverse will be exclusively enjoyed by diners in Austin and Houston.
“Obviously there is Dallas. There is San Antonio. We were very determined to leave Texas first and foremost before venturing out to, say, Vegas or Florida,” Pearman says. “I know there are a lot of ideas and I hope even half of them will come to fruition.”
Whatever happens next, says Tatsu Aikawa, he hopes all of his work shares the Shokunin spirit of “pursuing endless perfection.” And, as restaurant concepts continue to explore new territory, he says, “At the end of the day, I just want to trip people up.