The prevalence of Japanese cuisine throughout Texas today seemed like a distant reality back in 2012. But thanks in large part to Austin chef Tatsu Aikawa, the genre has exploded in popularity and continues to draw global attention. What began as a family-owned ramen shop has grown into a mini empire of creative bars and restaurants, widely lauded for capturing the American appetite with Aikawa’s interpretation of Japanese-American fare.
Ramen Arrives in Austin
Born in Tokyo but raised in Texas, Aikawa opened the first Ramen Tatsu-Ya in a small strip mall in North Austin. It’s been a sensation since, more than once listed by national critics as the best ramen in the country and among the top restaurants in America. The creamy, umami-packed tonkotsu pork bone broth and the variety of flavorful toppings stand in stark contrast to the previously popular packaged ramen Americans once loved.
Upon its success, Aikawa expanded the noodle house concept to two more locations in Austin and one in Houston. Now, 10 years later, the family of restaurants known simply as Tatsu-Ya boasts six unique concepts that have gained a cult-like following and continue earning national accolades with Aikawa as chef owner / chief vision officer.
“Our ultimate goal is to educate people on Japanese cuisine,” explains Aikawa. His pioneering approach to Japanese cuisine is an expression of his own story. His culinary career goes back to his childhood, washing dishes in his father’s Tokyo restaurant. He moved to Austin with his mom at the age of 10, and moved to Los Angeles in his early twenties to train at the two Michelin star sushi bar, Urasawa.
Equipped with a refined knowledge of Japanese cooking techniques, Aikawa returned to Austin to focus on perfecting his pork bone ramen broth. During this process, Aikawa was inspired to design a restaurant that could educate people on Japanese culture.
“I wanted to give Texas a taste of quality Japanese ramen,” he says. “We were the first ramen shop in the city, so there was no blueprint to follow.”
Ramen is considered the soul food of Japan. Across the 80,000+ ramen ya (shops) in Japan, each serves its own interpretation of the soup and toppings, which means diners will find different flavors in every region. Tatsu-Ya’s tonkotsu broth originates from the Southern tip of the country, in the Kyushu area.
Texas Smoke Meets Izakaya
As he learned the intricacies of Japanese cuisine, Aikawa created concepts to communicate them. His next project was Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, a Central Texas-influenced izakaya with a menu of smoked meats, yakitori and ramen, along with a full bar. The restaurant’s name is inspired by the word “smoke” in Japanese – a nod to the marriage of Texas smokehouse and Japanese yakimono methods.
Kemuri combines traditional Japanese aesthetic with kitchsy Texas decor, creating a vibrant atmosphere for which customers line up. An impressive selection of saké, shoyu, and Japanese Whiskeys are an ideal counterpart to the funky, fun menu of Texa-nese fusion.
The Alley Cat Bar
For his next project, Aikawa and team designed a cool concept to utilize the space behind Ramen Tatsu-Ya’s Sixth Street outpost in East Austin. Domo Alley-Gato Tatsu-Ya is a playful tachinomiya-inspired patio bar serving the full menu of ramen from its neighbor sister, alongside unique house cocktails that cater to the younger clientele.
Here, signature boilermakers topped with frozen beer foam fly off the bar, and trendy Chu-Hi (abbreviation of shochu highball) are made with house tonics flavored with ginger, saffron, and Sichuan pepper, or lavender, lemongrass and fennel. Local and Japanese craft beer and sake round out the drink offerings at the lively venue.
Dip Dip Dip Your Shabu-Shabu
Aikawa continued to bolster his repertoire with DipDipDip Tatsu-Ya, a new-school interpretation of the traditional Japanese hot pot experience, shabu-shabu. This staple of Japanese cuisine is named after an onomatopoeia for the “swish-swish” sound that’s made as ingredients are dipped and stirred in the cooking pot.
“Growing up in Japan, going out to shabu-shabu was a treat, similar to going out to a steakhouse here in the US,” says Aikawa. Guests at DipDipDip receive a personal cast iron dipping pot, koshihikari rice, seasonal vegetables, thinly sliced meats and a selection of broths and sauces, including Ramen Tatsu-Ya’s coveted 50-hour tonkotsu broth.
The interactive dining experience also includes an ice cream shop featuring artisanal ice creams in unique flavors like caramel chocolate shiitake mushroom or miso-peanut butter and jelly. All are made with local milk from Hill Country Dairies and served in house-made, hand-dipped mochiko waffle cones made from mochi flour.
Over The Top Tiki Bar
Aikawa’s most ambitious project, Tiki Tatsu-Ya, opened in the fall of 2021 in the heart of South Austin. Although not quite a speakeasy, the bar is disguised as a fictional travel agency, “Aikawa Tropical Tours.” Walking through an inconspicuous door in the back, guests descend down a lush cavelike staircase into a secret island in the Pacific Ocean, an astonishing, over-the-top space created help from many Austin artists and designers.
Tiki Tatsu-Ya is a fully immersive experience, with a menu that captures the essence of the tiki heyday and sharable bites that combine South Pacific and Japanese flavors. Beverages pay tribute to the tiki cocktail genre, delivering renditions of iconic classics with added Japanese influence. True to the theme, each drink is served in its own unique glass, including outrageous large format cocktails presented with their own music and light show.
“Many different communities have welcomed Japanese immigrants over time,” says Shion Aikawa, Tatsu’s older brother and senior vice president of culture. “Tatsu-Ya is the result of that hospitality. Celebrating the marriage of the cultures with food is our way of honoring our heritage.”
BBQ Meets Ramen
The group’s latest project, BBQ Ramen Tatsu-Ya, fuses Texas ranch culture with easy-drinking cocktails and Aikawa’s award-winning ramen, adding extra local flair with house-smoked meats like brisket, pork belly, chicken and tri-tip. The concept is home in the largely outdoor space that formerly housed the popular Contigo, a place that already embraced South Texas ranch cuisine and craft cocktails.
“In Japanese, the word “en” translates to “circle” and means fate or karma,” explains Tatsu. “This new project brings that to mind — it feels like coming full circle from seven years ago when Andrew [Wiseman, Contigo’s chef/owner] and I were cooking together in the Contigo kitchen for an episode of ‘BBQ With Franklin’ and throwing it back to 2013 when smoked brisket ramen was born during a shift family meal,” he says. “This is a serendipitous opportunity, and we’re excited to bring new creative energy and serve the community.”
The Tatsu-Ya group blazed the trail for Asian cuisines in the Southern U.S. and inspired many other chefs to pursue heritage cooking. One such story is that of Chef Jeff Chanchaleune, whose work in Japanese and Lao cuisines in Oklahoma City has earned him a James Beard nomination and a place on The New York Times and Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant lists.
“They inspired me to take a risk,” explains Chanchaleune. “They stay true to themselves and it pays off. I hope to do the same.”