How One Ramen Boss Is Blending Texan BBQ Smoke with Japanese Cuisine
Meet the lovechild of Texas barbecue and the Japanese izakaya.
When I think of Tatsu, I think of him smoking.
Wearing a Kangol hat in the Texas sun, pulling on an American Spirit Menthol, windows down, shades on, like a boss. Presiding over an oil-drum smoker holding big pieces of fatty brisket and whole fish. Tearing open a big box of katsuobushi, leaning in close and taking a long, deep inhale.
I imagine these little moments give the chef great pleasure.
I think of him driving down the four-lane highway to the barbecue capital of Lockhart from his home in Austin, to admire the stacks of aged post oak while enjoying a cigarette and contemplating which temple of meat to storm. Stamping out a butt in front of Smitty's or Black's or Kreuz's Market, and wandering in not even to order but just to ogle at the suit-stained pits like a wide-eyed child.
There's a little bit of smoke rising above the Holly neighborhood in East Austin recently, where Tatsu Aikawa and his partner, Tako Matsumoto—the two young Japanese-American chefs exploring the food of their shared homelands in a series of restaurants in Austin and soon, Houston—have opened a new izakaya. Never has the connection between Japan's food and Texas's been so clearly pronounced than at the Tatsu-ya restaurants, and especially so at Kemuri Tatsu-ya.
"We're using the izakaya vessel to create something that I've lived through as far as food goes," Tatsu says. "I grew up partly in Japan hanging out in izakayas, but have lived most of my life here in Texas having backyard barbecues."
The traditional izakaya model emerged in Japan when drinking establishments started serving food for customers to nibble on as they got deeper and deeper into their cups. Snacks, basically. And at some point, you've imbibed enough to require some starchy noodles or rice to soak it all up. That narrative is followed to a T at Kemuri Tatsu-ya.
Kemuri Tatsu-ya is the third restaurant the duo has opened in Austin, following their two successful ramen shops, the first opened in this part of the world. Tatsu has been chasing the smokey Venn diagram intersection of Texas and Japan for a while in his food. In an early iteration, the smoked tsukemen special with Mexican dried spices, which I saw Tatsu dream up a couple years ago, he'd source his meat from one of Lockhart's barbecue spots or from local barbecue wizard Aaron Franklin, who provided the fatty brisket for a couple of these short-term specials. Franklin brisket served with perfectly cooked alkaline noodles and a 60-hour-simmered fatty pork dipping sauce. It's every bit as good as it sounds.
"I've always wanted to do a regional Texas ramen," Tatsu says. "That's how the idea for this whole place started."
The sticky tsukemen sauce of that soup put me in mind of a Memphis-style barbecue, and although the chef doesn't necessarily cop to it, he does accede to some connection between Japanese ramen and Hill Country-style barbecue.
"Barbecue's just like ramen," he says. "Everybody's got their favorite spot."
But Kemuri Tatsu-ya is not your new favorite ramen spot. While you can find a version of that Texas ramen on the menu in the "TX Butter" Tsukemen, it's just one piece of a larger concept that involves a lot of drinking and small bites of food. The new location was formerly a Texas-style barbecue spot, so Tatsu knew immediately that he'd be smoking brisket, fish, ducks, pork loin, mackerel, and hamachi collar.
"We got the fucking smoke-stained walls and giant smoker. We got to use that."
"Kemuri" translates to "smoke," after all. But the spacious seating area at Kemuri Tatsu-ya gave rise to the idea of a Japanese tavern where successive small plates are accompanied by beers, whiskeys, sakes, and shochu: an izakaya.
The menu is broken into the mostly self-explanatory categories of "Munchies," "Smoked," "Skewers" (including "Kushiyaki" and "Yakitori (Chicken)"), "Rice Stuff" and "Ramen." The ingredients and influences are nearly in equal parts from America and Japan. The boudin is made Cajun-style, but seasoned with miso and the liver is cut together with shiitakes. The takoyaki, a rice ball stuffed with pickled ginger and octopus—which would be traditionally served with tonkotsu and bonito flakes—is swimming in Texas chili and cheese. The "chicharron" chicken skin—skewered and fried and topped with a Mexican lime chili—sounds like something that would turn up on a menu if an eloté guy opened a yakitori place. And there's a Japanese kind of eloté too, with yuzu pepper aioli. The most classic dish is the fried chicken karage, which is perfect drinking food.
The whiskeys are from Japan and Texas. There's family-style drinking in the "Puff Puff Pass," like a Texas izakaya spider bowl punch meant to be shared amongst friends, and more shochu options (a couple barley selections, rice, several potatoes, buckwheat) than you're hippest bartender friend would know how to navigate, which are mixed into cocktails like grapefruit sours and whiskey fizzes meant to be paired with pickles, grilled things, and smoked things.
I want to make more of the smoke, the way the cuisines of Japan and Texas co-mingle in the embers of a barbecue pit fire. The way the Japanese-born, Austin-raised chef's inspirations waft up from Kemuri Tatsu-ya and into the East Austin air in gentle, ephemeral wisps. But smoke is as hard to write about as it is to capture with a butterfly net. As fleeting as a conversation, a meal shared with friends.
A last cigarette.