The word ramen is not something Americans usually associate with gastronomy; college kid survival packets, maybe, but not serious food. Which is why, when I heard there was a ramen shop in North Austin with a daily line out the door, I thought, "huh?"
This confusion, however, makes me the prime market the owners of Ramen Tatsu-ya are looking for, because the shop wasn't opened just for enjoyment; it's also about education and cultural exchange.
Chefs and owners Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto are both Austinites with strong ties to their Japanese heritage. Born in Japan but raised in Texas, Tatsu stayed in tune with his culture through language, family, and more importantly, kitchens. His first restaurant jobs were in the dish pits of Japanese eateries, where the men who worked there always spoke of their homeland.
"Being a Japanese immigrant who was raised in Texas is something that defines me," Tatsu states. "If I was an anime character, I would have a cowboy hat, samurai sword, wear spurs, and have noodle strainers and chopsticks in my hands."
Takuya (Tako) is a second-generation immigrant who, in his younger years, attended Japanese Saturday school at the behest of his parents. Not that this was something he was thrilled about. "I mean when you're a kid, the last thing you want to do is go to school on Saturday," he mused. "But it helped me stick with the culture."
Through Ramen Tatsu-ya, Tatsu and Tako are looking to transport people. Once inside the restaurant, they want guests to feel like they're in Tokyo; sitting in a traditional ramen shop; entrenched in the experience. Their shop is meant to be as authentic as it can get, and even comes with a custom, seven-step guide on how to get the most out of your dish on every menu. My favorite is number five - "Slurp!"
"Just like with wine, the aerating gives you more flavor," Tatsu explains. "You're able to visualize the flavor profiles and get the taste of the whole picture."
Slurping may be considered rude by American standards, but it's a sign of respect in the Japanese realm. Traditional ramen shops are held in very high regard. Patrons are expected to sit quietly and focus all of their attention to what's in front of them - it's just them, and the ramen. Don't worry, though. This is one aspect Tatsu and Tako won't insist upon, even if Tatsu does admit to being a bit of a "soup Nazi."
To him, cooking is a creative art with a stand out quality. While painters never recreate the same thing twice, chefs strive for a consistent product; steady flavor profiles are one of his major concentrations, and he actively pursues them. "Me and the staff try the soup everyday and talk about the differences of yesterdays broth. How was it better or worse, or if the thickness is on the low side, or maybe there's not enough of some ingredient today…the broth is a living, breathing thing," Tatsu claims. Tako elaborates, "To make broth you have to be a machine. It's a lot of heavy lifting and repetitive motions."
The broth process can take up to sixty hours. They have to soak, blanch, and boil the bones that are the base of the broth. To give you an idea of how much work this is, they go through five hundred pounds of bones in five days of dinner service. On top of being demanding work, they are additionally challenged by the size of their kitchen - which is tiny - and the barrel-like pots used for the broth have a width that could span a New Yorker's apartment. This component of the equation is part of the reason they are (for now) only open for dinner.
"You can't prep and do service at the same time. It's impossible in this amount of space," Tako says. They're getting inventive with its utilization, though. They make progress everyday by using one of their strongest suits, creativity. This artistic energy hasn't always been dedicated just to kitchens, either; the pair used to be DJ's. "Moving the dance floor and rocking the crowd is one of the best feelings in the world," Tatsu says with a smile. "Besides eating a badass bowl of ramen."
Besides being "badass", the ramen they make at Ramen Tatsu-ya is, above all, meant to give customers true Japanese soul food. For Tatsu and Tako, it's a trip down memory lane - ramen brings them back to their childhoods. For the people who come to eat, it is meant to be a place they can make a new memory. Perhaps they'll remember it as a place they once ate weekly, or maybe one where they experienced something they’ve never had before; such as, for example, Texas-style ramen, which is an idea developing in Tatsu's mind.
"I'm hoping to become somebody that can educate people about ramen, and represent Austin for having great ramen. And since it varies by region, I would love to be part of creating the roots of Texas-style ramen." Accomplishing that goal may not be too far off, considering that a production crew from the Cooking Channel's Unique Eats program is filming part of a segment on Austin's foodie hotspots at Ramen Tatsu-ya this week.
And I’m hoping to become somebody who gets to watch, and taste, that concept evolve. I guess it’s time to stop asking, “huh?” and start saying, “yum!”
8557 Research Blvd., #126
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