Tiki Tatsu-ya Raises the Bar to Islander Heaven
The Aikawa Brothers debut a worldclass venue of storied wonders
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
3:00PM, Mon. Oct. 4, 2021
“They’ve done it. Son of a bitch. They’ve really done it!”
Those are the words of Buzz Moran upon experiencing the new tiki bar and restaurant called Tiki Tatsu-ya on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin, Texas.
He’s also, more to the point, one of those deeply informed tiki aficionados: A man who knows his shit when it comes to what originally sprang from the rum-inflected imaginations of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic back in the 1930s.
And Buzz is impressed. He’s impressed like whoa. He’s sitting with your reporter at the Fugu Hut table in the upstairs level of the new joint, he’s sipping on a Pearl Diver, his eyes are awash with the projections of polychrome light dancing on the intricately carved floor-to-ceiling dragon in the atrium opposite. The dapper man’s eyes are awash like the eyes of astronaut David Bowman in that scene from Kubrick’s 2001, and the deep tiki-nerd joy on Buzz’s face is a pleasure to behold.
Who’s responsible for that joy? Who’s responsible for what’s been, after three years of complex work, finally completed and revealed to a sensation-hungry populace that’s been waiting, omg waiting, for the thing?
Tiki Tatsu-ya, which opens to the general public on Monday, October 4, is the newest offering from the restless mind and talented associates of Tatsu Aikawa – from the relentless culinary force that’s brought us Ramen Tatsu-ya and Kemuri Tatsu-ya and the shabu-shabu glories of DipDipDip: All places of nigh-on ridiculous levels of local foodie esteem.
Tiki Tatsu-ya is the newest offering from Aikawa brothers Tatsu and Shion. From the interior design firm of McCray & Co. From the makers-of-ginormous-things at Blue Genie Art Industries. From the lighting gurus of Natalie George Productions. From the video projectionists of Thrown Light. From the sound design wizards of Gl33k. From beverage manager Cory Starr. From – my god, it’s full of stars.
“I’ve made all these drinks at home,” Buzz Moran tells me, gesturing at our table’s array of liquid delights. Indeed, Moran has spent much of the pandemically shut-down year and a half researching and constructing the likes of Suffering Bastards and Mai Tais and Painkillers and Zombies and so on in his suburban kitchen. Now he sips at his Three Dots and a Dash and his eyebrows rise in pleasured disbelief. “I’ve made all these drinks at home,” he says. “I may never make them again.”
And why is that? Because the cocktails at Tiki Tatsu-ya are so damned good. And why are they so good? Because of the complexity of the ingredients, the precise mixtures of rum or bourbon or gin or brandy as they collaborate with miso-almond orgeat and shochu and falernum and so on? Because of the freshness of the ingredients, with the diverse array of requisite fruit juices – tangerine, lime, pineapple, guava, grapefruit, etc. – being squeezed daily?
And who – even before the night’s bartenders begin their alchemical conjuring – is responsible for that? Who’s responsible for those 200 (!) different rums lining the wall behind the downstairs bar? Beverage manager Cory Starr, mentioned above, is responsible for that.
“Tiki drinks are the original craft cocktails,” Tatsu Aikawa tells me the next day, “and Cory does an amazing job. Even, like, blending five rums together for the Rum Barrel, just getting the ratio right, knowing what tastes like what and what goes good together – all that stuff he does? It’s mindblowing.”
[Note: The Three Dots and a Dash cocktail that so impressed Buzz Moran? It’s also the namesake drink of the most acclaimed tiki bar in Chicago, one of the world’s best tiki bars – which is also one of the places that Starr worked in before joining up with Austin’s Aikawa Brothers.]
I’m sitting with Tatsu at the downstairs bar of Tiki Tatsu-ya the day after Buzz and I had our senses supercharged with the place’s brilliantly embodied mythos, and the man’s telling me about the history of his newest venture.
“In 2014, when I was starting construction next door [at Ramen Tatsu-ya],” he says, “my brother Shion said, ‘Hey, we should do a tiki bar.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck is a tiki bar?’ I had no clue. But Shion went to college on the West Coast, he’d hit up some of those real tiki bars, so he knew what it was. And I was like, ‘Okay.’ And, little by little, I learned about tiki.”
And what Tatsu learned, he liked.
“It’s a part of Americana history that’s so unique,” he tells me. “And it tied in with my Japanese roots, with the Japanese experience in Hawaii. I was researching about the sugarcane workers and what they brought to the island, and the workers from other parts of Asia, and how the whole melting pot started, you know? The whole history of Polynesian, island culture. I was fascinated.”
And, as people in Austin (and, increasingly, beyond) are noticing, when Tatsu Aikawa is fascinated with a subject, astonishing things – especially culinary things – tend to happen. The man wants to eat good ramen in Austin, and, boom, there’s Ramen Tatsu-ya with lines around the building. A traditional izakaya is what tickles his fancy, and it’s time to say howdy to Kemuri. He gets into the shabu-shabu style of dining, and we wind up with a place on North Burnet called DipDipDip – about which our former food editor Jessi Cape, among many others, is downright rhapsodic.
So, his brother tells him about tiki … and Tatsu does a deep dive into the concept … and this multilevel venue of retro Islander food and drink and ultrasensorial wonderment on South Lamar is planned from the get-go?
“In 2014,” says Tatsu, “I signed a lease for a building on the Eastside, where the hot dog place is – Mission Dogs. And that was gonna be the spot, super-small, like 800 square feet. I was like, ‘Let’s just do something small and fun,’ you know? Small. But, eventually, big ups to Kevin Collins of Blue Genie, because we started doing meetings with them, and Kevin was like, ‘You should create a north star to guide you, to really envision this thing.’ So we started writing the story of it – which goes back 400 years. And we created this fantasy island, made a story that kept growing, and – it just kind of went from there, you know?”
I don’t know: I’m just a journo covering the food beat, not a serial chef-preneur who can’t stop bringing new forms of excellence into a city’s culinary landscape. I don’t know what drives a person to realize dreams in such a concrete way.
[Note: Neither does Tatsu, precisely. When asked – about all that he’s accomplished, and all that he’s got going on, and all that he plans to do in the future – when asked, simply, why, he shrugged. “It’s just what I do, man. It’s how I’m wired. I love doing this.”]
But I do know that, the previous night, Buzz Moran and I were sitting at a table in the upstairs section of Tiki Tatsu-ya. And that table – where Buzz-the-tiki-scholar was explaining to me why the exotic wall carvings look the way they do and why it’s perfect that some Link Wray surf tune was energizing the room just then – that table is known as the Fugu Hut. And the ceiling of this putative hut is hung with maybe half a dozen big puffer fish, most of them in full, bristling defense posture; and the table itself is custom designed in bamboo and fabric and, hell, who knows, maybe whalebones; and each of the several drinks upon our intricately crafted table is in its own distinct, custom-designed and branded vessel; and I haven’t even mentioned the food, yet, the glorious food that, in some desultory tiki bar, might be an afterthought, but at Tiki Tatsu-ya it’s so fucking delicious it makes you wanna kick a hole through a concrete wall.
And always the details, the details, the painstaking details of the place –
“Don’t put this in your article,” Blue Genie’s Kevin Collins warns me the next day. “I don’t know if Tatsu is just OCD or what, but the amount of care and information and craft that I have witnessed him put into his food and drinks and spaces, it’s impressive. But, looking at Kemuri and DipDipDip, I think those were just preambles to what we’re getting with Tiki Tatsu-ya. There are so many moments in this space that you’ll never see anywhere else, ever. Like, look at the table bases: They’re all different, they’ve all been worked – wrapped, roped, with sisal and bamboo and whatnot – but not one of them are the same. Tatsu was very adamant that there had to be variance in all of it.”
“Everything that happens,” Tatsu concurs, “I touch everything. Every little detail. I always loved art – I think that’s the only thing I passed in school – and I used to do graffiti, hit up the trains. So I wanted to create something where you can come back again and have a totally different experience, try different things.”
“It’s a space that has to be experienced,” says Collins. “You can’t really take a picture of it, you can’t really talk about it, just – the minute you set foot on the property, you’re like ‘Holy cow, what in the world is going on here?’ And, with tiki, it’s hard to get to that level of authenticity, you know? Some people just put a couple of moais in the middle of a room with a palm tree, and put rum in a cup, and call it a day. That was never the intent of this space.”
Well, yeah – but surely no one would just half-ass a concept, right? Surely every last human, every business-type on the planet, gives a damn about quality?
Collins smiles indulgently. “In the history of Blue Genie,” he says, “there’s only a handful of people that value these kinds of immersive environments and are willing to fund them. So, when you find that person – whether it’s Tim League at the Alamo Drafthouse, or the people at Casino el Camino, or Jason Burton from the Jackalope – we’ve benefited from that, because they share a vision of releasing-these-things-into-the-world-because-we-think-it’s-cool. We think it enhances human experience. Also, tiki subculture is very serious, and it’s global, and when you try to create a new space, making it correct and making it authentic – we didn’t just want to outfit a bar and restaurant in Austin and have it be one of the coolest experiences in town. We were slinging for the fences, going up against some of the big tiki bars that are all around the world. Because it’s Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.”
They will come, of course. As contemporary travel restrictions allow, and even more afterward. Tiki aficionados will come from all over the world to see what Tatsu Aikawa and his cohort of imagineers have created. They’ll come to dine sumptuously, to drink deeply, to move through interiors designed by Chris McCray and brought to reality by Blue Genie and an army of professional talents.
An army, did I say?
“As far as juggling acts go,” agrees Kevin Collins, “it was one of the biggest challenges we’ve had as an organization. That entire wall of skulls on the bottom level? I call that the repository of the number of people that cycled through the project, throughout all the teams. I’ve had dozens of employees drop, I think Chris McCray lost his staff, Aaron Reed was the original bar manager and he moved on from the project as well – it’s kind of The Road of Bones. I’m still processing dealing with the project in its totality, because, being an over-three-year commitment for our shop, what comes to mind is Love in the Time of Cholera. You know? Halfway through, it was kind of Love in the Time of COVID.”
Even the stories, it seems, have their own stories. Fathoms deep.
“That’s the really remarkable thing about Tatsu and the team,” says Natalie George, whose crew handled the space’s lighting design. “There’s a story about everything they do,” she says, “and it’s so beautiful. There’s a whole narrative unfolding within Tiki Tatsu-ya, and it’s a great thing to mold vision around.”
[Note: George’s vision includes the way shadows are cast along endless sculptural elements; the illumination that stutters and swells, accompanied by a sudden audio theme, transforming the room, heralding the procession of a Stranded On Saturn or other multiple-person drink to its destination table. That vision includes whatever it takes to bring the obsessive dreams of Tatsu Aikawa to life in a speakeasy hidden behind a travel agency sign in a strip mall on South Lamar.]
“I’m trying to keep the spirit of what Austin is and was,” says Tatsu. “That whole weird, funky vibe that I knew while growing up.”
And, upstairs the previous night, our waitress Kristin – a veritable encyclopedia of tiki knowledge, with a personality like the arch and welcoming highschool friend you always kind of had a crush on – has just dropped off the latest round of drinks.
And there’s Buzz Moran, handsome face flickering in the play of engineered photons, scrutinizing the vessel that holds a note-perfect Pearl Diver, looking like the proverbial kid in a candy shop.
“So, you’re writing this up for the Chronicle?” he says. He gestures at our table, the nearby bar, the color-shifting dragon in the atrium opposite us, the other happy-peopled tables amid the intentional splendors. “You’re gonna try to capture this? All the mindblowing shit that’s going on here?”
I swallow a chunk of tender meat from our Pu Pu Platter’s barbecue beef skewers, consider whether to chomp next on some taro tots or another of those mochiko-coated chicken wings.
“Well, yeah,” I say, just a little tipsy. “That’s the idea.”
Buzz hoists his Pearl Diver toward one of the dangling puffer fish, gives me a stagey wink.
“Good luck with that,” he says, and takes a long slow drink.
NOTE: Tiki Tatsu-Ya is located at 1300 S. Lamar, but the entrance and street parking are at the back of the building – on Lamar Square Dr.
Bar hours are Wed., 4pm-12mid; Thu.-Sat., 4pm-2am; Sun., 2-10pm; food menu is available Wed.-Sat., 5-10pm.