Heated debate colors the art of authentic ramen. Ramen's origin simmers in some argument, but largely, discussions feature an overwhelming desire for top recognition in the realm of perfectly executed Japanese soul food. On the order of whose grandmother makes the best meatballs, which pecan pie wins a blue ribbon, or whose tamales boast an ideal ratio of meat to masa, ramen noodles and broth are highly critiqued but revered when prepared to the mountaintop standards.
The outpouring of admiration via social media for the new brainchild of acclaimed chefs (and DJs) Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto is astounding. Rumors have swirled for months that "the line goes out the door, but the ramen is well worth the wait." The tiny ramen shop, whose interior emits the signature modern, casual elegance of local design firm McCray & Co., seats 38 guests among communal tables, bar seating, and three-tops. Austin artists and craftspeople have used wood and rope accents to balance the murals painted in a black, white, and red motif. Handcrafted pieces, refurbished furniture, and well-placed lighting fixtures create an interesting ambiance in such a small space. The room is loud, though it seems to contribute positively to the authentic Japanese dining experience.
On a recent Saturday night, during late dinner hour, our wait from line to counter hovered somewhere around 10 minutes. A scout had my friend seated promptly upon ordering, and her ramen was served just as I sat down. We had an array of ramen, small bites, and sides within 15 minutes. The instant I tasted the delicious noodle soup, I understood why fans of Ramen Tatsu-Ya wait.
My No. 1 Tonkotsu Original ramen bowl ($8.50) contained addicting creamy pork broth filled with delightfully al dente noodles, a slice of chashu (tender pork belly), and a soft-boiled ajitama egg half. I chose an additional beni shoga (pickled ginger, $0.50) topping to accompany the wood ear mushrooms and scallions, and the pink bits of brightness were wonderful. My friend slurped (the recommended technique) her No. 2 Tonkotsu Sho-Yu, with a Spicy Bomb ($1) served on the side. Flavorful but not flaming hot, the chili paste added the zing we both adore, and the soy-based broth of No. 2 was slightly less creamy and a bit saltier than the original, but entirely on par. On my next visit, I will rendezvous with the Tsukemen, a dipping ramen with lime.
The stars of the show gave award-winning performances, and the supporting small dishes rounded out the evening. Our katsu slider ($4), a deep-fried burger with slaw and katsu sauce served on a Hawaiian roll, was stellar: The meat was juicy, a texture party of crunchy breading and slaw danced on a fresh sweet roll, and it was all decorated in tangy sauce. Order at least one per person because you certainly won't want to share this instant favorite. The sidecar Japanese potato salad was fine, but nothing too remarkable. The gyoza (pork dumplings with soy vinegar sauce, $4) and curry bowl ($3) were tasty, and a good value. Since our visit, I have longed for the spicy edamame ($3.50) – tossed with citrus, fresh jalapeños, shichimi spice, and sea salt – more times than anyone should long for such a thing. In the dine-in only establishment, I was grateful for the waiter who rounded up a dry box to take my other favorite new appetizer home. The tiny but beautiful green tea mochi ice ($1.50), a dome-shaped treat with a thick sugared coating and sweet creamy middle, ended our Ramen Tatsu-Ya experience with smiles.
Though only months old, the menu at Ramen Tatsu-Ya is prizeworthy. Place your bets now: The success of this establishment will certainly spark challengers. During the entire process of writing this review, I obsessively craved a bowl of ramen and searing citrus soybeans. More noodles, or "Kaedama," please.
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