Restaurant Review: Yatai
Mixed offerings from Michi Ramen's little brother
Reviewed by Brandon Watson, Fri., July 8, 2016
When the East Side King at the Hole in the Wall closed at the end of December last year, it was a hit to the neighborhood, not only because we would be losing Yoshi Okai's (now heading Otoko) eccentric ramens, but because it was one of the last few places on the Drag that wasn't a generic fast-casual chain with cheerily insistent signage. So the news that the owners of Michi Ramen were developing a Japanese street food concept in the space was greeted with some elation. Some small amount of balance had been restored and Michi's tonkotsu broth would be that much closer.
Yatai is sort of an inverted version of Michi. The ramen is relegated to being a snack-sized "cup o' Michi" available with limited add-ons and with tonkotsu ($3.95) or veggie ($3.65) broths. It still holds up, maybe even better for those of us who prefer smaller portions, but it is a sideline to snackable foods that makes sense in a dive bar setting. The main part of the menu is devoted to mix-and-match izakaya snacks ($3-12 depending on how many selections you make), some making an appearance from Michi's sides menu.
Of those choices, The korokke were a highlight. Well-seasoned and with plenty of panko crunch, the fried mashed potato balls (a variation from the usual patties), are served with a slightly sugary katsu punched up with horseradish. The more assertive flavors, like bacon cheddar and especially curry, work best with the sauce, but the plain potato has poppable appeal. We are not sure what made the gyoza gyoza. It is not listed as vegetarian so perhaps meat is used, but it didn't really have the pork and cabbage flavors of the traditional dumplings (perhaps we were served the plain potato in error – online reports say they are stuffed with pork).
The other sections of that menu are more of a mixed batch. The tempura batter isn't too heavy or bogged down with oil, but on one visit it sorely needed salt. That wasn't as noticed in vegetables like Japanese eggplant or sweet potato that have a sweeter, more noticeable flavor, but other preparations – like lotus root – didn't have the vigor to stand alone. All of the selections suffered from a too-large cut. Instead of broccoli florets, there were mighty elms, sweet potato was served in long strips, and the lotus root was cut so thickly that it was difficult to bite into. Asparagus was probably the exception, but they were out when we tried to order on a Thursday afternoon.
Kushiyaki fared a bit better. All covered in the citrusy sharpness of a sansho pepper glaze, again there was little room for delicacy. Black pepper steak and ginger wings worked well, the underlying flavors poking through, but the shiso in the chicken was lost. The asparagus shortage prevented us from trying it bacon-wrapped.
Some of the sides hold up as mains. The chashu don ($6.95) and okonomi fries ($6.95) are both filling enough as an entrée. Both are fine, the don a tad underseasoned (bonito flakes help) and the fries a bit dry, but neither are worth a snit. Both the deep-fried pork belly "Michironnes" ($5.95) and burnt (chashu) ends ($4.95) worked better in theory. Both sit a little too low in the stomach to really enjoy on a hot day. But the calamari salad ($3.95) was a welcome respite from the more leaden dishes.
I suspect some of those misfires had to do with the staff, especially since I have enjoyed Michi's versions in the past. On the aforementioned Thursday visit, with a completely empty dining room, lunch was an exceedingly leisurely affair. I wouldn't necessarily characterize the staff as rude, but they were certainly disinterested. Cold glances don't really say welcome. The other visit was a friendlier visit, if not a remarkable one.
That wouldn't have been as lackluster if the place were buzzing (a lively environment in Austin can mask a multitude of sins) – nor would the blah decor. The former occupant's Peelander Yellow mural was painted over and replaced by a wall of repeated stylized panther heads, but that's really all that was done to the space. The booths and tables are shaggy, but that's apropos to being in the Hole in the Wall. Perhaps there is more to come; the menu still says that Yatai is in a soft opening. But three months after the first Yelp review, it's time to buck up. Otherwise, in this volatile market, they may be looking at a hard closing.
Yatai2538 Guadalupe, 512/284-9085