A Guide to Austin Ramen
Local chefs look to give the dish the respect it deserves
It's hard to believe that just five years ago, the only type of ramen found in Austin was of the instant persuasion. And while those color-coded stacks still dominate every grocery store soup aisle, Austin ramen has now graduated college.
Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya "Tako" Matsumoto, undoubtedly the ramen kings of Austin, grew up eating the noodles before working their way through kitchens from Japan to L.A. to Austin. In 2012, they decided to stop noodling around and opened the much-needed Ramen Tatsu-Ya.
"I just wanted to eat ramen, and the only way to do that was to make it for myself," says Aikawa, who worked at Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant Urasawa before returning to Austin. "Ramen Tatsu-Ya was a way to eat what I wanted and to share my culture with Austinites."
Tatsu-Ya specializes in tonkotsu, a rich, silky broth made from pork bones and fat slow-cooked for hours, and typically served with thin, straight noodles. Though Aikawa grew up eating classic Tokyo-style ramen, which is made from a light chicken and soy-based broth, he never forgot his first time eating tonkotsu as a child, a visceral experience he hopes to share with his customers.
"You can taste the work you have to put in to make it," says Aikawa, who simmers his for almost 60 hours while playing music through a boombox – from UGK to the Misfits, depending on what the broth wants to hear that day. "It took me months to get it right. When I did, I wanted to share it."
Now with two locations under their belt, the Ramen Tatsu-Ya chef duo recently opened a Texas-influenced izakaya called Kemuri Tatsu-Ya. A smoker came with the location, formerly the site of Live Oak Barbecue, so they smoke beef bones to make broth for their brisket-crowned Texas ramen and jalapeño lime-seasoned tsukemen. And so far, the restaurateurs have found a winning combination – and countless opportunities for creation – in joining the two cultures.
"People that are into ramen seem to be very passionate and opinionated about it and I think that's great," says Aikawa. "Kinda like barbecue!"
Not long after Ramen Tatsu-Ya made a splash in Austin, Kayo Asazu decided to open Daruma Ramen. Asazu, who grew up in Japan and came to Austin in the Nineties to study English and fine art, was seeing great success with Komé, the restaurant she opened in 2011 with her husband Také. Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League was such a fan he invited Asazu to come open a ramen shop in his building on a section of Sixth Street in need of more good food options.
"I've been eating ramen my entire life – since I was able to hold my own chopsticks," she says. "I knew if I opened my own ramen shop, I would eat ramen almost every day … so it had to be on the healthier, lighter side."
Asazu attended an intensive weeklong course at the Yamato Noodle School in Tokyo before going on research trips to New York and L.A. to see how other U.S. shops were running. She found this notion of gathering with friends for ramen over drinks and conversation to be a stark contrast to Japanese ramen culture, where lingering would almost be considered a faux pas. "To me, or to any Japanese person I guess, it's bad to take your time to eat ramen because it can get soggy and taste very different," she explains. "In Japan, ramen is more like a big construction worker's food. You go to a ramen shop and you sit at the tiny counter and see these big guys finishing up ramen within five minutes."
Asazu decided to open up a cozy shop similar to what you'd find in Japan – turning down a bigger space League was offering her in favor of a small bar and communal tables.
"I pay more attention, not just in teaching my staff how to cook, but in adopting the culture itself," she says. "That way, they can give that experience to the people."
Though trained in making her own noodles, Asazu knew this wouldn't be cost-effective for such a small space, so she works with Sun Noodle, the artisan noodle maker used by most U.S. ramen shops. The company, now with facilities in Honolulu, L.A., and New Jersey, works with each ramenya to customize their own shape and texture. Asazu uses tapioca powder in her noodles, which adds chewiness and texture to them, keeping them from soaking up liquid too quickly. She also uses a slightly curly noodle to accompany her light chicken, fish, and veggie broth-based ramen (which was the first veggie ramen in town).
"I think people have a misconception that tonkotsu is the only type of ramen," says Eric Silverstein, owner of the Peached Tortilla. "But there are all types of ramen and all types of noodles fit for different types of ramen. I think it's important to understand that. And there's not a right or wrong type of ramen so long as you treat your broth with respect."
Silverstein grew up in Japan before his family relocated to Georgia, and it is the flavors of both Asia and the American South that inspire his creative cuisine at the Peached Tortilla. This fall, Silverstein started a weekly ramen night on Thursdays, where he'll be showcasing rotating specials.
His first creation was a chicken shoyu ramen topped with crispy pork shoulder, corn, green onions, nori, and an onsen egg. While some chicken shoyu ramen is very light, Silverstein makes his broth with chicken feet and bacon fat to achieve a rich smoky stock with a weightier mouthfeel. And he's not the only one exposing Austin foodies to new and inspired types of ramen. This summer, Hanabi launched a new menu featuring ramen offerings like tonkotsu-based tsukemen, shiitake-based veggie ramen, and Korean-inspired bowls topped with bulgogi, kimchi, and mandoo.
"I decided to make ramen because it's delicious comfort food I grew up eating, and that fits in directly with the type of food we cook at the restaurant," he says. "It's a dish I take seriously, and it's one I had to test a lot to get right. I wanted to make sure I paid the dish the respect it deserves."
Best Bets for Austin Ramen
Ramen Tatsu-Ya: You can't go wrong with the noodles at Austin's OG ramen shop, with one north and one south location. While Tatsu and Tako first earned their stripes with thick, savory tonkotsu broth (available in its original form or with the addition of shoyu or shio), they also produce a lighter chicken shoyu broth (called the Ol' Skool), as well as a veggie ramen made from a soy and mushroom broth. In addition to more traditional toppings, they offer extras like flash-fried brussels sprouts, 10-month aged Parmesan, and five different "butter bombs" to customize your bowl with added flavor.
Kemuri Tatsu-Ya: Though ramen isn't the main focus at this izakaya, the two offerings on the menu are solid, and both are made with smoked brisket and broth made from smoked beef bones. Tatsu and Tako are currently experimenting with mazemen and hope to soon add a chili cheese variation to the Texas-inspired menu.
Daruma Ramen: For a lighter take on ramen, head to Daruma's Downtown shop, which serves shio and miso bowls made from a chicken broth, shoyu made from half-chicken and half-seafood dashi, and two types of vegan ramen, both made with a fruit and veggie stock. Be sure to leave room for soft serve, which rotates between flavors like beet, miso butter, honey saké, wasabi, and more.
Michi Ramen: Now with three locations (north, south, and one behind Hole in the Wall on campus), Michi starts with a tonkotsu broth base for most of their ramen, seasoning it with flavors like shoyu, miso, lemongrass, and tomato – and they also offer shoyu and miso shiitake broth. The Michi and Sapporo bowls lean toward more traditional toppings, while the Jungle spices things up with Thai chile and toasted lemongrass, and a Texas bowl represents with smoked barbecue pork ribs, vinegar slaw, pickles, Texas toast, and spicy barbecue sauce.
Hanabi Ramen & Kushiyaki: This Korean-owned sushi restaurant recently launched a ramen and kushiyaki-focused location in North Austin with eight different bowls, plus specials. Standouts include the tonkotsu, topped with kimchi mandoo or bulgogi, and a haemul-inspired spicy seafood broth filled with cabbage, oysters, calamari, mussels, and shrimp.
Jinya Ramen Bar: This Tokyo-born and L.A.-bred ramen chain opened its first Austin location in the Domain last fall. Choose from six different varieties of tonkotsu, four types of chicken-based ramen, and two different bowls made with veggie broth. Specialty bowls include the Jinya Tonkotsu Black (which comes with garlic chips, garlic oil, and fried onion), wonton chicken ramen (served with wonton, spinach, and green onion), and Sprouting Up Ramen (which gets its name from both crispy brussels sprouts and spicy bean sprouts). Or customize your own bowl with toppings like pork soboro, chicken chashu, bok choy, broccoli, and more.
Kanji Ramen: This North Austin ramen shop features plenty of small plates (like gyoza, don katsu, and crispy tofu) to ready your palate for noodles. Then choose from the signature tonkotsu and its variations, or branch out and try the Murukai ramen, a spicy mussel soup topped with fried shrimp, or the Sukiyaki ramen, which comes topped with sliced beef, vegetables, and an egg yolk. They even offer a kids'-sized ramen called Little Kanji.
The Peached Tortilla: The newest Asian soul food dish on the menu at this Burnet Road hangout is a chicken shoyu ramen topped with crispy pork shoulder, corn, green onions, nori, and an onsen egg – and only available each Thursday night. Next, they'll serve a tantanmen with ground pork, sesame paste, and bean paste, and as the days get warmer, they'll start experimenting with cold ramen dishes, too.
Ramenya: ramen shop
Izakaya: a Japanese gastropub
Kotteri: classification for ramen made with opaque, white bone broths (also called paitan)
Assari: classification for broths that are clear and thin
Tare: the seasoning or sauce that defines what type of ramen you're being served (shoyu, miso, or shio are most common)
Shoyu: clear stock made with vegetables and chicken, seafood, pork and/or beef broth, plus shoyu (soy sauce)
Miso: garlic-rich broth made with fermented soybean and either chicken or beef stock, typically served kotteri topped with heavier toppings like sweet corn and pork belly
Shio: clear chicken broth with shio (salt) added, typically served assari-style
Dashi: a stock made with kombu (kelp) and katsuobushi (dried bonito and skipjack tuna); adds brininess and umami to ramen
Tonkotsu: a typically thick, rich pork broth made from slow-cooking pork bones and fat
Tondaku: ramen made with a combination of tonkotsu and dashi soup base
Tonkotsu-shio: ramen made with a combination of tonkotsu and shio (salt) soup base
Tonkotsu-shoyu: ramen made with a combination of tonkotsu and shoyu (soy sauce) soup base
Tantanmen: an often spicy, sesame flavored broth usually served with green vegetables and ground pork (a Japanese version of Sichuan dandan noodles)
Tsukemen: a type of ramen where the noodles are served separately from the broth and are meant to be dipped and slurped (can be served hot or cold)
Hiyashi chka: cold ramen salad made with chilled noodles and toppings
Mazemen: a "dry" style of ramen with plenty of toppings but no broth