Tiki Tatsu-ya Reveals a New Old World of Culinary Adventure
Three years in the making, worthy of eternal returns
By Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Oct. 8, 2021
Everything you've imagined this might be, everything you've heard, everything you and your culture-drenched neighbors have been suspecting: It's true.
Tiki Tatsu-ya – now open at 1300 S. Lamar, where its many wonders hide behind an innocuous sign for Aikawa Travel Agency – is one of the best tiki bars in the country.
No, actually, let's do one better: Tiki Tatsu-ya is one of the best tiki bars in the world. You wanna argue the point, argue with Austin's own Buzz Moran.
"They've done it," said the autodidact tiki-scholar during a preview visit to Tatsu and Shion Aikawa's latest addition to the food-and-drinkscape of our burgeoning city. "Son of a bitch. They've really done it!"
Tiki Tatsu-ya is two separate but perfectly joined levels of one retro, islander-style speakeasy, a fully immersive trip back to a time that only really existed in the mid-20th century minds of Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic and all the enchanted acolytes who followed in their rum-spiked wake.
This new boozy and foodie experience was produced by the virtuosi of McCray & Co. – the interior designers who rendered space for Kemuri Tatsu-ya and the shabu-shabu delights of DipDipDip Tatsu-ya – and by Blue Genie Art Industries and Natalie George Productions and Thrown Light and Gl33k and, oh, the list goes on, the army of talents is impressive in its very numbers. But then, much about Tiki Tatsu-ya is impressive in its very numbers.
There are a plethora of classic tiki drinks, or new takes on classic tiki drinks, and each is presented in its own dedicated, custom-designed vessel. Each has been honed to liquid perfection by beverage manager Cory Starr, a veteran of both Three Dots & a Dash in Chicago and Hawaii's Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
"Tiki drinks are the original craft cocktails," Tatsu Aikawa tells us, "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 mind-blowing."
The drinks have to be mind-blowing. First, in order to live up to their names (Zombie, Painkiller, Slurping Bastard, Strip 'n Go Naked, Stranded on Saturn, to note a few), and, second, to match the brilliance of the food served in this venue's phantasmagoric environment. The Lomi Lomi Tataki, with its king salmon, tomato kosho, shiso inamona pesto, macadamia nut oil, onions, sea beans, and mint. The Crab Lagoon, which is a sort of deconstructed crab rangoon served as a dip – with blue crab, rangoon cheese, spiced wonton chips, and pineapple chili jam. The (requisite!) Pu Pu Platter with barbecue beef skewers, mochiko-coated chicken wings, "Yokozuna" ribs, taro tots, housemade pickles, and that aforementioned Crab Lagoon.
And more, and more: On the food menu, too, the variety is almost as remarkable as the quality. In some other, half-assed tiki bar, what's available to eat might be an afterthought. At Tiki Tatsu-ya, it's so fucking delicious it makes you wanna kick a hole through a concrete wall.
Well, of course: This is a Tatsu Aikawa project, after all. And it's, what, something he's been dreaming of since his parents moved from Japan to Texas when he was a wee child? Um, no, not precisely.
"In 2014, when I was starting construction next door [at Ramen Tatsu-ya]," he tells us, "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, 'OK.' And, little by little, I learned about tiki. It's a part of Americana history that's so unique. 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 everywhere are noticing, when Tatsu Aikawa is fascinated with a subject, astonishing things tend to happen.
"The amount of care and information and craft that I have witnessed Tatsu put into his food and drinks and spaces," says Blue Genie's head honcho Kevin Collins, "it's impressive."
"Everything that happens," Tatsu says, "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. "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 moas 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."
"In the history of Blue Genie," he continues, "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, 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 – 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.'"
Tiki Tatsu-ya is located at 1300 S. Lamar. The entrance and street parking are located at the back of the building on Lamar Square Drive. Hours: Wed., 4pm-12mid; Thu.-Sat., 4pm-2am; Sun., 2-10pm; food menu available Wed.-Sat., 5-10pm. See tiki-tatsuya.com for more info.