Tatsu Aikawa & Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto
On the day Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto opened Ramen Tatsu-Ya in September 2012, the temperature would reach 100 degrees. And yet despite the scorching conditions, the nascent restaurant was already showing signs of a cult following: Customers queued up in long lines, with wait times that sometimes stretched upward of an hour, all to slurp their way to the bottom of steaming bowls of decadently rich pork broth and fresh noodles.
In mid-2015, with the restaurant’s iconic status in Austin’s dining scene firmly secure, Tatsu got a call about a building on East Second Street — the former home of Live Oak Barbecue, in fact — that was on the market. Tatsu and Tako quickly realized that the space would be perfect for an idea that they’d been simmering on for a couple of years: Texas BBQ meets Japanese pub.
In January 2017, that idea became a reality with the opening of Kemuri Tatsu-Ya.
Inside the eatery, it’s Japanese bathhouse (dark wood paneling, a large neon kanji sign) meets Texas kitsch (Lone Star beer sign sits over the front window, a Sapporo Draft flag hangs by the entrance to the bar). Festive tunes from Busdriver and Anderson .Paak pulse through the speakers. And the essence of smoke (from burbling beef bones and slow-roasting pork and charring shishito peppers, all fueled by the embers of wood) diffuses through every nook and cranny: It’s embedded in the walls, it stretches to the curb, and before you leave the place, it will have taken to the fibers of your shirt and the strands of your hair.
On the menu are clever renditions of Texan-Japanese food (or Japanese-Texan food), but be forewarned: If you walk in expecting to find a “sushirrito” among them, you will be shamed. If you walk in mentioning “fusion,” you’ll be met with a compliant eye roll. Mention “traditional,” and you’ll be redirected to Ramen Tatsu-Ya. Here, Tatsu and Tako are working with tastes and experiences that they grew up with, and that authenticity permeates the menu the same way the smoke permeates the building.
“Our ultimate pleasure is for customers to walk in without knowing anything about Kemuri Tatsu-Ya and ‘get’ the whole idea of what we’re trying to do here,” Tatsu says. “It’s not a concept that’s been made out of thin air, you know what I’m saying? This is more experiences. This is more our life as Japanese immigrants and growing up in Texas.”
Take the sticky rice tamales. “Growing up, we ate a lot of sticky rice on the weekends,” Tatsu says. “So naturally our tamales are made of sticky rice, wrapped in bamboo instead of corn husks, but steamed the same as tamales.” Naturally. “It’s really a lot of home cooking. That’s like the number one trigger of memory — eating something that resembles home cooking,” Tatsu says.
He just happens to have grown up in a pretty unique home. “We had a smoker in the backyard, but my mom would bring home fish instead of meat. Stuff like that. I mean, we’re immigrants, you know? [At Kemuri] we’re not just creating something just to create it. I have a flavor in my mind, which has built over the years of living in Texas and cooking Japanese food.”
The menu at Kemuri is divided into five loose categories: “Munchies,” “Smoked,” “Skewers,” “Rice Stuff,” and “Ramen.” While each section boasts some plates that may sound more like the deep cuts (Dank Tofu, Toro Brisket, Chili Cheese Takoyaki), all make room for some lovably spun classics, like crispy nigiri, classic karaage chicken, and “Texas” ramen.
To be a “person of the year” in Austin requires an authenticity almost to the point of indulgence. It means that you are doing something so authentic it feels inevitable. For Tats and Tako, that inevitability is the mingling of Texas and Japanese culture within them, expressed through food, served with a side of chili cheese and an extra ajitama egg.
Originally published in Tribeza's "People of the Year" Issue, December 2017.