Austin's only dedicated ramen shop, Ramen Tatsu-Ya, opened September 1st and folks are already lining up before the restaurant even opens its doors at 5 p.m. each day to get bowls of the Japanese noodle soup. Right now, the shop is going through five hundred pounds of pork bones per week and serving two to three hundred bowls per night to customers who wait hours for the opportunity to slurp down ramen atop refurbished Red Lobster tables.
Eater Austin checked in with chefs Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya "Tako" Matsumoto to find out how they're handling Austin's ramen craze, what it's like working out of a tiny strip-mall kitchen and what's coming on the menu in the future (veggie ramen and sashimi, maybe).
Why open this ramen shop, now, in Austin?
Tako Matsumoto: "We wanted to be the first. The first real ramen shop. Tatsu came to me and said we need to turn this around in a month. I was like 'Woah, that's fast to open a restaurant.' But it's almost like it meant to be. Things fell into place. Finding this location, because if you're from Austin or if you've lived here for a decent amount of time, you know about Din Ho. You know about this shopping center. People come here to get as close to authentic as possible Asian food. I'm born and raised in Austin, so I know this is the spot to come to. The only issue I had was that it's kind of hidden within the shopping center. Initially I didn't think about the kitchen, but ? it's small. It's tight. It works, it's fine, and in Japan everything's really, really small, so. I haven't worked in Japan so I'm not used to it. I like it. It makes it more challenging."
Tatsu Aikawa: "I was in L.A. and I was eating a lot of ramen, and I was like, 'I fuckin' miss this. I need me some ramen.' And this is my hometown, right? Next to Tokyo. So yeah, I just decided to do it earlier this year and I called Tako."
Did you have any idea that people would be lining up to get your food?
Tako: "The business is way beyond our expectations. We were thinking like, a hundred bowls for lunch and dinner. We're doing two to three hundred [at dinner]. We want to be open for lunch. It's 'How are we going to do lunch?' Because the amount that we're putting out now, everything is full. Our walk-in is full. Our freezer is full. We're trying to find ideas of where to put stuff, obviously and be sanitary about it. And we're getting better and better every week. We've only been open like two weeks. People are kind of mad that we're not open for lunch, but I don't want them thinking that, 'Oh, they think that because they can have a line for dinner that they don't need to be open for lunch.' That's not the case."
And the lining up thing, that's pretty authentically Japanese?
Tako: "That's just how it is in a real, authentic ramen shop, there's lines. In Japan, everything's tinier, so you have like a ten person ramen shop with a line of three hundred people, and I'm like wow, how do those guys do it? I'm like, 'We have a tiny kitchen!' but they probably have a kitchen that's a third of the size, and they're pumping out as much if not more."
Tatsu: "A lot of people don't get it, some people don't get it. The waiting process. They're like, 'What? Why do we have to wait in line?' And I mean, we're quick service. I'm sorry, you know, but it's like Japan. All the badass ramen shops, they got a line. I tripped out, because it's just like Japan."
Tako: "But I don't want people thinking that we only want to make x-amount because we want this huge line. We don't want to be one of those places like that. I want to be able to feed everybody that waits in line! Because if you're dedicated enough to wait in line, I want you to be able to try the food. For sure. It's not cool to wait an hour and then be like sorry, we're out of ramen. We want to feed everybody. We're trying to pump out bowls as fast as we can. We timed it the other day, and at least from our standpoint, it takes us like 50 seconds to knock out a bowl. So we're definitely trying as hard as we can to pump the food out to feed everybody that's coming in."
During the soft opening, y'all had problems with your air conditioner. But it didn't seem to hurt business.
Tako: "We are very aware of how hot it is. It's hot in here, but it's like twenty times hotter in the kitchen. Which is fine, but it was to the point where it was like, 'Oooooh my goooooood, we were like ugggggcccch!' My friends would try to give me a hug when they came in and I was like, 'No.' Hopefully by the time it gets hot again we'll have it really up and going."
What was it like trying to get the space ready with a short opening lead time?
Tatsu: "I distressed the tables myself. Tako painted a lot. Our guys sanded a lot. But mostly we cleaned a lot. We scrubbed a lot."
Tako: "It was like Kitchen Nightmares."
Tatsu: "It was like Restaurant Impossible to turn it around like that."
Tako: "There's been a lot of work put into everything. A lot of work. We even paired several of our beers with the broth. We've paired the Peacemaker and Alaskan and the Alamo. They all go really well with the broth, but my favorite is probably the Peacemaker. When we were pairing beers, we must have tried thirty or forty beers. We put a lot of work into the details. We get the Sapporo and the Japanese beers because it's a Japanese restaurant, but we wanted to get something a little different than Budweiser and Dos Equis or whatnot. We wanted to get local beers. We're both local guys."
So far, your menu's been pretty limited. Is that intentional?
Tako: "Our menu is small, but we want to keep it small, right. Because we're all about quality. Instead of having a menu with a bunch of stuff and some things are okay and some things are awesome, let's just have a smaller menu where we can concentrate on everything being of the highest quality that we can put out. So that's what we did. And right before soft opening, Tatsu's sitting there like, 'Hey man, chicken karaage, let's 86 it.' I'm like, 'But I love karaage, what?' And let's take this off, and this. But we're really good at communicating, and I was like, at least for soft opening, we'll see how it goes. Because we don't know what to expect. We want a long line, but we don't know there's going to be a long line, right? I was like you know, that's a good idea. Let's take these items off and see what we can handle. And if we can handle that, we'll add it. But it's a good thing that we didn't do it, because we couldn't handle all that stuff. We're getting better and better every week."
How did you develop the recipes?
Tatsu: "The broth, I actually started the process in L.A. at my mom's. I went at it for like, a good 30 days straight after work. At the time, I found a noodle maker. Even in Japan, you do find occasionally some shops that actually make their own noodles, but mostly they have specialists who make noodles for them. The noodle maker will actually try the soup and then try the noodles, so you have to match the noodles to go with the broth. So what we have is tonkotsu ramen, which is pork based. As far as thickness, it's on the thicker side. Instead of old-school, Tokyo style. I got together with a noodle maker and he would come in maybe twice a week and go through like 20 samples. We'd work at it and I'd send him back with ideas, and we basically came up with this recipe."
What's special about these noodles? What matches them so well to the broth?
Tatsu: "They're way thinner. What makes the noodles match the broth is basically the draw of the actual broth. You get the chopsticks, and you draw the noodle up, and it's basically like, how much soup is still left on the noodle? That's what matters. Noodles go by the gauge, like pasta. Ours is basically a 28 gauge. If we went with standard size with the wavy ones that you see a lot, it wouldn't work. We tried it many times, but it's almost too much."
Do you find that you're doing a lot of ramen education in Austin? Or are folks pretty familiar with it?
Tatsu: "We're definitely not there yet. Our thing is we want to educate."
Tako: "That's why we have the rules! It's more like, etiquette."
Tatsu: "How to best enjoy ramen."
Tatsu: "It's almost like when maybe the first sushi shop opened up in Austin, I'm sure people were doing a chunk of wasabi with big bowl of soy sauce and dip the whole thing in there, just drench it in soy sauce and eat it. I think as far as sushi, there's enough people now that it's not like that, hopefully."
Austinites definitely seem like they were ready for ramen, even if they didn't realize it.
Tako: "Before we opened everybody was like, 'Oh Japanese? Sushi? You're doing sushi?' And we're like, 'Ramen.' And they're, 'Ramen? Really ramen? Ramen?'"
Tako: "Yeah, there's definitely a need for it in Austin. Why not here?"
Tatsu: "Somebody could have done it maybe five years ago. But I think nobody started a ramen shop because number one, it's freakin' hot. Number two, it's hard to make ramen. It's so hard. Ramen's all about balance. I've done sushi in my career, but ramen is way harder. Think about it: you get fresh fish from a badass purveyor, and you get good rice. You know how to make really good rice. And you blend vinegar, really good vinegar to match that, and you got yourself sushi, right? Ramen, there's so many different things that go in there, it's unbelievable."
Tako: "Yeah, we've come to find that nothing has been easy. We think, 'That'll be easy!' and then we test it out, and it's like, 'That's a lot harder than we thought it would be.' But being from Austin, it helps a lot. Trying to open a restaurant somewhere else, you don't really know anything about the city. I'm born and raised here, so, I definitely know the city needs ramen."
Any new menu items on the horizon?
Tatsu: "When we settle down a little bit, we'll add some, maybe more light dishes. Maybe some sashimi or something. Because we've both done sushi for a while. So that's natural."
Tako: "Initially we had a lot more items. I think we wanted to add two or three more ramens, the veggie ramen. We're working on it. It's an issue of logistics and space. Limited space."
[Photo: Spencer Selvidge/EATX]