Eater Austin’s restaurant of the year, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, is only 11 months old, but already, the Texas-Japanese izakaya has won the hearts of the country. Co-owners/chefs Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto (the duo behind killer noodle soup spot Ramen Tatsu-ya) were concerned whether people would understand the restaurant, a melding of their Japanese roots and Texas upbringings through flavors and techniques.
“I was pretty worried,” admitted Aikawa. “But I’m so glad that we’re in Austin because people get it.” Matsumoto was anxious about “too much hype” regarding the restaurant, but he needn’t worry about it — no one was disappointed. See: rave reviews, plentiful awards, and many top-ten-list placements.
Kemuri presents a refreshing tableau of fusion dishes that aren’t found in Austin. The duo took what could’ve been just a ploy (mash-ups are all the rage), and turned the restaurant into a bonafide den of edible exploration. This means a whole array of complex yet lively Texas-and-Japanese-forever dishes.
Take their Frito pie interpretation, the chili cheese takoyaki, which makes use of octopus fritters paired with chili (no beans, naturally), cheese, smoked jalapenos, and long togarashi rice crackers. “It was Frito pie from another dimension,” Eater’s roving critic Bill Addison described.
Since the duo already perfected their ramen skills, Kemuri features the barbecue ramen bowl, which makes use of salt-and-pepper-seasoned brisket. The smoker is run by chef Andy Morris, who preps the restaurant’s other barbecue offerings from the usual (pork ribs) to fish collars and mackerel.
Kemuri is all about positive vibes, and that’s what makes it inviting to customers. Matsumoto often tells the staff, “I want you guys to have fun.”
There’s a reason guests are greeted with a hearty “irasshaimase” as soon as they walk in the door, which is Japanese for “welcome,” meant to transport customers to a proper izakaya (with Texas flair). Matsumoto highlighted the importance of educating the customers because the concept might not be something they’re familiar. It’s all about sharing knowledge.
Currently, Aikawa is traveling through Asia, with stops in Singapore, Bangkok, the Philippines, and most recently, Japan. His journey will help inform future menus and dishes of Kemuri.
What could be next? Aikawa wants to explore “somewhat of the Mexican side of Texas,” he said, like barbacoa. Typically, barbacoa consists of slow-roasted beef cheek scraped from a whole cow head cooked in a pit that is buried under the ground. He’d have to try to build some sort of contraption for the restaurant, and finish off the meat in the smoker.
Gunkan maki, aka battleship sushi, is another item on Aikawa’s wish list, which he envisions in a hand roll format. Currently, there is a daily sashimi on the menu, and the restaurant often plays with raw fish specials. This desire makes sense since both Aikawa and Matsumoto worked at chef hotbed Musashino in Austin, and the latter at two-Michelin-starred sushi restaurant Urasawa in Los Angeles.
Another item Aikawa wants to experiment with is smoked lechón (whole grilled pork) in the restaurant, after a dinner in the Philippines.
Kemuri Tatsu-ya is playing around with private catering and private dining gigs, something it veered away from in the past. The restaurant catered its first wedding job in November, as well as hosted various off-site dinners that go beyond the typical sip and stroll events. It’s tricky because they want to make sure that the food quality is still top-notch and that they “represent properly,” Matsumoto explained.
Additional Ramen Tatsu-ya shops aren’t ruled out. “We always want to represent the culture of ramen,” Aikawa said. “If there’s demand, we want to try to meet that,” said Matsumoto. However, there are no concrete plans at this point.