You’re standing on a street behind the busy artery of South Lamar and you happen upon a nondescript wooden porthole door flagged with a hanging bowl in a fishnet. You open the double doors and go straight from the blazing Texas sun into an immediately cooler environment lush with flora, trickling water, and the sound of chirping birds.
You’re not in Austin anymore. Instead, you’re on the imagined island world from Tatsu and Shion Aikawa, the duo behind some of the city’s best Japanese restaurants, including Ramen Tatsu-ya and Kemuri Tatsu-ya. This new cocktail bar, Tiki Tatsu-ya, opens on Monday, October 4.
“I think it’s totally something different than anything that’s Austin,” says chef and co-owner Tatsu Aikawa. “I kept telling all of my chef friends, ‘I’m not doing a restaurant, I’m doing Disneyland right now.’ Ultimately, we want to fucking wow people. We want to blow their minds.”
The goal of Tiki Tatsu-ya is to showcase “the deep melding of Hawaiian, Polynesian, and Asian influences,” according to the press release. The team concocted an entire fictional backstory for the bar, which, according to the house legend, is actually an unnamed island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
While the bar leans heavily into the tiki genre, its founders are also very aware of its fraught nature, wrapped up in cultural appropriation of colonized island regions, the misuse of Polynesian mythology imagery for kitschy decor and drinks, and its tendency to not pay proper respect to the very real people and cultures from which tiki draws its influence.
Tristan Pearman, the group’s director of brand and development, is quick to address those issues with Eater. “We’re not trying to be a certain place or a certain time,” he says, noting that rather than using traditional tiki idols in mugs and glassware, the bar’s custom drinking vessels feature designs referencing Aikawa’s Japanese lineage (the family crest is prominent) as well as pop culture (one is in the shape of a snake, the logo for Karate Kid spinoff television series Cobra Kai). According to Pearman, everything is done in a “nondescript” manner but adds that “it’s a mix of everything,” rattling off influences from Papua New Guinea to French Polynesia. (For some, however, there may be no “right” way to do tiki. Noted Chicago tiki bar Lost Lake, for example, recently moved away from their tiki status and refocused on “tropical” branding, in part responding to claims of colonialism.)
Shion had approached Tatsu about opening a tiki bar in 2014, and his immediate answer was, “What the fuck is tiki?” But as he began researching the genre, Tatsu Aikawa says he became fascinated by its lesser-known Japanese influence, and what he describes as a “very unique piece of history in Americana.” Japanese laborers came to Hawaii to work on the sugarcane alongside workers from China, the Philippines, Korea, and elsewhere. Aikawa says these immigrant groups, coupled with native Hawaiians, helped create a very specific “island culture.” He says, “It’s a microcosm, a melting pot of Asia.”
It’s this diversity that Tatsu Aikawa hopes his bar, and its interpretation of tiki, reflects, and that guests come away with an “understanding of the diversity of island culture,” and want to learn more. “It’s like a rabbit hole,” he says. And in Tiki Tatsu-ya, that begins with the space and runs through the drinks and food.
Tiki Tatsu-ya is its own world, where one could spend days diving deep into every nook and cranny and still find new things to uncover. The soundtrack consists of ambient sounds, ranging from water to birds.
Once inside, there are two paths. The downstairs (essentially the street level) is the fictional rum cave of the unnamed island. The walls are lined with rocks, and the ceiling is covered in glass fishing floats, a Japanese contraption meant to lure fish to the surface. The main anchor of the entire bar is the two-level giant shisa dragon fountain. The beasts are considered guardian creatures in Japanese mythology.
Tiki Tatsu-ya is not a static experience. Rather, it’s like an immersive theme park ride that comes alive when larger cocktails are ordered. It triggers an entire space-changing presentation involving the fountain with a light show, projections, audio cues, and vibrating seats and tables.
The upstairs Nest Bar takes on a beachy atmosphere with fake windows depicting golden sunsets, bamboo ceilings and walls, and shibori (Japanese dyed fabric). “Back in the early days, a lot of the tiki entrepreneurs actually put hose pipes off of their windows to make it look like it was raining,” explains Pearman. In the bar’s previous form as Backbeat, this had been the open rooftop bar space. The Tatsu-ya team decided to enclose it completely.
Each table and booth has its own theme: The Captains’ Hull booth is dedicated to the fictional Date Maru ship that discovered the island. The audio of a person recounting the tale of the voyage to the island is played in the bathrooms.
Another table is dedicated to the history of tiki — “paying homage to all the greats that created the tiki genre,” says Pearman — with mugs, ashtrays, matchbooks, and swizzle sticks dating back to the 1930s. There’s the Ama-San table, which honors Japanese female pearl divers (there is a triptych depicting them in a different area). On the second floor, there’s the Fugu Hut with pufferfish hanging from the ceiling.
“We’re definitely paying homage to the old tiki-style drinks,” says Cory Starr, the bar’s beverage manager, who moved to Austin after working at the lauded Chicago tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash. The menu — which takes the form of a fold-out map designed by local artist Tony Canepa that details the story behind each beverage — pulls from the heyday of tiki cocktails, the 1930s, ‘40s, and ’50s — “when they really got into the craft aspect of it,” he says.
As this is a Tatsu-ya joint, most drinks, as well as food, involve Japanese touches. The mai tai is a cocktail that Starr believes best showcases that approach. The drink includes a blend of five rums and house-made orgeat with miso.
Then there’s the Slurpin’ Bastard, which is the bar’s take on the Suffering Bastard, a 1942 Cairo invention that functioned as a hangover cure. It’s made with gin and ginger, along with an ume shrub and shochu. The mug shows the Slurpin’ Bastard wearing a hachimaki with a Texas logo and eating ramen. The mugs and glassware are available for purchase.
What will be sure to become popular are the larger shareable drinks served in decadent vessels and presentations. The S.O.S. Stranded on Saturn is served in a smoke-filled orb with a gardenscape consisting of shochu, starfruit, passionfruit, miso-almond orgeat, and falernum. The massive Skeleton Cruise — with Japanese whisky, rum, Chartreuse, guava, lemon, pineapple, and pomegranate — comes on a giant ship with skulls and chocolate gold coins. The bar will juice fruits every day.
Bolstering the entire cocktail program is Tiki Tatsu-ya’s library of nearly 200 rums. “It’s really diverse,” says Starr. “There are so many different countries and islands that rum comes from, just especially in the last 10 years.” He continues, “You’re not talking about those big-corporation rums anymore, we’re talking about these small-craft rums.”
There are plans to host educational events with rum tastings in the future.
Tiki Tatsu-ya’s food showcases Polynesian — especially Hawaiian — dishes with Japanese touches. There’s the Spam on a Half Shell, consisting of housemade spam with diced mango, macadamia nuts and oil, dandelion greens, arugula, shiso, and a hibiscus furikake, all served on a mango peel.
The Lomi Lomi Tataki stems from a dish originated by Portuguese whalers, who cured their fish to preserve it over long ocean voyages. Tatsu-ya’s version uses salted salmon and tomato kosho and macerated tomatoes paired with sea beans and a macadamia shiso pesto.
The pupu platter — typically an assortment of Hawaiian-style appetizers — is Tatsu-fied with barbecue beef sticks, mochiko wings, Yokozuna ribs that are rubbed in Kona coffee and served with a passionfruit barbecue sauce, crab lagoon (a take on crab Rangoon), taro tots, and pickles.
Tables can be reserved, with room for walk-ins if available. People are able to specify which table they’d like to book when making reservations, with a limit of two hours. Bar seats are available for walk-ins only.
The elaborate space was overall designed by McCray & Co.; fabricated and designed by Blue Genie Art Industries; and built by Satterfield Construction. The lighting was designed by Natalie George Production; projection mapping and video designed by Thrown Light; and audio designed by Gl33k. Rounding out the Tiki Tatsu-ya team are the group’s beverage director Michael Phillips and sake sommelier Bryan Masamitsu Parsons.
While the bar is open on Monday, its typical food hours are from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with drinks from 4 p.m. to midnight Wednesday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 to 10 p.m. Sunday.