It’s 4:50 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the line has already started to form. The doors won’t open for another 10 minutes, but that short wait will pale in comparison to the amount of time some people will stand in line at peak hours for a complex and restorative bowl of noodles and soup.
Welcome to Ramen Tatsu-Ya, ground zero for Austin’s nascent ramen craze.
You can find ramen in a few places around town. Kome serves a bowl at lunch, as does Musashino. Trailers Michi and East Side King at the Grackle once served ramen and will again soon in brick-and-mortar locations. But Ramen Tatsu-Ya appears to be the sole restaurant devoted primarily to the Japanese dish that has its origins in China. It’s the most popular, anyhow, with waits for one of the 38 seats in the North Austin restaurant sometimes stretching beyond an hour.
Who knew that people in Austin were so hungry for a seemingly simple dish that has already proven popular in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City? Apparently Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto, the chef-owners of Ramen Tatsu-Ya who met years ago while working as hip-hop DJs. Don’t worry, their knowledge extends beyond spinning discs. The chefs have worked in kitchens such as Musashino and Second Bar + Kitchen, and Aikawa recently returned from a stint at Urawsawa, a temple of Japanese fine dining in Beverly Hills.
The two men opened Ramen Tatsu-Ya in early September to overwhelming response. The small restaurant is the latest addition to a strip center off Research Boulevard that’s home to restaurants serving various Asian cuisines: Din Ho (Chinese), Coco’s (Taiwanese) and Pho Van (Vietnamese).
The restaurant features a large communal table ringed by smaller tables, their white tops and red chairs echoing the colors of the Japanese flag. A large artistic rendering of Aikawa’s family crest on the back wall greets diners, who queue along the small bar to place orders at the register. The waiting line features a tiered display of local (Austin Beerworks) and Japanese (Asahi) beer and sake (Rihaku Nigori), as well as Japanese fruit candies and Pocky sticks. Light fixtures made of thick rope dangle over the tables, along with a large kimono.
The ordering line moves at a nice clip, but the flow of traffic is dependent on employees getting diners in and out as efficiently as possible. The pre-bussing from hovering employees whisking away bowls and plates that sit unattended for just a few minutes borders on rudeness, but the amicable employees always take time to answer questions. The somewhat harried nature of service is just part of the deal at Ramen Tatsu-Ya.
Ramen shops proliferate in cities like Tokyo, where workers pop into shops to grab a quick bite, often without sitting, before returning to their days. In that sense, the turn-and-burn style at Ramen Tatsu-Ya offers a traditional experience, according to a dining guest of mine who lived in Tokyo. The upside to that quick turnover? Your ramen comes out within a couple of minutes of you taking your seat.
The specialty at Ramen Tatsu-Ya is the tonkotsu ramen, a soup-and-noodle dish with a stock made of boiled pork bones that originated in the Hakata region in southwest Japan. Ramen Tatsu-Ya receives shipments of fresh noodles weekly from Keisuke-san, a noodle-maker in Los Angeles who also supplies popular ramen houses in Los Angeles such as Diakokuya.
The tonkotsu at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, which can take up to 60 hours to cultivate, features thin noodles resembling vermicelli that are smaller than many people may expect from traditional ramen. But this style of noodle is traditional with tonkotsu, owners say, leading to a nice noodle-broth balance. A thicker noodle would make the pairing with such a rich sauce too heavy.
Tatsu-Ya offers several variations of ramen. The #1 tonkotsu original ($8.50) has a thick buttery stock and arrives like a circular artist’s palette: a tawny swirl of fatty pork belly, a tangy marinated beige egg with a viscous golden center, ebony slivers of firm wood ear mushroom and bright green bits of scallions pooled separately atop the soup.
The sumptuous pork belly falls apart when picked from the soup with chopsticks. And you will be using chopsticks. As part of the owners’ desire to educate and instruct guests, the menu includes a set of suggested protocol. Beyond the chopsticks-only rule, there are admonitions to sip your broth before digging in and slurp your soup with no regard for your lack of bib. Also: no sharing. But who would want to with all of that back-wash (back-slurp?) going on?
The #2 tonkotsu sho-yu ($8.75) features similar profiles of the original with the added saltiness of soy, a kick of black peppercorns and the fiber of bamboo and roasted seaweed that hold up despite their hot broth bath.
The original tonkotsu’s flavor runs a mile deep but only a few feet wide, mostly relying on the rich and salty boiled pork bones for its appeal, but the #3 mi-so, which comes regular ($9) or spicy ($10), brings more to the table. The leaner ground pork disseminates its flavor in a more subtle and consistent way than the chunk of pork belly in the original, and the crunch of cabbage and bean sprout is cradled by an undercurrent of toasted sesame that gets enlivened by the sweetness of corn. As with the first two, the pickled egg, which is treated for 24 hours, is the star of the bowl.
You can supplement the ramen that arrives in large earthenware bowls with additions such as soy-braised pork belly ($3), soft-boiled egg ($1.50) and fish cakes (.50). None of the ramens carry much spice, but you can add "flavor bombs," such as the "spicy bomb" ($1), which has the texture and mild singe of Sriracha. The more adventurous can ask for the habanero-fueled "fire in the bowl bomb." The "corn on the bomb" delivers a bit of sweetness with corn, but the butter brings unneeded fat to the rich stocks.
The menu board promises a vegetarian ramen coming soon, and management says they plan to start offering a thinner, chicken-based "classic Tokyo ramen" that will offer the thicker, springier noodles with which many customers are probably familiar.
The main vegetarian option comes in the form of a carrot-and-potato studded vegetarian curry bowl ($3 with an order of ramen, $4 by itself). Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike would be thrilled with the sweet and sour yodas ($3.50) offered on special at a recent visit, the small Brussels sprouts lightly charred and served in an apricot-vinegar sauce and topped with a dusting of curry spice.
A limited small bites menu includes a slider of crunchy, deep-fried but tender beef served with an overly generous bright katsu sauce that soaks into the sweet cheat of a fluffy Hawaiian roll, and pork dumplings that have a nice sear but won’t leave a lasting impression. But don’t overdo it on small bites or side dishes. As a bit of quality control, Ramen Tatsu-Ya doesn’t offer to-go containers (though you can bring your own), so make sure you leave room to finish what you start.
Ramen Tatsu-Ya doesn’t make their own mochi ice, but that’s not important. The small starch rice orbs ($1.50) that feel like a racquetball enclose creamy buttons of ice cream that end dinner on a light note. Choose from strawberry, macha or, my favorite, mango.
It’s a good thing that the desserts are bite-sized because by the time you’ve concluded dinner, you start to get the feeling – from employees and those in line – that maybe it’s best you free up a seat. The meal doesn’t feel harried, but it’s not the kind of place you feel compelled to stay and discuss that book you just read. It is either a horrible place for a first date, or the perfect one: If it doesn’t go well, you’ve spent only 30 minutes eating together, and if it does, well, you can always go get coffee somewhere afterward.
The line can be intimidating at times, but I’ve never had to wait more than 15 minutes to eat at Ramen Tatsu-Ya. As with most things in life, it’s about timing. And if you come at rush hour, you can spend your wait time catching up with friends or making new ones.
Leaving one evening, I interviewed a few groups of people who looked to have about a 30-minute wait ahead of them. I wanted to know what brought them there and what compelled them to wait. Besides the obvious (good, hard-to-find ramen), their varied answers confirmed my suspicions. Several had lived in or traveled to places like New York and L.A., where ramen is plentiful. One group of engineering students had heard praise through word-of-mouth, while a 30-something convert had originally come after seeing the long line, assuming it must be good.
The one thing they all had in common? They were eager return-customers.
With East Side King planning to add ramen to the menu at their new Hole in the Wall location, and Michi prepping a move to a restaurant on North Lamar Boulevard, it seems the ramen craze is only beginning to heat up. And it appears there are more than enough willing and hungry participants prepared to reap the rewards of a little culinary competition.