Do you enjoy cooking (or at least experimenting), love exceptional ingredients and appreciate unique experiences?
Then I’d bet that the DipDipDip Tatsu-Ya’s nabemono (hot pot) dinner will provide one of your most enjoyable dining experiences in recent memory.
Are you prone to sneezing when fragrant steam hits your face? Does accidentally eavesdropping on an awkward second date make you nervous? Do you struggle with doing two things at once, like maintaining a conversation while trying not to overcook pricey A5 Wagyu? If so, the dinner might make you a little skittish.
Chef-owner Tatsu Aikawa ushered in Austin’s ramen craze with Ramen Tatsu-Ya, which now includes three popular locations and mashed up Texas roadhouse and Japanese izakaya cultures and cuisines with his team at Kemuri Tatsu-Ya. His latest, which opened next to Tacodeli in a North Austin shopping center this summer, celebrates the communal, hands-on experience of hot pot dining that the chef enjoyed as a child with his family in Japan.
Staff welcomes you with a shouted "Irasshaimase" as you enter the tight, dark dining room with aisles of long tables sectioned off by (mandatory) reservations with sliding wooden barriers. The energizing welcome let’s you know that this is going to be a fun experience, one that does not reward timidness.
You take a seat in your own little cooking cockpit surrounded by intricate woodwork from the artists at Austin’s A&K Woodworking and Design, and a server swings around to explain how it all works. The recessed circular area in front of you will hold your individual hot pot (a change of pace from some Chinese restaurants where a pot will be shared by the table). You choose one of four broths for your ozen (set up) that also comes with rice and three dipping sauces to serve as your culinary baseline.
From there, you can choose one of about a dozen cuts of quality beef and pork, dishes like meatballs and tofu-skin-wrapped pot pockets, vegetables and more, but the long a la carte roster may confuse you. Fortunately, DipDipDip has created three omakase experiences, ranging from $45 to $95, with the more expensive menus adding items to the foundational elements of the most economical, topping out with the inclusion of certified A5 Wagyu beef from Japan. Even for a master menu reader, confident orderer and mild control freak like myself, I found that the omakase was the right way to go. It will make sure you get a nice variety, and if there is something you must eat again, you can always order seconds a la carte. The middle road of the Tatsu-Ya Omakase will likely suffice for many, but I prefer the Baller Omakase (more on why in a minute).
Austin has few restaurants serving hot pots — Basil Thai, Li Hot Pot & BBQ, and A&A Schuan among them — but DipDipDip sets itself apart with an elegant atmosphere, near ritualized service and guided instruction and, most importantly, next-level quality ingredients. And a pour of Nimbus from Kumo Sake never hurt.
The server delivers your pot to the recessed heating circle and sets your cooking time with a knob that features a digital display. I recommend either the vegetarian kombu dashi broth with kelp, a mild and herbaceous concoction that will not overwhelm any flavors of your proteins or vegetables; or the silky 50-hour pork bone tonkotsu from the ramen masters if you want to double down on meaty flavor. The only broth with which I took exception was the tonyu name, the milky broth leaving a thin, slimy film on my cooked items. A server, working in a fluid and accommodating team structure, will stop by occasionally to replenish your broth.
Wooden trays carrying various shades of raw meat portioned in three-ounce servings are delivered and stacked in a column at the side of your cockpit. You will find a card at your table explaining how long or how many brothy swishes are required to cook your meats and veggies to different degrees of doneness. Unless you are a monster who puts ketchup on your well-done steak, I’d err on the side of undercooking. You’re only going to need three or four quick passes through the broth to fade the scarlet Texas Wagyu sirloin from Strube Ranch in East Texas. Using your wooden thongs, run the velvety beef through the broth, then dip it again, this time in the truffle sukiyaki dip with its soy, mirin, beef tallow, poached egg and truffle paste, for a luxurious, minerally, perfumed bite.
You’ll mix and match to find which dips work best with each protein. Citrus ponzu brightens chicken and shrimp meatballs that are plopped into the broth by your server, who extracts them from a fluted wooden carrying case directly into your cauldron. You’ll remove them from their roiling bath with a slotted spoon at your station. Things are tight, so keep your elbows in and figure out where you are going to place your food (I suggest your rice bowl) before you cook and retrieve them. The truffle sauce comes with each onzen, as does as a nutty and creamy gomadare sesame dip that works well with the slices of MugiFuij pork belly.
You can add dips, such as the spicy funk of a kimchi ranch and the stoner-friendly Keep Austin Dipping queso (both touches you’d expect from the owner of Kemuri Tatsu-Ya), though the two dips that accompany each ozen should suffice. (Dipping the Strube Ranch sirloin in the queso and then piling it into a steamed bun ordered a la carte and hitting it with peppered relish makes for a nice take on a cheesesteak.)
Of course, the Rolls Royce of the meats selection needs no assistance. Some places will tell you they serve Japanese A5 Wagyu, but not many will present the gorgeous meat with a certificate of authenticity explaining the breed, owner and origin of the meat. The bubble gum colored meat comes as part of the $95 Baller Omakase and can be ordered a la carte at $30 for three ounces. Is it exorbitant? Yes. Indulgent? Obviously. Is this something you’re going to be doing more than once or twice a year? Probably not. So, live a little. And if you love the taste of beef, you probably owe it to yourself. The marbled fat of A5 Wagyu is too unctuous for me to eat as a whole steak (give me a Texas ribeye), but presented here in paper-thin slices, the rippled waves shine with the essence of beefy flavor. Dip it if you must, but at least try it unadorned first.
Lest you think DipDipDip only caters to the carnivore in us all, there is also a beautiful wooden box stuffed with stunningly fresh asparagus, Chinese broccoli, mushrooms and leafy greens. Just don’t let them lose their snap and vitality at the bottom of your broth. After making your way through the raw meats of your omakase, you’ll encounter fun dishes like the funky ooze of raclette and mushroom stuffed inside tofu-skin-wrapped Pot Pockets; delicate and delicious dumplings packed with crab and lemon butter or pork and cheese grits that will challenge your cooking skills and deft touch; and, for the Ballers, a thin bundle of sirloin, foie gras and daikon.
Just when you think you might have all you need for the night, a server pushes a walled cart to your table. It’s like a farmers market stall meets a Neiman Marcus catalogue, where you’ll find massive scallops (do it, and dip it in the citrus ponzu) and tofu-skin-wrapped bacon and mochi balls (don’t do it) to order a la carte. It’s another bit of sensory overload and surprise at a restaurant that hums with the energy of both.
By the time dessert rolls around, you might wonder if you’re going to have to bake your own taiyaki. But the last surprise is the beauty of simplicity, in the form of a refreshing granita, which could be honeydew with honeydew pearls and Greek yogurt or a pear version with poached pears and goat cheese. For a restaurant that knows how to bring the heat, it’s a very cool finish.
Austin360 Dining Guide: Top 50 Restaurants in Austin | Kemuri Tatsu-Ya (#10) | Ramen Tatsu-Ya (#22)
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