Texas

A decade of experimentation led this beloved ramen restaurant group to open a BBQ

Ten years ago, restaurant partners Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto added a little barbecue to their ramen plate. The couple had opened Ramen Tatsu-Ya in Austin the year before, and Aikawa cooked barbecues from several Lockhart eateries for the staff’s family lunch. He added it to ramen, and the combination that now seems obvious was born. I enjoyed every drop of shoyu smoked brisket ramen at Ramen Tatsu-Ya in 2019, and three years later the concept turned into a full-time restaurant with the opening of BBQ Ramen Tatsu-Ya this October.

The Ramen Tatsu-Ya BBQ is in the building that used to house the Contigo, and Aikawa said the takeover of the space was like a full circle. It was in a 2015 episode Barbecue with Franklin filmed at the end of the Contigo, where Aikawa grinds smoked and dehydrated brisket, a kind of ground-based version of mackerel flakes, to flavor a pork-based tonkotsu broth. You won’t find ground brisket or tonkotsu at the new restaurant, but you’ll find a lot that makes this store different from other Ramen Tatsu-Ya establishments.

This is the group’s tenth restaurant, and the ones that came before could easily form the basis for a BBQ concept. Kemuri Tatsu-Ya has a full BBQ menu; all the broth could be from Ramen Tatsu-ya; and noodles could still be ordered from the Sun Noodle supplier. This was not Aikawa’s vision. “I wanted to have a special place to pay homage to the craftsmanship of barbecue and noodles,” he explained. “I didn’t want to just add barbecue to what we were already doing,” Aikawa continued. “I wanted to make something from scratch.”

At a Ramen Tatsu-ya barbecue in Austin.
Next to the Ramen Tatsu-Ya BBQ in Austin. Photography by Daniel Vaughn

All meats at BBQ Ramen Tatsu-Ya are oak-smoked on site in a Heartland Cookers Barrel Smoker-Grill. Josh Carbajal, formerly of the pits in Kemuri, is a smoker. Instead of smoking the whole brisket, it is cut into pieces before smoking. Aikawa likened them to tuna saku blocks used to make sushi. This reduces cooking time and increases surface area for smoke and seasoning. Brisket slices (choice of fat or lean) can be added to any plate of ramen, as well as smoked pork belly, chicken, sausage, and roast beef, but don’t ask for a kebab-only tray. “I think you can get it anywhere,” Aikawa said, referring to Austin’s many barbecue options.

#18 Texas Torishō is a ramen bowl designed for brisket. It starts with clear smoked chicken broth; add mustard greens, half a smoked tomato and, of course, half an ajitama egg. Both the fatty brisket (called “o-toro brisket” on the menu) and the lean slices float over the noodles and are topped with grated ginger. Aikawa prefers that you take a sip of the broth before diving into the noodles. This broth is sticky with fat and the smoky flavor is deep. On an early visit shortly after opening, the brisket was tough and the pork belly was burnt, but on a recent visit, both were excellent. The lean brisket slices were especially good after being taken out of the broth.

The noodles at the bottom are different from the thinner noodles used in Ramen Tatsu-Ya. They are inspired by udon and kitakata techniques and are prepared daily on site. “I wanted the noodles to match the strength of the barbecue,” said Aikawa. They are thicker, more like udon in size, and chew well. Aikawa said he lost count after four hundred test batches, trying to hone in on the moisture content and kneading needed to form gluten so the noodles wouldn’t dissolve in the hot broth. The use of high alkalinity water is also important, and Aikawa found that adding a small amount of barbecue ash was exactly the ingredient he needed to boost it.

Some of the bowls here are different from what you might recognize as traditional ramen, such as #20 Texas Red Tsukemen. Noodles and broth are served separately. In this case, the broth is a Texas red chili pepper made from minced brisket, roasted chili, beef broth, and Japanese dashi. A bit of miso is added for the umami flavor, and a bit of acid can be added on top of the noodles when you dip the noodles in chili peppers.

When the noodles are gone, there’s usually chili left, so they serve a plate of Fritos, shredded cheddar, smoked jalapenos, and sour cream to garnish, so you can make your own Frito pie as a side dish. I liked the noodles, Frito pie and the concept of the whole dish. “I want it to be new and completely different, but I want it to feel right at home when they eat it,” Aikawa said. I have never had more fun eating ramen than with this dish.

There are several appetizers to choose from before the steaming plates are brought. Start the fun with a plate of bean sauce with the familiar taste of ranch-style beans, pureed and topped with a layer of white cheddar miso sauce. Smoked pecans are great for chewing because of their subtle tangy and sweet flavor. A jar of cheese with pepper gets a wasabi effect and contains pickled daikon instead of pepper. The side sampler menu looks like a Texas barbecue menu: potato salad, greens, slaw, and pickles are served in small bowls reminiscent of the banchan served with Korean barbecue.

Aikawa said the menu will evolve, as will the style of service. Customers line up to order at the checkout counter and then take their seats at a designated table where food and drinks are delivered. Aikawa wanted this to mimic visiting a Texas barbecue bar, but there are too many menu options at the checkout counter to consider. The pressure of hungry customers behind you can lead to less scrutiny of everything in stock. Aikawa said that he was considering changing the table setting, which I think would be wise. It would also make it easier to browse the drinks menu, which includes several cocktails, several local beers on tap, including Live Oak Brewing’s crispy smoked Märzen, and several sake and wine options.

Several new ramen variants are also on the way. Paitan creamy chicken broth will be available soon, and Aikawa is even playing with a few bowls of broth-free ramen that will more closely mimic a combo BBQ plate. “Maybe we can treat noodles like bread,” he said, and serve them with barbecue and a side dish or two in one bowl. This is just one of the many options that Aikawa is considering for this newest iteration of the Tatsu-Ya brand. He claims that ramen and barbecue have more in common than one would expect at first glance. “Everyone is obsessed with certain stores. It’s the same in Japan,” he said back in 2015. Barbecue with Franklin segment. It rings true for a Texas BBQ eight years later, and the new Ramen Tatsu-Ya BBQ could be the first of its kind when it comes to Austin-style ramen.

Barbecue Ramen Tatsu-Ya
2027 Anchor Lane, Austin
Telephone: 833-782-5683
Clock: Monday-Thursday 5-10, Friday-Sunday 11-10
Pitmaster: Joshua Carbajal
Method: Oak in a grilled smokehouse
Opening year: 2022

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