By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Kate LeSueur
“So, y’all are…not serving lunch?” the guy asks.
No, and the absent line stretching down past the post office and into the parking lot should have been a good clue. When Ramen Tatsu-Ya is open, it’s standing room only. “I basically live here,” Tatsu Aikawa says.
“I’ve worked fourteen-hour days for the past year and anything I cook, I cook here or at our commissary kitchen, which we had to open because we outgrew this place.” His signature broth—creamy from pork marrow and in every other way adorned with, as he says, “lotsa, lotsa pork”—takes 60 hours, give or take. Once in a while, Tatsu just gives up and sleeps here.
Perhaps the only thing separating this Monday from a regular restaurant day is the absence of pork. “I crave green stuff sometimes,” Tatsu says, as if admitting to a misdemeanor. “I’m making a tofu salad. Tofu’s a great foundation—very neutral…plus whatever herbs I can find…shiso, spinach, garlic chives, pea tendrils.”
He’s also found a bag of key limes, three perfect jalapeños, one avocado, a bunch of purple basil and a smattering of okra pods. Yes, this salad is uncharacteristically light and simple, not to mention quick—Tatsu says he could throw it together in five minutes if he were cooking for himself. But his mother’s in town from L.A., so he takes a little extra time with presentation. His knife flashes; the raw ingredients take on a composed, sculptural look he may have learned working at Musashino, or maybe not.
“I never went to ramen school or anything,” Tatsu says. In fact, his formal education consists of graduating from high school—“four different Austin high schools,” he says. “And then I started out dishwashing and moved up from there.” Along with Ramen Tatsu-Ya’s co-owner, Takuya Matsumoto—a veteran of Second Bar + Kitchen—Tatsu worked nights as a hip-hop DJ, a vocation that seemed more likely to be his road to success than soup. “Ramen…” he says dreamily. “I just learned from memory, trying to re-create this Southern style, the taste, the pork, thinking about the different regions, the different flavors—how to explain it? I could sit and talk about ramen for hours.”
Tatsu’s mother, Makiko, who has walked straight from the front door to the stove, has a different explanation. All of that food brilliance? The flair that generated the national buzz? That recent appearance on Bon Appétit’s Top 50 New Restaurants list? It began with her, in her home kitchen in Tokyo. “In this family, we love to eat,” Makiko says. “I worked fourteen hours, too, raising him and his brother, cooking for them. I made homemade udon, homemade bread…I was living in the kitchen. I sent them to school with lunches, sometimes bento boxes. Those lunches were works of art.”
When Tatsu was 10, she brought him and Shion to the U.S. for a year of English-language immersion that somehow never came to an end. “I looked at Hawaii, Los Angeles, Denver,” she remembers, “but Austin? Austin was a cool place. Whole Foods [Market] was just a small shop then.” Tatsu throws a handful of dried shrimp into a pan of oil heating at the stove, instructing his mother, in Japanese, just how long to heat them so that they become a crispy—rather than burnt—salad addition.
“I made ramen for him when he was very small,” Makiko says, firmly in control. “I’d tell him and his brother: just sit there at the table! Don’t move! Don’t go play! Because when this ramen’s done, you can’t even wait one minute; you have to eat it right away. And that’s how he is now. When he sends out a ramen, if they can’t find a customer, he just dumps it out and starts over. Ramen is something you have to eat right now. He got this from me.” Clearly, this makes her proud, right? “Well,” she says, “I always criticize, but my husband and I are real foodies and we go to all the places in L.A., Momofuku…”
“Mom. That’s gonna burn,” Tatsu interrupts.
With Tatsu safely out of the kitchen and the flame turned down, Makiko feels freer to brag on her son. “It’s so good, this place…not even a high-end restaurant…all natural and not too expensive, so ordinary people can pay the price.”
Some of them aren’t so ordinary, though. From the beginning, Ramen Tatsu-Ya has attracted a disproportionate number of fans from the ramen-loving East and West Coasts, and quite a few celebrities along the lines of Robert Rodriguez, though they wait in line for ramen just like everyone else. The line is not un-fun. It’s a little like trying to get into Studio 54 in the 1980s, if Studio 54 had been friendly and democratic and the hipsters never butted ahead of the suburbanites. People get to know each other and sometimes end up sitting together, though they can’t exactly linger—not with the next hundred people coveting their seats.
Tatsu reappears. Time to eat. In the dining room, he adjusts a pea tendril, then drizzles on shrimp soy. A simple, non-pork-based salad has somehow become a work of art.
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” Makiko says. “You know, we have a famous flower arranger in our family.” So maybe it’s hereditary. Or maybe it started right here.