After forever changing Austin’s perception of ramen, Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto turned their talents toward fusing the Japanese cuisine of their heritage with the Texas barbecue of their youth. Appropriately enough, the idea for Kemuri Tatsu-Ya came to Aikawa while eating barbecue among the smokestacks in Lockhart.
Kemuri means smoke in Japanese, and it is steeped in Kemuri Tatsu-Ya’s location–Live Oak Barbecue’s cow-painted and smoke-stained walls remain–and the menu. Kemuri is hi-fi food in a lo-fi setting, although the place needs the patina of a couple decades of mops and slops before achieving true dive-level decor (see Spiderhouse).
Aikawa and Matsumoto patterned Kemuri after an izakaya, an informal Japanese pub. In true izakaya fashion, staff greet you with a shout of “Irasshaimase” (“Welcome!”) and a oshibori (wet towel) to clean your hands. We arrived right at opening and were seated immediately (there’s a rickshaw bar at the door if you have to wait for a table but can’t wait for a drink), but the indoor seats were already spoken for. So we sat outside, where most of the seating is.
Sitting out of doors is not a deal killer for us but (1) it was about 40 degrees out and (2) we weren’t expecting to sit outside so we weren’t exactly dressed for it. So we started our meal comically waving the breathe out of our faces so we could see the menus. But after a few minutes under a nearby gas heater and, more importantly, strong drinks, we were as warm as Siberian soldiers guarding the frontier with a bottle of potato rotgut.
Although the food and drinks are mighty fine, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya is not fine dining. This is an informal place to hang out with friends, try some inventive bites, and drink good saki. The bride started with one of the drink specials, the Hot Toddy (honey, citrus, bitters; $13) ’cause, you know: 40 degrees. I went with another drink special, the Iwai No Aka Oyuwari (imo [sweet potato shochu] and hot water; $9). Food is served tapas-style: you order as you go, which is great in calibrating how much you want to eat and maximizing spirited menu choices as the alcohol takes hold.
The Blistered Shishito (with barley miso aioli and bonito flake; $9) was good (as the bride says, shishitos are like migas; everyone does them different, but they are all delicious). From the daily specials, we chose the Mentaiko Crema N Veggies (farm fresh veggies with house yuzu crema; $8), which were good for greens. From the smoked menu, we tried the Mackerel (with lemon and Maldon salt; $10) and the Duck Breast (with orange ponzu; $10)–both good but not transcendental. The Miso Marinated Scallop ($8) from the kushiyaki menu was, however, fantastic: flavorful and savory acrobatics on the tongue.
Since our feet were getting cold again, we re-upped our alcohol intake with a fusioned Matcha Painkiller (buckwheat sochu, tequila, pineapple, coconut, and matcha tea; $13) served in a kittycup and a glass of Cowboy Yamahai’s Junmai Ginjo (with hints of straw, leather, and s’mores; $15). The Painkiller was sweet and easy, but the Cowboy was eyeopeningly good. Our server gave us a wee tutorial on sake, explaining that sake is warmed to hide imperfections. The Cowboy, purposefully overfilled into a bamboo box (which you drink from after the glass is empty), was dry and delicious with amazing nuances. With new drinks in hand, we ended our eating with the daily special Chawanmushi (savory egg custard, lump crab, menma, mushroom; $10) served beautifully in a little ceramic cup.
Kemuri Tatsu-Ya has gotten a lot of local, statewide, and national press: James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant of 2018, Eater Austin Restaurant of the Year, Austin Chronicle’s Best New Restaurant, Austin Monthly Restaurant of the Year, Bon Appetit 8th Best New Restaurant 2017, one of Eater’s Best New Restaurants in America 2017, and GQ’s Best New Restaurants in America 2017. Although we found Kemuri good, we can’t say that we were feeling it like GQ and James Beard did (or head-over-heels it like Ramen Tatsu-Ya). Kemuri is certainly unique: who else has fused Japanese cuisine with Texas barbecue, and where else but Austin could this occur?
Perhaps we didn’t try the right items; for example, the Texas Ramen is made with beef bones with a Texas chile oil using smoked brisket drippings, paprika, cumin, and Mexican oregano. Or perhaps we weren’t adventurous enough: the untouched chinmi (“rare taste”) menu offers Tako Wasa (marinated octopus and chopped wasabi), Shio Kara (squid marinated in its own guts), and Marinated Jellyfish (chopped sweet n sour marinated jellyfish), among others (although we don’t eat octopus for moral reasons). Or perhaps we needed to be there with friends to take full advantage of the atmosphere (when you’ve been a couple for more than 30 years, all you have left to talk about is incontinence and corn fritters).
Although not high on our list of must-returns, we would like to go back and try the beef-based ramen and some of the more adventurous items. Perhaps then the kemuri will clear and we will see the light…
web&where: interwebs; 2713 east 2nd street; menu
what’s the deal? Texas barbecue-Japanese fusion in a lo-fi setting; table service
overall: *** (food***; drink****; atmosphere***; service****; instagrammability***)
does it scramble? Nope.
– meh [think twice]
* OK [it’ll get the job done]
** good [solid neighborhood joint]
*** damn good [we’ll definitely be back]
**** yippity-yikes that was amazeballs [fantastic; one of the best]
***** holy sh!t [transcendental; best of the best]
Iwai No Aka Oyuwari and Hot Toddy
smoked duck breast
Miso Marinated Scallop
Cowboy Yamahai’s Junmai Ginjo
Mentaiko Crema N Veggies