Ramen City: Ramen Tatsu-ya
An ongoing exploration of Austin’s noodle soup of the moment
8557 Research Blvd. #126. 512-834-8810, www.ramen-tatsuya.com.
Hours: 5-10pm Tue-Sun. Lunch 11am-2pm Tue-Fri and noon-3pm Sat-Sun.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.01.13
In the end, it always comes around to “Tampopo.” Any American discussion of ramen, that is. The 1985 Japanese film ritualized ramen the same way Lebowski iconified the White Russian and Heisenberg rebranded Stevia. In that noodle-shop dramedy, Ken Watanabe gets all Grasshopper with a ramen master who brings an Art of War aesthetic to every bite, including how many times to tap the pork on the side of the bowl.
It’s quaint and kitschy until it happens to you. And it will, when you visit Ramen Tatsu-ya, the shop that made Austin go ramena-ramena-ramena when it opened last year. The rules of engagement are printed right on the menu: Chopsticks only, savor the steam, sip and slurp, no soggy noodles, no sharing and no carry-out. It seems like we’ll stand for that kind of micromanagerial condescension in the same lemming-like way we’ll stand in line for anything as long as the Next Big Thing awaits us at the end.
(ABOVE: The extras at Tatsu-ya include a katsu slider and a decor both sparse and playful. AT TOP: The original tonkotsu ramen, supplemented with fishcakes and bamboo.)
I enjoy these kinds of rules about as much as I enjoy a dress code. I know restaurant carry-out doesn’t taste as good as restaurant sit-down. And I didn’t get this statuesque physique by not knowing how to eat soup. And whose business is it if I share? And I know the staff isn’t at my elbow every couple of minutes because they love me. It’s because 38 seats and a line out the door creates a real supply-and-demand vortex, and they need the table.
All the same, the line abides. And for the best and only reason: This is really good food. I followed the rules and tried the factory-standard bowl first, the original tonkotsu ($8.50), with slow-simmered pork broth at its core. The alchemy of bone, fat, marrow and meat created a broth like horchata con carne with a smooth and fragrant finish like a kitchen canvas punctuated by painter’s dots of rendered oil. To that canvas Tatsu-ya added willowy brown mushrooms and ajitama, a boiled egg marinated in soy with a yolk like the ambered center of an ancient alabaster geode. And then pork, blessedly free of tapping protocols. An Olympic medal of chashu, rolled and shaded with dark, light and fatty meat roasted fall-away tender. Just one piece when value and desire called for more.
If the broth might be called the fuel of this bowl, the noodles were the motor that drove it. A lean V-6, nothing fancy, with curves but not curls, efficient but strong. Slurping is like gunning the engine, putting the noodles in motion, slinging soup and sundries like victory doughnuts throwing rubber on the infield. For a handful of change I modified my next couple of rides with swirled sweet fish cakes called naruto maki, sturdy slices of pickled bamboo and turbo-charging “bombs,” little scoops of butter and corn (Corn on the Bomb) or well-mannered chile paste or Fire in a Bowl that jumped in like a scorching pit crew. Each and all, they made the trip that much sweeter.
(ABOVE: No tale of Tatsu-ya can be told without the line that feeds its 38 seats and compels the staff to politely nudge you through dinner. At right is the Ol’ Skool bowl, the only ramen on the menu at lunch, with chicken stock, chashu, ajitama and bamboo.)
The extras extend beyond the bowl, to sweet-and-sour Brussels sprouts (“Yodas”/$3.50), thick vegetable curry over rice ($3-$4) and a katsu slider ($4) that’s a tiny Japanese homage to chicken-fried steak with a bun so sweet it’s like eating a doughnut burger with pancake syrup.
Tatsu-ya’s ramen roster extends to soy-fortified shoyu ($8.75) and miso-style with ground pork and the slow-steady roll of sesame ($9/$10 spicy), along with dry noodles for dipping and veggie ramen on Sundays. Lunch is a recent attraction at Tatsu-ya, a callback to those noodle shops in Japan that give you any kind of ramen you want as long as it’s chicken-broth. Their Ol’ Skool bowl ($9) is clear to the bottom, pleasantly salty with chashu, ajitama, bamboo and a sheet of roasted seaweed like a dorsal fin of flavor in the waves.
To all this, I’ll add only my own rule of ramen: If you don’t have soup on your glasses when you leave, you’re doing it wrong.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)