- By Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Think about the idea of “fusion cuisine.” What comes to mind? Spicy chicken pizza from Wolfgang Puck? Maybe wasabi mashed potatoes or, that recent abomination, sushi burritos?
Of course, those are the easy targets. There’s nothing inherently wrong or hackneyed about melding cuisines — without the concept we wouldn’t have the Vietnamese banh mi; tam ka shrimp and grits from the late Kin & Comfort; or a transcendent French-Japanese dish like foie gras nigiri.
Pulling off such fusion requires the kind of thoughtfulness you don’t often find in Frankenfoods like naan tacos or doughnut hamburgers. If you want success, you need intention, a point of view and a grounded place from which to start.
The Tokyo-born and Austin-raised Tatsu Aikawa and native Austinite and first generation Japanese-American Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto ignited the local ramen craze when they opened their first Ramen Tatsu-Ya in 2012. With their latest restaurant, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, they pull from their two cultural and culinary backgrounds for a transcendent mash-up, an izakaya smokehouse that blurs the lines between Japan and Texas.
Walk into the vibrant dining room designed by locals McCray & Co. (Lenoir, Ramen Tatsu-Ya) and the shouted greeting of “Irasshaimase” lingers in the air as you make eyes with the first piece of taxidermy. It’s hard to tell where the vintage Lone Star signs and assorted Texana end and Japanese art and artifacts like old beer advertisements begin. Black-and-white samurai movies are projected on a wall visible from the copious outdoor climate-controlled seating area decorated with red lights and more animal horns, as Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” plinks and slinks over the sound system.
Leave it to two hip-hop DJs to find a way to layer seemingly disparate threads into a tight, electric groove that feels wholly original. Yes, they put brisket in their two ramens, but they didn’t just take an existing ramen broth and throw brisket into it (brisket pizza and brisket fried rice, I am looking at you). They built it from the bottom up, with beef as the bedrock component.
For their Texas Ramen ($11), they smoke beef bones for the light broth, like something you would get at a paleo-centric outpost, and fill it with lean brisket, pickled mustard greens and the crunch of mung sprouts. And, never fear, ramen lovers — the marinated, soft-boiled egg is still there. The result is one boot in a Lockhart smokehouse and one in a Kyoto izakaya. You’ll also find the tangy egg in the BBQ Tsukemen ($13), a more savory and complex broth in which you dip your springy noodles before slurping. Save that lime wedge until the halfway mark, as you’ll want the acid to slice the broth’s richness. Pair the two ramens (the only ones on the menu) with the fresh leather of a glass of Cowboy Yamahai sake ($13).
The best of the Texas-Japan hybrid dishes are the chili-cheese takoyaki ($9), the crisp shells of the kewpie-drizzled octopus fritters replicating the crunch of Fritos amid the all-beef Texas chili (no beans here).
The menu is expansive, and most of the non-ramen items are shareable, as is the Puff Puff Pass cocktail ($24), a late-afternoon sunshine mixture of sweet potato shochu, aged rum, grapefruit and five spice bitters served in a ceramic blowfish with a handle fin for easy group rotation as hip-hop duo Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth reminisce. Sticking to the theme, the Munchies section of the menu includes a Texas-Tokyo mash-up by way of the streets of Mexico, with grilled corn blanketed with a sweet and creamy yuzu pepper aioli and cotija cheese ($6). The Hot Pocketz ($5), brisket and goat’s milk gouda melted between fried layers of tofu spackled with a lattice of crackling cheddar, also sound like a late-night creation from an inspired mind.
About half the menu at Kemuri, which means “smoke,” is dedicated to the smoky and grilled culinary arts. The restaurant is housed in the former Live Oak BBQ building, and it does brisket on par with those places not named Franklin or La Barbecue. The fatty brisket ($5 for a few small pieces) runs from a jiggly center to a crimson edge and black bark. They use post oak to smoke the meats, and I think I tasted a touch of mesquite on the exquisite and supple duck breast medallions ($10 for about a half dozen slices), their richness pierced with an orange-ponzu sauce. Mesquite was definitely used to smoke a generous piece of mackerel ($10) that ran a little tough. Herbs and citrus did help cut and moisten the fish’s smoky shroud, and I’d advise ordering a glass of vibrant Green Ridge sake from Nama Genshu ($15), for a little green-apple Jolly Rancher pucker.
The sake would also go well with plump miso marinated scallops ($8) from the skewers menu. But for the chicken and beef, I’d stick with one of the several Japanese whiskeys on offer, including the less-often-seen Iwai ($11 glass). The slightly chewy hearts ($3.50) and succulent thighs brushed with tare ($3.50) were the stars of the chicken skewer section, and the lush beef tongue ($6), seared to a jet-black finish, was the best I’ve eaten in Austin. Or at least it was until the next week when I ordered the daily special beef tongue pastrami ($5), served with seeded mustard and smoked jalapenos. Perfumed crust, iron, melting beef and lively accouterments — it’s everything you want in that dish.
The only problem was the rapid pace at which the skewers (and some of the plates) arrived at the table. It’s hard to complain when grilled meats are executed to perfection and delivered with knowledge and a disarming smile, but the harried pace one night, while befitting the casual format of pub-food and booze-centric izakayas, made us feel like a number in the night’s table-turning math.
All the smoke and fire at Kemuri makes for sturdy and aggressive flavor profiles. Which way do the scales tip on the Texas-Japan continuum? Your clothes will tell you the next day, as your shirt will smell more like a trip to Smitty’s than Osaka. When an excellent roasted banana pudding with miso caramel and a brown sugar crumble ($5) feels like a bright finish to a meal, you know you’ve had a hearty experience. So, if your love for Japanese food ends at lithe fish preparations, robust noodles and herbaceous soups, temper your expectations, or at least know where to look for lighter options, like outstanding soy-marinated tuna poke enlivened with fresh wasabi, citrusy avocado and pickled red onions ($15).
The chinmi menu, a collection of exotics and rarities, also finds ways to break from fire-fueled preparations, as with the slippery snap of marinated sweet-and-sour jellyfish ($4). Even though it is a separate menu (which I think does a distracting disservice), don’t let the chinmi, with its velvety monkfish liver glistening with ponzu ($9) and the gritty ocean funk of salted cod roe ($8), be an afterthought. Those dishes are just as important a piece of the Japanese-Texan mash-up as the chili-strewn octopus balls ($9) or the barbecue eel ($11).
The chinmi dishes are ranked on the menu by their level of funkiness, with Kenny G signifying zero funk and James Brown signifying that nasty funk. Even late Austin icon of weird Leslie gets his own designation. Yes, it’s a clever piece of menu design, but it also speaks to the spirit of a restaurant that fuses so much of what we love about Austin: creative cooking, culture, community, music, irreverence, exploration and a funky good time.