Before Lucky Peach, a food quarterly by Momofuku’s David Chang, exploded into our consciousness with its first issue – one wholly dedicated to ramen – most food enthusiasts on the east and west coasts were already keenly aware of the growing noodle situation happening in the United States. But somewhere between our immigration patterns and our rooted Southern culture, the ramen movement didn’t make it down south. At least, not yet. There isn’t a single outstanding restaurant dedicated solely to ramen art in Dallas, and there wasn’t a single one in Austin, either, until Ramen Tatsu-Ya (owned by Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto) opened at the end of August this year. Then the ramen scene in Texas changed.
Jump for the love of noodles.
People (read: Asians) can be such snobs when it comes to ramen. (I’m not talking about the silly cup noodles that you eat with a cheap plastic fork when you’re a broke college student. I’m talking about Japanese soul food: a hot bowl of savory broth with noodles, meat, and garnishes.) Through word of mouth, I’d heard people call Ramen Tatsu-Ya “overrated,” while others defended its merits like a mother lion protecting her cub. The wait, which most people complain about, is long and tedious because Ramen Tatsu-Ya is cramped. It only fits 38 people at one time, according to an Austin Chronicle reviewer. But the excruciating wait is due to the restaurant’s clear glass windows. Not only do these see-through windows allow you to goggle at the red, black, and white interior with matchstick-looking ropes hanging over light fixtures, it also forces you to witness those 38 lucky people slurping on their soups while you stand outside in the cold with your stomach grumbling, “Go eat somewhere else.”
But before you decide to leave the line, do yourself a favor. Wait.
Sure, you might be standing outside the shop for an entire hour, but that’s what good ramen does. It makes you wait. Once you order and get seated, though, it’s all smooth sailing from there. The ramen comes almost instantly to your table.
My tonkatsu original ($8.50) arrived with a thin layer of skin forming on the top. A perfect ajitama egg half floated serenely next to fatty pieces of pork belly, wood ear mushrooms, and scallions inside cloudy pork broth. I refrained from getting any of the additional toppings, like the naruto maki (fish cakes) and menma (marinated bamboo), in order to taste the original broth without extra parts floating around. The noodles were both chewy and easy to slurp down, but the broth, which started off creamy and delicious, began to taste saltier and saltier as time went by. I’m usually one to lift my bowl high in the air and gulp every last bit of soup down my esophagus, but this time I couldn’t. The broth was too salty.
It was the same for the tsukemen ($10.50), which is a new style of ramen. Thick noodles come in one bowl, and a rich dipping sauce – comprised of soup stock, vinegar, and soy sauce – comes in another. After you dip your noodles into the sauce, you add a squeeze of lime juice for acidity. The noodles in the tsukemen are thicker, bouncier, and more springy than the noodles inside the tonkatsu original, but the dipping sauce hovered on the salty side, too. This prompted me and my pals to order a small matcha mochi ice dessert ($1.50) to refresh our palates. Amazingly enough, it did the trick. One, two, three bites, and the thin layer of pounded sticky rice filled with green tea ice cream was gone. It cleansed our mouths from the salt.
Despite the overwhelming broth, I’d go back to Ramen Tatsu-Ya in a heartbeat. (Next time I’ll definitely add Parmesan cheese just to see why cheesy ramen is all the craze in Japan.) There are few places in Texas that make ramen noodles as springy as they do over in Austin, and I’m glad it’s just the beginning of what I suspect will be a mass ramen rage down South. Just last week, I caught Paul Qui, James Beard and Top Chef: Texas winner, tweeting about ramen experiments. His new brick-and-mortar restaurant for his Asian street food-style concept, East Side King, is opening December 4 with promises of hype-worthy ramen. North Austin is also getting Michi Ramen, an old food truck turned brick-and-mortar service, which should be opening any day now.
The ramen rage in Austin is spreading like wildfire. Let’s hope it reaches Dallas, fast.