A decade ago, restaurant partners Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto added some barbecue into a bowl of their ramen. The pair had opened Ramen Tatsu-Ya in Austin the year before, and Aikawa was providing barbecue from a few Lockhart joints for the staff’s family meal. He added it to the ramen, and a combination that now seems obvious was born. I enjoyed every drop of a smoked shoyu brisket ramen special at Ramen Tatsu-Ya in 2019, and three years later the concept has evolved into a permanent restaurant with the opening of BBQ Ramen Tatsu-Ya this past October.
BBQ Ramen Tatsu-Ya is in the building that formerly housed Contigo, and Aikawa said taking over the space felt like coming full circle. It was in a 2015 episode of BBQ With Franklin filmed at the late Contigo where Aikawa powdered smoked and dehydrated brisket, a sort of land-based version of bonito flakes, to flavor a pork-based tonkotsu broth. You’ll find neither powdered brisket nor tonkotsu at the new restaurant, but you will find plenty that makes this shop unique from their other Ramen Tatsu-Ya locations.
This is the group’s tenth restaurant, and those that came before could have easily provided the building blocks for a barbecue concept. Kemuri Tatsu-Ya has a full barbecue menu to pull from; all the broth could have come from Ramen Tatsu-Ya; and the noodles could’ve continued to be ordered from supplier Sun Noodle. That wasn’t Aikawa’s vision. “I wanted to have a dedicated space to pay homage to the craftsmanship” of both barbecue and noodle-making, he explained. “I didn’t want to just slap barbecue onto what we had already been doing,” Aikawa continued. “I wanted to make something from scratch.”
All the meats at BBQ Ramen Tatsu-Ya are smoked with oak on site in a barrel-style rotisserie smoker made by Heartland Cookers. Josh Carbajal, who previously worked the pits at Kemuri, handles the smoking. Rather than smoking briskets whole, they’re cut into chunks before smoking. Aikawa compared them to the tuna saku blocks used for sushi. It makes for a shorter cooking time and more surface area for smoke and seasoning. Slices of the brisket (choose from fatty or lean) can be added to any bowl of ramen, as can smoked pork belly, chicken, sausage, and roast beef, but don’t ask for a tray of just barbecue. “I think you can get that anywhere,” Aikawa said, referring to the many barbecue options in Austin.
The #18 Texas Torishō is the ramen bowl designed for brisket. It starts with a clear smoked chicken broth; mustard greens, a smoked tomato half, and the obligatory halved ajitama egg are added. Both fatty brisket (called “brisket o-toro” on the menu) and lean slices float above the noodles, and are topped with grated ginger. Aikawa prefers you sip some of the broth before diving into the noodles. This broth is slick with fat, and the smoky aroma is deep. During an early visit shortly after opening, the brisket was tough and the pork belly burnt, but both were superb on a more recent visit. The slices of lean brisket were especially good after being fetched from the broth.
The noodles beneath are different from the thinner noodles used at Ramen Tatsu-Ya, and these are made on-site daily. “I wanted a noodle that goes along with the strength of barbecue,” Aikawa said. These are thicker, more like udon in size, and have considerable chew. Aikawa said he lost count after four hundred test batches as he tried to hone the moisture content and the kneading required to develop gluten so the noodles don’t dissipate in the hot broth. Using water with high alkalinity is also important, and Aikawa found that adding some of the ash used to cook the barbecue was just the ingredient he needed to boost it.
Some of the bowls here stray from what you might recognize as traditional ramen, like the #20 Texas Red Tsukemen. The noodles and broth are served separately. In this case, the broth is a red Texas chili made with chopped brisket, toasted chiles, beef broth, and Japanese dashi. Some miso is added in for an umami pop, and a squeeze of lime over the noodles is encouraged to add some acid to the mix as you dip the noodles into the chili.
When the noodles are gone, there’s usually still chili left, so they serve a bowl of Fritos, rough-shredded cheddar, smoked jalapeño, and sour cream on the side so you can make your own Frito pie as a second course. I loved the noodles, the Frito pie, and the concept of the whole dish. “I want it to be new and completely different, but I want it to be like when they eat it, they feel at home,” Aikawa said. I’ve never had more fun eating ramen than with that dish.
Before the steaming bowls arrive, there are several appetizers to choose from. Kick off the fun with a bowl of bean dip that features the familiar flavor of Ranch Style beans, which are pureed and topped with a layer of white miso cheddar sauce. The smoked pecans are great to munch on with their subtle heat and sweetness. A jar of pimento cheese gets a kick from wasabi, and features pickled daikon rather than pimentos. The side sampler menu reads like that of a Texas barbecue joint: Potato salad, greens, slaw, and pickles come in small bowls reminiscent of the banchan served with Korean barbecue.
Aikawa said the menu will evolve, and the service style may as well. Diners line up to order at the register, then take their seat at an assigned table where the food and drinks are delivered. Aikawa wanted the experience to mimic a visit to a Texas barbecue joint, but there are too many menu options to consider at the register. The pressure of hungry customers behind you can lead to less-careful consideration of everything available. Aikawa said he’s considering a change to table service, which I think would be wise. It would make it easier to peruse the drink menu as well, which includes a few cocktails, several local beers on draft including a crisp smoked Märzen from Live Oak Brewing, and a few sake and wine options.
There are also some new ramen options on the way. A creamy chicken paitan broth will be available soon, and Aikawa is even toying with some brothless ramen bowls that will more closely mimic a barbecue combo plate. “Maybe we can treat the noodles like bread,” he said, and serve it with barbecue and a side or two in the same bowl. It’s just one of the many variations Aikawa is considering with this newest version of the Tatsu-Ya brand. He argues that ramen and barbecue have more in common than we might expect at first glance. “Everybody’s obsessed with certain shops. That’s the same in Japan,” he said back in 2015 BBQ With Franklin segment. That rings true for Texas barbecue eight years later, and the new BBQ Ramen Tatsu-Ya just might become known as the first of its kind when it comes to Austin-style ramen.