The giant lucky cat that sits at the corner of California and Ridgewood in Montrose welcomes walk-in diners to the casual and über-cool Ramen Tatsu-ya, which opened this past February. It’s called a maneki-neko (literally “beckoning cat,” in Japanese), and it’s hard to miss; just look for the gaggle of people outside posing with the whiskered kitty.
The tsukemen, a condensed dipping broth, developed during painstaking hours in which pork bone is cooked down, is not a typical bowl of ramen, but it’s definitely the way to go. The noodles and broth arrive separately, each in its own bowl, accompanied by one piece of chashu (soy-braised pork belly), ajitama (marinated soft-boiled egg), nori (roasted seaweed) and lime. Tiny bits of chopped goma pork sink to the bottom of the broth bowl; the treasure was especially nice because it was unexpected. In the noodle bowl lay Tatsu-ya’s version of chashu, a lonely, lean piece of pork belly sans that exterior layer of fat and skin that is a beloved and gluttonous part of the pork belly experience.
A small mound of Korean chile pepper threads tops the broth. The hair-thin fibers have a smoky, subtle fire similar to that of Aleppo crushed red peppers. Chopped scallions float about the creamy, rich broth, and are an important component of tonkotsu (pork-based broth). The art of slurping comes into play when you’re eating dipping-broth noodles. Yes, it’s okay to slurp; it’s even encouraged since it is an accepted show of respect and approval of the meal (at least in Japan).
The word “tatsu-ya” is a combination of the names of the two Japan-born, Texas-bred chef and owners, Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto. These Austinites were DJs before they started slinging noodles in 2013. The Austin locations have received acclaim from local media as well as at a national level, with Ramen Tatsu-ya being cited as one of the best new restaurants in 2013 by Bon Appétit.
Tatsu-ya may have a more difficult time winning over ramen lovers in Houston. There is no shortage of ramen in our city. With places like Tiger Den, Jinya Ramen and Soma already making best-of lists for locals, it’s hard to imagine what advantage an Austin-transplant ramen house could have over restaurants that have continually performed well in the Japanese noodle game.
The dining area is spaciously laid out with two large communal tables anchored in the center of the room, lined with wooden boxed chairs that are well-cushioned for comfort, a handful of banquette four-tops to one side and a semiprivate booth on the adjacent side. The walls are graffitied with black, white and red street art depicting characters and scenes that may very well have lived and breathed in a retro Godzilla movie.
The front porch is welcoming, designed as a nice, sheltered area with benches for anxious eaters and the unlucky who have to wait for everyone in their party to arrive before even entertaining the idea of ordering or scoping out a table inside.
The efficient ordering and seating process is appreciated. A host greets you and you wait in line for your turn at the register. The actual ramen part of the menu is easy: Pick a style, additional toppings and bombs, and another host/server directs your party to your table. When ordering dessert, you pay ahead of time and receive a paper square to take with you. When you’re ready, a server will deliver the dessert to your table.
Toppings vary from the traditional ramen sidekicks such as naruto maki (pink and white swirled slices of fish cake), menma (bamboo shoots) and kikurage (woodear mushroom) to less-familiar options like the flash-fried brussels sprouts, fried tofu and parmesan.
On our first visit, we decided to have the bowl exactly the way it was prepared. At $9.75, the tonkotsu sho-yu is priced similarly to that dish at other ramen restaurants, but the difference lies in all that comes with the bowl.
Here’s the breakdown: A bowl of tonkotsu at an unnamed local ramen place costs $8, while a comparable bowl of tonkotsu at Tatsu-ya costs $9.50. With the addition of all the missing components that came with the former bowl (a second piece of chashu and menma), the Tatsu-ya tonkotsu ramen would be $13.75. Kind of a big difference.
We sampled the original tonkotsu on a follow-up visit and found it to be pleasant, but not outstanding. That is, until the $1.50 fire-in-a-bowl bomb was dropped in the broth. The Thai chile and habanero paste really delivers the heat.
Tatsu-ya’s strength lies in its cocktails, small bites, sides and two simple, yet delicious dessert options. Because it’s a beer- and wine-only establishment, true cocktails are not on the menu, but adding sake, a rice wine, to exotic, carbonated mixtures like the Hibi-Gibi or the Bae-Zilla makes for a pretty good substitute. The Hibi-Gibi is a delightful combination of hibiscus and lemongrass-infused tea, simple syrup and sake, and the Bae-Zilla is a crazy-cool concoction of Thai basil limeade with basil seeds all up in the mix.
Judging from every table in the dining room, the brussels sprouts were not to be overlooked. The sweet and sour yodas tipped the scale on the sour side with a tad too much balsamic vinegar, but they were tasty, flash-fried morsels that, oddly, resembled tiny, wrinkled green versions of the Jedi Master himself.
Hush piggies need to be the next big food trend in Houston. They’re playfully named for the porky mixture inside each panko-crusted, deep-fried ball, and the taste was on point. The piggies are presented in a pool of katsu sauce and topped with a frenetic pile of katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Bonito flakes are fermented, dried and smoked skipjack tuna that “dance” when they are touched by heat waves. These three little piggies were very tasty.
We also tried the gyoza, the munchie slider and the curry rice as well. We enjoyed the pan-fried gyoza, which are homemade and filled with pork. The accompanying dipping sauce tasted like a light soy. The slider is a panko-crusted beef patty on a sweet Hawaiian roll, with katsu sauce and a lightly pickled cabbage slaw. The curry sauce on the rice is deep, slightly sweet and very fragrant. Softened potatoes and carrots are included in the sauce and make for a great vegan option.
The yuzupioca was the better of the two dessert options. The unexpected addition of pink peppercorn crumble makes this sweet treat a definite standout. The use of yuzu is not commonplace, but the citrusy tartness mingles well with the macerated strawberry and fresh basil.
Ramen Tatsu-ya offers three types of broth, pork, chicken and vegetable-based, setting it apart from many other ramen shops in Houston that offer only a pork-based version.
Owners Aikawa and Matsumoto were very serious about educating and providing a cultural experience of Japanese soul food. The making of the broth is sometimes a 36-plus-hour process that requires accuracy and commitment to craft.
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Where they really shine is in the creativity of the space and the menu and the superb service that is impeccably disguised as casual encounters as one arrives and at the table. Although the noodles are not made in-house (according to Ramen in Common’s founder, Carl Rosa, most Japanese noodle joints buy their noodles, so that should not be a factor in determining greatness), the ramen is pretty solid.
Check out the hush piggies, and order the tsukemen with the fire-in-a-bowl bomb for a ticket to spice town.
1722 California, 346-226-3253, ramen?tatsuya.com. Hours: Monday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Hibi-gibi punch (with sake) $5
Bae-zilla (with sake) $6
Tonkotsu sho-yu ramen $9.75
Tsukemen ramen $13
Tonkotsu original $9.50
Sweet and sour yodas $3.75
Hush piggies $5.75
Munchie katsu slider $4
Curry bowl $4
Fire-in-a-bowl bomb $1.50