Image Courtesy of Kemuri Tatsu-ya.

Chef FeaturesAustin

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Izakaya and Texas Whiskey

By Paula Forbes

Japanese and Texan cuisines combine at hot Austin smokehouse/izakaya, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya.

“‘Kemuri’ means smoke,” is the first thing chef Tatsu Aikawa tells me about the East Austin izakaya he runs with his partner, chef Takuya ‘Tako’ Matsumoto. And so, it should come as no surprise that this translates to smoke in Japanese food; smoke in Texan food; smoke where the two – chefs and concepts – intersect. “There’s a little bit of Keep Austin Weird in there, too,” Matsumoto adds.

Kemuri Tatsu-ya, which sprung onto the scene just over a year ago, serves atypical izakaya food, or Japanese-influenced Texas barbecue: there’s smoked brisket on the menu alongside smoked eel. Chili cheese takoyaki (an octopus-fritter laced riff on Frito pie), chicken karaage, and ramen with barbecue in it remain Kemuri staples. They pour Japanese whiskey; they pour Texas whiskey.

Image Courtesy of Kemuri Tatsu-ya.

Aikawa, who was born in Japan and grew up in Texas, notes that Texas barbecue has always been influenced by immigrants: “Texas barbecue was created by this cross between a traditional Mexican cooking technique and German immigrants. What if there were Japanese immigrants [in Texas] in the 1800’s, you know? What the hell is that food gonna be like?”

Kemuri’s food, then, is what those Japanese immigrants’ great-great-great-great grandkids might cook— if their grandkids were sushi chefs who met in the Austin hip-hop DJ scene in 2006. “I don’t know who came up to who,” says Aikawa, of their fateful meeting, “but it was like whoa, another Japanese guy does sushi in Austin.” From there, the duo opened the fantastically popular Ramen Tatsu-Ya, which currently boasts two locations: in Austin and Houston.

Image Courtesy of Kemuri Tatsu-ya.

When they got the izakaya bug, the duo was certain their modus operandi wouldn’t be a traditional one. The restaurant’s food is not so much the artifice of fusion but a natural evolution of Aikawa and Matsumoto’s backgrounds. As Aikawa puts it, “I’m Japanese American, but really, I’m Japanese-Texan.”Matsumoto, who was born and raised in Austin, says Kemuri “definitely came through us just growing up here in Texas.”

It’s a concept that makes all kinds of sense the second you step into the building. Built in a former barbecue joint—the walls are still smoke-stained from the previous tenants—Kemuri’s dining room is somehow both a hectic and measured space. Call it the intersection of Japan and the Wild West: “I want a space where you feel like John Wayne on acid,” says Aikawa.

Image Courtesy of Kemuri Tatsu-ya. Photo Credit: Kirsten Kaiser.

To that end, designer Chris McCray gave the space an izakaya-feel that’s decked head to toe in both Japanese and Texan ephemera. Think Sapporo signs from the 1920s alongside vintage western movie posters; beat up Texas license plates and ramen shop signs; all manner of taxidermy. Aikawa compares the restaurant to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone: Japanese inspired, wild west flavored.

At the same time, though, Kemuri is recognizable as an izakaya. “When I first walked in and I saw it all,” Matusmoto says, “I felt like I was in Japan. And I’ve actually heard that from several guests.” Kemuri feels cohesive: the space, the food, the chefs behind it all come together. “We honor the tradition of barbecue as we honor the izakaya culture,” says Aikawa. “If people get that vibe, I think we’ve done our job.”

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