ENJOY YOURSELF AT EAST AUSTIN’S NEW FUSION FUNHOUSE
by Karen O. Spezia
Photograph by Knoxy Knox
WHAT DO JAMES BROWN, KENNY G, AND LESLIE, the Austin cross-dresser, have in common? Not a lot, except they’re all culinary inspiration for Kemuri Tatsu-ya, the playful and terrific new restaurant on the East Side. With their faces prominently displayed on Kemuri’s chinmi snack menu, these pop culture icons guide diners through rarified nibbles ranging from extremely daring to not so much. If James Brown is next to an item, it’s gonna be “nasty”—i.e. very exotic. Meanwhile, Kenny G signals food for the less adventuresome and Leslie’s selections fall somewhere in the middle.
And that’s just for starters. It’s all good fun at Kemuri, a Japanese-Texan mash-up that injects seriously good food with a sense of humor. The merriment begins on the cozy front porch, where a whimsical rickshaw-cum-bar welcomes guests with a tasty selection of sakes and beers. Once inside, diners are greeted by cheerful shouts of “irasshaimase!” a customary Japanese salutation. The building has been transformed into a funhouse plastered with kitschy Japanese and Texas roadhouse memorabilia, including trophy heads sporting gold hip hop chains. Out back, vintage Japanese films flicker on a patio wall.
Kemuri is the new, younger sibling of Ramen Tatsu-ya, offering the best ramen in Austin—and some would argue, in the country. This latest venture is modeled after Japanese izakayas, friendly gastropubs akin to American taverns or Irish pubs. The menu is a reflection of chef-owner Tatsu Aikawa’s multi-cultural upbringing: Japanese born and Texas raised. Kemuri, meaning “smoke” in Japanese, is housed in a former barbecue joint that features Asian-inspired smoked meats and seafood, along with yakitori, ramen, and izakaya classics meant for sharing. An homage to its barbecue roots, food is served on trays lined with butcher paper.
Kemuri, meaning “smoke” in Japanese, is housed in a former barbecue joint that features Asian-inspired smoked meats and seafood, along with yakitori, ramen, and izakaya classics meant for sharing.
There are so many creative and tasty choices that it’s hard to pick favorites. But standouts include the Hot Pocketz, bite-size tofu squares stuffed with brisket and melted gouda that are deliciously addictive. The Smoked Mackerel left us swooning—and fighting with our chopsticks over the last morsels. Moist and surprisingly mild, the fish was nestled beneath perfectly crisped skin and garnished with fresh greens, radish and lemon. A drizzle of soy brought it all together. The BBQ Boat was loaded with slices of smoked meats and seafood, and the Guaca-Poke married diced tuna and avocado. Another tasty hybrid was the Sticky Rice Tamale stuffed with chorizo, beef tongue and shitakes. Grilled skewers included roasted nuggets of beef tongue, pork belly, or chicken thighs. And of course, there’s ramen: beef broth with brisket or a rich kotteri dipping style.
Drinks are an integral part of the meal at Kemuri, so come thirsty. Beverage Director Michael Phillips hails from cocktail stalwart Midnight Cowboy—and there’s even a certified sake sommelier on hand. Don’t miss the carefully curated selection of shochu and sake, especially the bold and funky, Cowboy Yamahai. There’s also local and Japanese beer and a full bar, including an extensive whiskey list. Specialty cocktails arrive in festive novelty glasses or punchbowls for sharing with your tablemates. It all helps lubricate the fun at Kemuri, a wonderful new place that takes its food and drink seriously, but not itself. Kanpai!