Profiles in Light: Shion Aikawa

There is an empire being built in Austin.

At Muyshondt, we appreciate simple expressions of genius in whatever form they might take. It’s here, where the details matter; because the creation of something great draws on the minute experiences of a life in its entirety, and these expressions in turn serve to add depth and color to our own lives, ultimately inspiring a totally different medium of creation.

There is an art and respect for high craft in the creation of a proper meal, one that caters to all five senses, and is an integral part of the fabric of human experience. We are thusly pleased to share with you this latest Profile in Light, illuminating someone who has great mastery of their craft, and whose creations are as much an expression of an interesting life, as they are a perfect arrangement of flavors and spices.

Brothers Tatsu and Shion Aikawa are creating some of the most impressive and revolutionary culinary concepts this side of the Pacific. A bold statement for sure, but in a city already filled to the brim with fantastic food – with everything from the world’s best barbecue, upstart trailers turned national franchises, now-iconic local fare from the 1970s, and very specific modern artisan twists on simple favorites forming the foundation of complete meals – The Aikawas have built something truly standout and spectacular.

Shion Aikawa is right at home in  Domo Alley-Gato  – an East Austin restaurant & bar modeled after the late-night curry stands found all over Tokyo

Shion Aikawa is right at home in Domo Alley-Gato – an East Austin restaurant & bar modeled after the late-night curry stands found all over Tokyo

Ramen is a staple of Japanese cuisine. It is ubiquitous, available anywhere and everywhere, much like you can find a hamburger anywhere in the United States. But a burger is not a burger is not a burger, and similarly ramen is a meal that crosses a complete spectrum of flavors and qualities. It is food that inspires obsession, particularly in expatriates longing for flavors of home.

Enter the Aikawa brothers, who in 2012 ushered in an Austin ramen renaissance with Ramen Tatsu-ya. On their first day open, they had a line out the door, and the lines have never stopped since. From that small ramen shop they have opened two other Ramen Tatsu-ya restaurants in Austin and one in Houston, a Texas BBQ - Japanese Fusion concept called Kemuri Tatsu-ya, Domo Alley-Gato - a casual Tokyo-style curry house & bar, and most recently, Dip Dip Dip Tatsu-ya, bringing one of Japan’s signature family-style culinary delights - Shabu Shabu - to Texas.

In the midst of a period of explosive growth for the brothers and their company, we are grateful to have sat down with Shion for an evening to talk about his approach to food, business, and what inspires him to create.

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Muyshondt: So what’s your formal role at Ramen Tatsu-ya?

Shion Aikawa: I’d say I’m the ‘Operations Manager.’ While my brother does most of the physical cooking and recipe development, I do my best to help him fill holes in the product mix to create a cohesive menu. I approach restaurant management from the traditional Japanese perspective of ‘Kaizen,’ which is a method of implementing regular laser-focused adjustments with the ultimate aim of constant improvement.

Muyshondt: What’s your go-to comfort food?

Shion Aikawa: I love how Japanese curry is not just a comfort food, but a food that brings people together. And in the course of the months of research and development it takes to develop a new menu, by the time the restaurant is open, the cravings for all those nostalgic test dishes tend to return, which is when we know we’ve created something special.

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“People in Texas are crazy, man.”

- Shion Aikawa, on the demand for hot soup in Texas

MS: If Ramen Tatsu-ya could be known for, or could only sell one dish, what would it be?

SA: A totally vegan veggie curry, but one that die-hard meat eaters aren’t afraid to love.

MS: So why Austin?

SA: My brother has lived in Austin longer than I have, and simply wanted to open a Ramen shop here because one just didn’t exist.

MS: Were you ever worried about having trouble selling ramen in the heat of a Texas summer?

SA: Absolutely, but people in Texas are crazy, man. We had a line out the door on the first day, which was a reaction that we never could have planned from the local foodie community. But that’s kinda what it takes to make it in the restaurant world. You can’t think about it too much, and just have to be a little crazy.

MS: Where do you go to seek culinary inspiration?

SA: One thing that’s really important to us for our Austin restaurants is that we maintain Japan’s traditions of apprenticeship – in our case, the passing on of family recipes, while developing our own traditions to pass down, and creating a new outlet in Austin for genuine Japanese culture and cuisine.

My brother and I make a point to get home to Tokyo as often as we can – especially during the fall festival season, to see our grandmother, and visit a few local mom-and-pop restaurants while we’re there. These are the types of places where you can walk in and feel like you’re part of a family – part of their bigger picture. I want people to be able to walk into Ramen Tatsu-ya and feel the same way – whether they’re Japanese expats seeking comfort food, or local Austin foodies looking for an authentic example of what it means to be Japanese.

We attended the soft opening of Dip Dip Dip Tatsu-ya, and their interpretation of Shabu Shabu is authentic, delicious, and in parts has a particular Aikawa Texas flare as pioneered at Ramen Tatsu-ya and refined with each successive concept.

We are frequent visitors to the Tatsu-ya restaurants. Their work is always a feast for the senses – not only in food, but in all the other little details that accompany it: the architecture, the art, the presentation, the experience. Every little detail matters, and rarely are they quite so well attended to as this. We are grateful to Shion for taking the time to chat with us, and if you find yourself in Austin, a stop at Dip Dip Dip and any of the other Tatsu-ya family of restaurants should be at the top of your list.

- M -

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