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Texan Cuisine Is Changing for the Better

I am totally excited about the changing Austin culinary landscape, which is thanks, in part, to an influx of Asian immigrants, who are introducing new flavors and styles to traditional Texan cuisine. And that's not just because I own a ramen restaurant.
May 21, 2014, 6:00pm

One hundred and ten people (in terms of net gains) move to Austin every day, and everyday, knowledge and cultures from all over the world aggressively flow into this city. I've always been curious about culture and anthropology, how a group of people think, and how people perceive food. It makes me think about Austin and where its restaurant industry is headed in the future.

I was born in Japan, moved to Austin around 1992, and briefly left in '05 for San Francisco, Tokyo, and then Los Angeles. I came back to Austin in the summer of 2012 to open Ramen Tatsu-ya as director of operations with my brother, Tatsu, and Tako, both chef-owners. The climate back in 2005 was a lot of Tex-Mex, chain restaurants like Red Lobster, and fast food. The now well-known Uchi was in its second year. Yes, there were restaurants, but it seemed like a lot of old mom-and-pop joints were trying to cater to everybody in town. I don't expect all restaurants to have vegan options, and I don't expect that all Japanese restaurants have sushi, but a lot of people in Austin did back then. I still get some customers at Ramen Tatsu-ya asking for sushi since we're a Japanese (specifically, ramen) restaurant, but I know that this would have been more prevalent if we had opened up five years ago. I'm happy to see the change that's happening in Austin since coming back. I may be a minority as an Austinite to think that growth is good for the city, but from growth comes understanding of different values.

Now, we've got more people who are aware of other cultures today. I've even found some people who can guess that I'm Japanese now, and their palates have gotten a little bit smarter. You ask anybody in Austin nowadays, "Where can I get pho?" and you have about an 80 percent chance of someone actually knowing what pho is; five years ago, no one would have had a clue. We can thank the Chinese and Vietnamese populations that arrived in the city in the 90s to help nurse those cuisines into the city. It has yet to get to the level where an Austinite can help you identify if the restaurant is northern or southern Vietnamese, or if the Chinese restaurant around the corner is Cantonese or Szechuan, but it's getting there.

There is a growing population of Asians with varied socioeconomic characteristics, too. The largest growth is coming from Vietnam, India, and China, but a significant amount is also coming with new Korean and Filipino populations. My prediction is that we'll see a lot of differentiation in the larger growth communities, and increased awareness of Korean and Filipino. Instead of 'SUPER CHINA BUFFET,' we'll get more shops specializing in soup dumplings, hand-pulled noodles, and maybe even a shop dedicated to Chinese jerky (there's one in NYC's Chinatown).

I think that Austin is going to start seeing less family restaurants catering to affordability and more of a focus on eating as an adventure, or as a date night with your spouse. When I say adventure, I mean places that diners will be excited to tell a story about to friends. More exciting places like, "I just ate moving raw octopus," than "Margaret had nachos and Sam got a turkey sandwich with coleslaw." Maybe not that extreme, but we'll have more propensity for Dans le Noirs one day. With a thirst for experience, Austinites will be more educated about food when they eat out. It's already happening, and I can't wait see what what else is in store.

Check back tomorrow for Shion's episode of Munchies: Chef's Night Out with Ramen Tatsu-Ya.