Restaurants / Openings

Inside the Fabulous, Fantastical World of Tiki Tatsu-Ya on South Lamar

Part Restaurant, Part Theme Park, the New Cocktail Bar Comes from the Duo Behind Some of Austin's Best Japanese Restaurants

BY Amanda Eyre Ward // 10.06.21

I’ve been a fan of installation art since my first visit to Marfa, Texas, where I wandered through Ilya Kabakov’s otherworldly School No. 6. The experience of entering into a work of art, of interacting with a conjured world, was so magical that I’ve sought out similar experiences ever since. From Meow Wolf in Santa Fe to the tunnels connecting Kinder Building to the rest of the Museum of Fine Art in Houston (not to mention the Rothko Chapel and the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern), I’ve been awed (and sometimes freaked out) by immersive installations. But when I went to Tiki Tatsu-Ya (Austin’s newest and most fabulous bar), I enjoyed not only a work of art created by some of the city’s most innovative creatives, but an evening of fresh fish, ambient sounds, a light show, and my friend, Emily, sipping “Forbidden Grog” and “Strip and Go Naked” cocktails.

Brothers Tatsu and Shion Aikawa, owners of Ramen Tatsu-Ya (one of Bon Appétit’s “Top 50 Best Restaurants”) and Kemuri, recognized by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the best restaurants in the world on the 2021 Gold List, say that Tiki Tatsu-Ya was inspired by the tiki bars of Los Angeles. “Since opening our first ramen shop, our goal has always been to share the food, drink, and experiences that come from a nostalgic or meaningful place in our upbringings,” says Chef/Owner Tatsu. “Through our travels and explorations into tiki, we learned about the rich Japanese roots in Hawaiian and tiki culture that came about through centuries of immigration and wanted to explore that further. We’re thankful for everyone who’s been along for the ride and can’t wait to welcome guests from near and far into our version of tropical paradise.”

Escape from it all within the skull-lined confines of Tiki Tatsu-Ya. (photo by Jessica Attie)

First Impressions

Tiki Tatsu-Ya looks completely unassuming from the front. In fact, if you dodge the hordes waiting in line for Ramen Tatsu-Ya next door, you might think you’ve stumbled upon a dusty travel agency from the ’80s with windows plastered with posters and even an ad for a “MySpace” page. But once entering the space formerly occupied by Backspace, the adventure (meticulously fabricated by local artisans Blue Genie Art Industries and built by Satterfield Construction) begins.

Through wooden porthole doors, you enter a cave, peering up at a giant, two-story Shisa Dragon rock fountain. Exploring deeper, rock walls are flanked with skulls, a shield wall, and nautical accents like fishing nets and floats. A cozy booth across the fountain puts guests in the belly of an ancient trade ship with portholes depicting scenes from the island’s discovery. At the end of the cave sits the main bar, adorned with layers of eye-catching woodwork, custom mugs, glasses, and a world-class selection of rum.

Upstairs in the Nest Bar, the scenery transitions to a beach hut hideaway, where Shibori (Japanese dyed fabrics), bamboo ceilings, and a large artwork honoring the journey of Japanese female pearl divers (called “Ama”) set the scene. Lighting by Natalie George Productions, projection mapping and video design by Thrown Light, a soundtrack of ocean waves, thunderstorms, and birdsong by Gl33k and a gorgeous drink menu illustrated by Tony Canepa create a stunning show.

The S.O.S – Stranded on Saturn_Credit: Jody Horton
The S.O.S – Stranded on Saturn with gin, lemongrass shochu, starfruit, passion-fruit, miso-almond orgeat, and pholernum. (photo by Jody Horton)

The Drinks

Large-format concoctions, serving anywhere from two to eight people, kick up the thematics. There’s the fruit-forward Aku Aku (which serves two), a blended cocktail of pineapple, peach, lime, mint, and high-proof rum served in a pineapple; The S.O.S. – Stranded on Saturn (serves three to four), a medley of shochu, starfruit, passionfruit, miso-almond orgeat, and falernum, served in an orb perched on a smoking gardenscape with the option to upgrade with Kingston Negroni Titan shots; and the Skeleton Cruise (serves four to six), a combination of Japanese whisky, rum, Chartreuse, guava, lemon, pineapple, and pomegranate, served in a skull-bedazzled ship. When certain cocktails are ordered, light shows and sounds are triggered, causing patrons (including me and Emily) to cheer.

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Spam on the Half Shell (photo by Jody Horton)

The Bites

At the heart of Tiki Tatsu-Ya’s food and beverage program is a menu of shareable, timeless bites that capture the history of the tiki heyday. We loved Spam on the Half Shell with housemade spam, mango, shio koji, dandelion, and hibiscus furikake. The Crab Lagoon (a play on crab rangoons) is made with blue crab and served in its own ceramic crab tray.

We sampled the O-Sakana raw section, including Maguro Poke, with tuna, cucumber, Kahuku Limu seaweed, taro crunch, and toasted kukui nuts, and Lomi Lomi Tataki, with salmon, tomato kosho, shiso pesto, sea beans, and macadamia nut oil. A butter mochi dessert, with pineapple jam, coconut cream, matcha, and macadamia nuts, was the perfect finish.

It seemed almost impossible to exit the bar and find ourselves back on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin, Texas, without suitcases.

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