AUSTIN, Texas — Tyson Cole got hooked on the original Japanese version of “Iron Chef” in the early 1990s, after taking a job as a dishwasher and server at a sushi restaurant here in his adopted hometown.
“I’d never had food like that in my entire life,” recalled Cole, 47, who is now one of the city’s premier chefs. “I couldn’t imagine anything more interesting.”
Or less typical of Austin. The sun-baked city he had settled into in his early 20s was synonymous with Tex-Mex and barbecue.
Today, Japanese restaurants are flourishing here. Matthew Odam, the restaurant critic of The Austin American-Statesman, included six on his most recent list of the area’s top 25 places to eat — a notable showing in a landlocked city where people of Japanese descent make up only 0.2 percent of the population, according to 2016 census data. Last year, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, which calls itself a “Texas izakaya,” was named one of country’s best new restaurants by critics at GQ, Eater and Bon Appétit.
The reasons behind all this are many, but a major one is Cole, thanks in no small part to the mentorship he received from Takehiko Fuse, a locally revered chef who was born in Japan. Uchi, which Cole opened inside a refurbished house in 2003, and its modernist offspring, Uchiko, have been highly influential in altering the city’s culinary identity.
“Uchi is the starting point of Austin falling in love with everything Japanese,” said Otto Phan, the chef and owner of Kyoten Sushiko, an ambitious sushi restaurant in central Austin.
The food journalist Patricia Sharpe says Cole is responsible for rewiring Austin’s collective palate. “Had he been in Fort Worth, it might have happened there instead,” said Sharpe, who compared Japanese cuisine’s popularity in Austin to that of Mexican cooking in the 1970s, when she first started covering restaurants for Texas Monthly magazine.
It is impossible to tour Austin’s well-regarded sushi restaurants without running into chefs who have worked for or alongside Cole. Some, like Komé and Fukumoto Sushi & Yakitori Izakaya, offer a familiar menu of nigiri, sashimi and sushi rolls. Newer places like Kyoten Sushiko and Otoko, in the South Congress Hotel, are tiny destinations for intricate, expensive omakase.
And now, some kitchens are taking the next step: integrating Japanese cooking with the traditional foods of Texas.
Takuya Matsumoto and Tatsu Aikawa, chefs and business partners who opened Kemuri Tatsu-ya last year, are the leading lights of this new hybrid cuisine. Matsumoto, who is better known as Tako, calls the restaurant’s marriage of Texas smokehouse and Japanese bar food “a pretty good representation of us as Japanese Texans. It’s not that much different than Tex-Mex, really.”
Cole stepped up to the same task in early April, opening Loro, which he calls an Asian smokehouse. His collaborator is Aaron Franklin, the chef and owner of Franklin Barbecue, an Austin landmark where the hourslong lines that regularly form outside are nearly as famous as the brisket served inside.
While Cole’s restaurants in Austin, Houston and Dallas are based, albeit loosely, on the fundamentals of the Japanese sushi tradition, the menu at Loro is dominated by meat cooked in a hardwood smoker and paired with Asian-inspired sauces and sides. The space is designed in part to resemble a classic Texas dance hall. (Loro is the sixth restaurant operated by Hai Hospitality, Cole’s company, with a seventh, Uchi Denver, scheduled to open this summer.)
Cole said the inspiration for Loro flowed from his belief that the signature cuisines of Japan and Texas are naturally compatible. “Slicing the meat to order, serving it directly to the customer,” he said. “It’s so similar to what we do with sushi.”
Franklin said, with a smile, that the restaurant will test Cole’s theory that Texas barbecue is, as Franklin put it, “the overcooked, red-meat version of sushi.”
Franklin, a 40-year-old former rock guitarist, is a partner in Loro as well as its resident barbecue expert. He led a recent tour of the space on South Lamar Boulevard, not far from the original Uchi, along with James Dumapit, 33, an Uchi and Uchiko veteran and Loro’s chef de cuisine.
“We’re definitely not going to stray too far from the central Texas tradition,” Dumapit said. “We’re not going to rub yellow curry over brisket, for example, because Aaron does brisket obviously very well.”
The credibility that Franklin provides Loro is fairly obvious. More complicated is the role that Cole, a white man born in Florida, has played in making Japanese food fashionable in this trend-conscious city.
Spurred by a passion for sushi that he acquired without leaving the state of Texas, Cole rose through the kitchens of Japanese-run restaurants in Austin, slowed but undeterred by the fact that he is not Japanese.
“You cannot make sushi because you are white,” Cole said he was told by the first boss he asked for permission to cut fish. A compromise was ultimately reached: Cole would roll sushi behind the kitchen’s closed door, where diners couldn’t see him.
After a year and a half, he was allowed to make sushi in front of customers. “But only at lunchtime,” he said. “My tip jar was full every day.”
Cole is quick to credit the Japanese chefs he has labored alongside in Austin for sharing their expertise. Foremost among them is Fuse, the chef and owner of Musashino Sushi Dokoro, where Cole worked for more than seven years, starting in 1993.
Fuse demanded that Cole learn to speak, read and write Japanese as part of his culinary training. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for him,” Cole said of his mentor.
Fuse is held in high esteem by Austin chefs. Both Takehiro Asazu, of Komé, and Kazu Fukumoto, of Fukumoto Sushi, apprenticed under Fuse, who is known around town as Smokey.
He is also known to be reclusive. Fuse did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Aikawa, a former pupil, relayed the chef’s response: “It’s not my style. I’m a ninja.”
Musashino, which moved to the city’s West Campus neighborhood in 2016 after 22 years at its original location, is where Cole developed the convention-busting style that lives on at Uchi. Cole’s signature dishes — like smoked yellowtail and Asian pear, or maguro and goat cheese — are often built on nontraditional pairings.
Kayo Asazu, 42, owns Komé with her husband, Takehiro, 44. (The couple, who were born and raised in Japan, also operate two locations of the Japanese-style coffee shop Sa-Tén.) She says Cole made experimentation a distinguishing element of Japanese food in Austin.
“We didn’t see things like that in Japan,” she said.
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Cole is not the only non-Japanese chef in Austin who has hitched his star to the country’s cuisine. Phan, of Kyoten Sushiko, was born in Houston to Vietnamese immigrants. Stacy Chen, who was born in Taiwan but moved to Austin as a child, modeled her new restaurant, Yoshi Ramen, on a shop her Taiwanese grandmother ran in Osaka.
Paul Qui, 37, a native of the Philippines, was executive chef of Uchiko when he won the ninth season of “Top Chef” in 2012, a star-making moment for both Qui and the Austin restaurant scene. He established his own aesthetic — pan-Asian, with a soft spot for sushi and Southeast Asian spices — with the food trucks and restaurants he opened in Austin and, more recently, Houston. (In 2016, Qui was arrested on charges of domestic violence, an incident that has cast a shadow over his empire and career; the case against him was recently dismissed, after the woman involved declined to serve as a witness.)
Amanda Turner, 31, grew up in Dallas, “watching anime, wishing to go to Japan.” She said she felt she had “hit the jackpot” when she landed a job at Uchi while she was still in culinary school.
Today, Turner is chef de cuisine at Juniper, an Italian restaurant, but she is looking forward to this summer, when she’ll begin a three-month apprenticeship at the acclaimed Tokyo restaurant Nihonryori RyuGin.
When she returns to Austin, Turner said, she hopes to open a Japanese restaurant of her own. “There’s a lot of precedent for white men to take possession of another culture’s food,” she said. “I’m a black woman. I’d like to change that.”
Aikawa and Matsumoto, of Kemuri Tatsu-ya, don’t face those kinds of questions around cultural appropriation and Japanese food. Both chefs were raised in Austin’s tight-knit Japanese-American community — Aikawa, 36, was born in Tokyo, and Matsumoto, 38, is the son of Japanese immigrants — and gravitated to restaurant work to supplement their income as hip-hop DJs.
Both are sushi enthusiasts — they spoke over a platter of plum-mackerel and toro-radish rolls at Musashino, where Aikawa got his start. But a stint working at Urasawa, the Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in Beverly Hills, California, caused Aikawa to adjust his ambitions.
“I don’t want to run a restaurant where I’m charging, like, $1,000 a person,” he said.
Instead, he moved back to Austin to open Ramen Tatsu-ya with Matsumoto in 2012. They apply the discipline of the sushi bar to the broth-making in their ramen shop. It spawned a second location in 2015.
In recent years, the two chefs have become more comfortable with their natural instinct to blend the foods of Texas and Japan. On trips to Lockhart, a Texas barbecue mecca, Aikawa would bring his own rice and return with brisket to feed his staff.
When the ramen entrepreneurs started brainstorming for a restaurant they planned to open inside a former barbecue joint in East Austin, they asked themselves, Aikawa said, “What if there was a Japanese guy in Texas 100 years ago? What would he be cooking at a roadhouse?”
The answer is Kemuri Tatsu-ya. The restaurant and bar, decorated with Texas flags, taxidermy and vintage signs in Japanese, is as much of a mashup as the food and drink. The menu includes sake, sochu and local craft beer; smoked fish collar, eel and gochujang-rubbed pork ribs; two types of brisket ramen; and beef tongue and chorizo tamales made with sticky rice.
Kemuri’s success — its owners have leases on two new Austin restaurant spaces — suggests that the city’s diners are plenty ready for whatever Loro has in store.
One might expect Franklin, the barbecue maven, to be wary of taking liberties with smoked meat, considering the stringently traditional fare on which he built his reputation. The only sides on Franklin Barbecue’s menu (coleslaw, potato salad, pinto beans) are absent from Loro’s, supplanted by dishes like coconut-scented rice and papaya salad.
At Franklin Barbecue, he said, “there would be anarchy in the streets if we changed anything or tried to get fancy.”
But Franklin is also a product of Austin’s cross-cultural forces. He appears energized by the opportunity to recast his smoked meats with shishito salsa verde and house-made hoisin.
Though the meat at Loro is “super traditional, just salt and pepper,” Franklin added, there is freedom for his partners “to do what they do, making really rad sides and sauces. We just meet in the middle.”