Every American city of any size these days has at least one sushi restaurant. Whether they’re good or not is another question. Even grocery stores carry California and tuna rolls, at least. But deeper modes of Japanese cuisine haven’t made as many inroads across the US. Sushi is ubiquitous, as are Americanized Japanese steakhouses with chefs who quick chop, tell jokes and throw food at you, but try finding good gyudon, tonkatsu or serious ramen outside the country’s more massive cities. Not the Top Ramen you can get six for a buck at HEB, but real hot ramen soup with a pork cutlet floating in its heavy miso or shoyu broth.
The availability of serious Japanese food is growing rapidly in Austin, TX. The city now boasts at least three eateries serving genuine Japanese ramen, the hearty noodle soup loved all over Japan. Ramen Tastsu-Ya in north Austin is the place to go for great ramen fast. Despite the fact that the line to get seated can hang outside the door and run down the walkway in front of the place, you can usually be in and out in about 45 minutes. The ramen is fantastic. Daruma, downtown on Austin’s famous Sixth Street, is a place I haven’t been to but have heard good things about.
A newcomer, though, intends to be more than just a ramen shop. It seeks to become a neighborhood hangout in the tradition of Japan’s izakayas. It’s called the Dojo, and by the way, it also serves amazing food.
I threw a couple of words at you in that last sentence that probably bear explaining. An izakaya is primarily a drinking spot in Japan, a sake shop, a watering hole. Think Cheers, but on tatami mats. Izakayas are where Japanese workers go to unwind with friends and colleagues after work. They serve food, but the main point of an izakaya is to relax and socialize. Fast food, they are not. They are a place where everyone tends to know everyone else.
A dojo in American thinking is a place where one goes to study martial arts. That’s part but not all of what a dojo is. The word really means “a place of the way,” or a place where a certain way is followed. That’s that I think Austin’s Dojo has in mind. You won’t be swinging wooden swords around, as fun as that might be. But you will absorb a new way of enjoying food and relaxing.
The wait staff will come explain the izakaya concept to you as they seat you. Our waitress, Stacy, explained that at an izakaya diners shouldn’t just order one appetizer, one main course and call it a dinner. Take your time. Order this. Get it. Enjoy it. Order that. Enjoy it. Explore the menu. Talk about the food. Order a couple other things. Enjoy them. Then order the main course. It was perfect advice.
The appetizers are authentically Japanese, with some Western twists, and of the highest quality in presentation and preparation.
The gyoza, kara-age, kewpie shrimp, every appetizer I’ve had at the Dojo, have been top drawer. If you want drinks, they have drinks.
As good as all that is, the ramen still is the make or break dish as far as I’m concerned. The Dojo’s ramen is almost too good to be true.
What you’re seeing there is “Ramen Ninja” Mike Elliott’s piping hot miso ramen full of vegetables, half an egg, nori, and two tender pork cutlets. More pork cutlets on the side, perfectly marinated. And “ninja fire” in the upper right, a side spice unique to the Dojo that allows you to heat the ramen to your personal pepper preferences. The Dojo’s ramen is every bit as good as it looks.
The Dojo soft-launched earlier this summer, so early patrons may have seen its growing pains. I’ve heard one or two complaints that the ramen wasn’t hot enough, and on one visit the staff were a little discombobulated. During my first visit, I saw that staff were still being trained. But during more recent visits, there were no problems at all. The food is impeccable. Service was efficient, friendly and knowledgeable. The decor has really come together, with nice touches like having some of the seating made from floor planks so that even though Americans aren’t dine-on-the-floor types as Japanese are, we still literally get to sit on the floor. Just, a couple feet off the floor. It’s a nice little slice of Tokyo, just a couple of doors down from a Chili’s off 183 and Burnet Road.
Having not visited Daruma, I can’t declare the Dojo Austin’s grand champion of ramen. That wouldn’t be fair. But the Dojo is awfully good, so good that I’ve already notched half a dozen visits. If you’re in the Austin area and looking for a new experience or a place to hang out, check out the Dojo.