12 Dec Jon Cartu Declares: Restaurant Review: Austin’s Best New Restaurant DipDipDip T…
“They found the bottom of the bottomless pit,” my 10-year-old loudly announced halfway through his first experience at DipDipDip Tatsu-ya. But when the specialty cart rolled up, he ordered more food; then, finally, concluded, “They tamed the beast.”
I’m unsure where along his journey he began referring to himself like that, but he’s right: The winner of this year’s Austin Chronicle “Best of Austin” Readers Poll Best New Restaurant award offers an unmatched feast. Fully immersive, the since-June-2019 restaurant hails from owner/chef Tatsu Aikawa and the team that brought us Ramen Tatsu-ya, Kemuri Tatsu-ya, Tiki Tatsu-ya, and Domo Alley-Gato.
Located in the same North Burnet strip mall as T-22, Tacodeli, and La Patisserie, DipDipDip ushers in diners from the walk-up with a bold vertical wood facade. The host stand prevents any interior view, save for the bartender’s window through which pre-party beverages are passed, and palpable porch vibes drum up dining anticipation no matter how many times you’ve had the pleasure.
When the table is ready (it’s nearly impossible to get in without a reservation, but cancellations do happen), you’re ushered into the small dark space and traditionally welcomed with “Irasshaimase!” Let me preface this review-turned-ode with a note: If you are completely unfamiliar with shabu-shabu – a Japanese hot pot experience where diners cook raw ingredients in a pot of simmering broth – it’s not a terrible idea to watch a YouTube video in advance. It’s an intense, full-sensory explosion of elevated dining, this place, but as you’re seated, Dip’s tremendous attention to detail starts slowly revealing itself, one highlight at a time.
Three rows of two- and four-top table settings are separated by short wooden dividers that turn neighbors’ conversations into earworms, but also allow a cursory glimpse of what lies ahead. The hollowed swivel stools are equipped with a pocket menu and purse nook; each setting features a sunken hot plate for the cast-iron broth pot – double dip all you want, as each diner has their own vat of gold – plus a utensil assortment, tasting dishes, and a small hourglass timer. The McCray & Co.-designed interior utilizes every square inch, complete with bamboo walls and traditional Japanese baskets. Local woodworkers A&K Woodworking and Design created wood-carved light fixtures and custom tansu cabinet-inspired knickknack shelving, rolling carts, and crates. Unique restroom stalls contrast the uniformity with framed Japanese art and old photographs, and formerly a DJ, Japan-born Aikawa’s booming playlist is bass-heavy and fun. The restaurant is not as loud as it is teeming with life, but it still ups that decibel ante for sure.
From host to server, runner to bartender, the DipDipDip experience is exponentially better thanks to impeccable, knowledgeable, warm service. Some of the best in the city, in fact. Guidance is critical and provided sans attitude, encouraging diners to learn as it’s explained.
First, choose a broth from four choices, the first three vegan: kombu dashi, miso smokey, tonyu nabe, and 50-hour tonkotsu pork bone broth. I’m a fan of the slightly spicy, rich red-orange miso broth, but ramen lovers might relish in tonkotsu comfort. Then, it’s à la carte options or omakase (or both), and very shortly, each diner’s broth-filled pot is placed in its designated slot, and as it begins to simmer, raw ingredients start arriving. Game on.
On my first visit, an 8pm Friday rez, my boyfriend and I were wide-eyed, drawing mostly on our Terrace House-inspired hot pot obsession and a few rogue mom-and-pop shop stops (Basil Thai on Parmer is low-key and tasty; formerly known as College Roadhouse, now Seoulju, is a blast), and so opted for the two top-tier chef’s selections. All of the omakases come with the standard setup of broth, two dips, and Koshihikari rice (super-premium short grain sushi rice comparable to wagyu beef on quality scale, certified with DNA testing), truffle sukiyaki dip, and a complimentary farm box of fresh seasonal veggies – recently, enoki mushrooms (cute tiny aliens), cabbage, snap peas, asparagus, and daikon – which can also be reupped individually.
Both the Tatsu-ya and Baller omakases are tremendous in portion-to-price ratio, but the midlevel Tatsu-ya is perhaps the most manageable with Texas wagyu sirloin strips from Strube Ranch, Kurobuta (Japanese heritage) pork belly, chicken meatballs (five per order, shaved by the server into the pot), several side pieces and noodle du jour (more info momentarily). The big guy, Baller, boasts extra dip, A5 wagyu beef, Niman Ranch rib eye, Kurobuta pork loin, shrimp meatballs, and a series of pieces.
An aside: Many American restaurants offer wagyu beef these days, but very few offer A5, and while at first it feels morose to be handed, essentially, the Japanese Black steer’s obituary – an official certificate of authenticity – it’s this ultimate care and consideration of ingredients that sets apart DipDipDip. If you’re going to eat meat, know the animal’s story. Here, the Miyazaki sirloin hails from Kyushu Island, Japan, and earns that coveted A5 rating – such a high grade that comparable meat is not even available anywhere else; it is literally off the quality charts of American beef. Yes, it is expensive. As it should be.
So you’ve ordered food and taken a breath – it’s drinks time! Expectedly, it’s a highly curated drinks menu with eight sakes, several white/sparkling/red wines and craft beers, and cocktails. A whiskey girl, my favorites are the Kaizen Whiskey (small-batch bourbon, kokuto, bergamot, and bitters) and Basho (with both rye and plum whiskeys, sweet vermouth, and a hint of maple). Interestingly, the only nonalcoholic options are Topo Chico, Coke, and green tea, but you didn’t come here to fill up on beverages, did you?
The broth is boiling (feel free to adjust the temperature dial; ask for tips) and the meat and veggies are here – start cooking as per the posted timing instructions. The longest cook time is 4.5 minutes, but most items are around three minutes, save for thin meats which are cooked in mere seconds. It might be helpful to post time recos in the center or on both sides. Break up the veggies into bite-sized pieces and plop ’em in. You should be adding/removing these regularly, but the leaves and harder produce are fine to stay awhile, allowing more attention to the meats and treats which should most definitely not be overcooked – that A5 ought to stay pretty pink, y’all. Swish a bite through the broth, dip, and sit that sucker atop the rice bowl to drip excess goodness and cool off. (Eat that perfect rice sparingly though – the goal is not carb-loading.) Play with dip combos, play with utensils, play with techniques. Soon, you’re a shabu-shabu master of your own making and conversation can resume. Or just keep listening to the animated Tinder date next door while you stuff your face.
Look, everything on this menu is great, and if you listen to your server, you cannot go wrong. Pot pockets, aka stuffed tofu skins, feature one of the limited vegetarian options with Antonelli’s raclette (semihard cheese) and maitake mushrooms, which we enjoyed a bit more than the cheddar grits with pork sausage variety. Sui gyoza, aka wontons, come in pairs. The beef tallow wonton is tasty, but too rich for my taste; both the blue crab with lemon…