AUSTIN, Tex. — 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Cole is responsible for rewiring Austin’s collective palate. “Had he been in Fort Worth, it might have happened there instead,” said Ms. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Cole’s company, with a seventh, Uchi Denver, scheduled to open this summer.) Mr. 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.” Mr. Franklin said, with a smile, that the restaurant will test Mr. Cole’s theory that Texas barbecue is, as Mr. Franklin put it, “the overcooked, red-meat version of sushi.”
Mr. 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,” Mr. Dumapit said. “We’re not going to rub yellow curry over brisket, for example, because Aaron does brisket obviously very well.”
The credibility that Mr. Franklin provides Loro is fairly obvious. More complicated is the role that Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Cole said he was told by the first boss he asked for permission to cut fish. A compromise was ultimately reached: Mr. 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.” Mr. Cole is quick to credit the Japanese chefs he has labored alongside in Austin for sharing their expertise. Foremost among them is Mr. Fuse, the chef and owner of Musashino Sushi Dokoro, where Mr. Cole worked for more than seven years, starting in 1993. Mr. Fuse demanded that Mr. 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,” Mr. Cole said of his mentor. Mr. Fuse is held in high esteem by Austin chefs. Both Takehiro Asazu, of Komé, and Kazu Fukumoto, of Fukumoto Sushi, apprenticed under Mr. Fuse, who is known around town as Smokey. He is also known to be reclusive. Mr. Fuse did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Mr. 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 Mr. Cole developed the convention-busting style that lives on at Uchi. Mr. Cole’s signature dishes — like smoked yellowtail and Asian pear, or maguro and goat cheese — are often built on nontraditional pairings.