Jeff Smith 6:35 p.m., June 27
Tucked into the corner of a Mission Hills retail complex, the izakaya is only identifiable by a small sign in Japanese. Also, it's the only thing that's open late since the nature of an izakaya is to be an after-work or late-night destination.
Reservations are highly recommended, especially on weekends, as the restaurant is diminutive and surprisingly popular given its out-of-the-way location. I might not have needed my reservation at 10:30, but any earlier and it would have been a good idea.
The staff greeted me in cheerful Japanese and showed me promptly to my table in the back room (with all of five tables in it). Service is, as a rule, very prompt and efficient at Izakaya Masa, sometimes leaving no time to peruse the menu before ordering, but the waitstaff will just keep coming back as many times as needed.
The signage that covered the walls was heavy on the Japanese text, of which I understand zero, but somehow lent the place credibility. It wasn't that the signs were in Japanese, but that there was an aspect of sincerity there that's hard to fake.
The sake selection isn't extensive, but it's also not expensive, so simply ordering at whim is probably the best place to start. Special bottles can be as cheap as $12.
Much of the menu is tapas-style food that is meant to be shared and eaten with sake. I started off the meal with a cold monkfish liver. It was expensive, almost eight dollars, but possessed a rich flavor and a unique texture. As an accompaniment to sake, the cold fish liver was ideal: it smoothed out the potential bite of the hot alcohol and the flavors were perfectly complimentary.
A small plate of deep-fried oysters had been formed into quenelles, breaded in panko, and fried quickly so that the soft, briny interiors didn't have a chance to toughen. The unidentified brown sauce (sort of a ponzu, but not quite) went well with them.
Sliced and roasted pork, another small plate, came smothered in sliced scallions and drizzled with a very umami sauce for less than five dollars. While not elegant in the sense of some Japanese food, it fit the "drinking and sharing" aesthetic of an izakaya perfectly, especially on a cooler evening.
The star of the show at Izakaya Masa is definitely the ramen. Only available after 9 p.m., the tonkotsu (pork bone stock) noodle soup comes in three different varieties; all of which threaten to make a mockery of ramen as it's widely known in the U.S,. i.e. the stuff that college freshmen live on for the first year of school.
I ordered a large bowl of hakata ramen ($8.95) which had sliced pork, fried garlic, scallions, seaweed, and ginger laid across the top of the noodles. The salty broth tasted deeply of roasted pork and felt as if it would have been a nourishing meal just on its own. That flavor had pervaded the noodles as well. It was, in short, massively satisfactory.
The overall expense of a trip to Izakaya Masa isn't as much as it could be, considering the small size of the plates and the emphasis on drinking sake. Two people can dine well in the neighborhood of $20 each.
As a final note, the staff showed great presence of mind when I left my keys on the table. Pulling my number from the reservation sheet, they called me up and saved me a bunch of trouble before I had even gotten more than a block away from the restaurant.
928 Fort Stockton Drive