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Izakaya Masa

928 Ft. Stockton Drive, Mission Hills

Ever wonder what modern Japanese eat when they go out to nosh, sip, and socialize after work? Izakaya Masa gives you a taste of those dishes. After a couple of meals, I can tell you that their offerings go beyond the standard Japanese-American restaurant menu of sushi, tempura, teriyaki, and noodles (although all those go into the mix) to include a vast array of small plates rarely seen here -- Japanese tapas. If you love to nibble your way through lots of little dishes, this is a menu that's great fun to explore.

An izakaya is the Japanese equivalent of a Japanese tapas bar. Iz means "sitting" (on tatami mats as often as on barstools or chairs), and zakaya means "sake joint," as in "Oh, show us the way to the next sake bar...." In Japan, some izakayas are chains offering prix-fixe, all-you-can-eat (and drink) menus, with a set procession of dishes delivered for precisely two hours of happy noshing. When time's up, everybody goes home to Mama-san. (Google tells me that "Izakaya" is also a pun on "red lantern," and where the lights are red, the izakaya is the equivalent of a "meet market.") But there are also small, casual, mom 'n' pop versions of these restaurants. Izakaya Masa, where Fukuoka-born Masayoshi Tsuruta is the chef and owner, falls into that category.

At Izakaya Masa, the paper lampshades are white, not red. It's more of a duos and foursomes kind of place, located in the starving upscale enclave of Mission Hills. That area has lost a lot of restaurants due to an edifice complex that's been tearing down neighborhood eateries to put up condos. The site used to be a restaurant called Teriyaki Cowboy, which I never tried. (Some restaurant names -- that and the one-time Taco Auctioneer up in Cardiff -- are just a little too Dada for me.) Once you find the place at the inside corner of its L-shaped mini-mall, you enter a small room resembling a Japanese rural inn, dominated by a sushi-sake bar that displays bottles of numerous brands of sake. Couples can dine in a semicurtained area decorated with homey craft objects and menu posters in Japanese script. A second dining room, of similar decor but larger, has additional tables for two to four, but if you call ahead, they can put together enough tables to seat six or eight.

The menu includes 12 cold appetizers and 19 hot ones, along with 12 deep-fried mini-kebabs, plus a host of more standard dishes (rice bowls, noodle bowls, tempura, entrée soups, sushi, sashimi, etc.). The little dishes are the way to go if you're looking for adventure. About five appetizers will leave a twosome full and presumably happy for less than $50, including tip, tax, and a generous half-bottle of inexpensive "crazy milk" (fizzy unfiltered sake, served cold) or a couple of Asian beers.

My partner TJ and I scouted the place first, then invited posse regular Sam, who brought long, tall Sheila, the Aussie flying nurse -- culinary high-divers all. We began with Chuka Karage, cold jellyfish salad. Whoompf! And wow! These jellyfish are crunchier and spicier than the more familiar Hong Kong style, as hot as Sichuan style, but lightly sauced, with no greasy chili-oil residue. They wake you right up. They're salty, too -- you don't taste it, you just order more beer or crazy milk. "I loved jellyfish in Hong Kong," said TJ, "but this is even better. The strands are wider and crunchier, and I'm really getting into the spiciness." "Yeah, the balance of hot and fresh seems just right," said Sam.

Agedashi tofu (deep-fried tofu in bonito broth) is a more common dish, but here it was exceptionally well prepared -- even my tofu-spurning partner fell under its spell. "I finally get it," he said, "the texture of roasted marshmallows without the icky-sweet factor." The trembling cubes had been crusted with cornstarch, which formed a slippery skin that slid off into the fishy broth, where it took on a gelatinous texture resembling cellophane noodles. Added to the crunch of scallion rounds, that made three distinctive textures in one comforting dish.

Kaki fry consists of fried oysters in a light, crumb-based batter (more like katsu than tempura), served with sides of a lemon wedge, tonkatsu sauce (soy, Worcestershire, sugar), and a Japanese tartar sauce made of Kewpie-brand mayo studded with sweet pickles. We found the combination thoroughly likable.

Don't look for flat disks when you order tako yaki, "pancakes" stuffed with octopus. These are a popular fast-food nibble around Osaka, where they're cooked on a grill resembling a muffin tin to make spherical cakes. With their light-brown surfaces, they look like dumplings -- round like meatballs, and slightly sweet. The batter, a combination of rice and wheat flours, has a charmingly glutinous texture that contrasts with the chewy chopped octopus pieces, scallions, and crisped rice inside. The rounds are glazed with the house dark-brown tonkatsu sauce, then squiggled with Japanese mayo and bracingly garnished with red pickled ginger slivers, sharper than standard golden sushi ginger.

Another evening, we started with a couple of the spiffier sushi rolls. At Masa, only two of the rolls include cream cheese, so you're safe ordering eel if you don't want Philly on it. Preferring more creative ventures, we tried a "special roll" called American Dream. It wasn't quite sushi as we know it, although it looked like a regular futo maki (big roll, or "party roll") -- until you bit into it. The filling featured tempuraed sweet shrimp (ama ebi), cukes, avocado chunks, tobiko or masago (roe), and semitempuraed rice (resembling northern Chinese "sizzling rice"). The rice was crackly, with a neutral flavor, not seasoned with sweetened vinegar like typical sushi rice.

Another roll called lobster dynamite wasn't the gratin that usually goes by that name, but a plump, overstuffed maki filled with lobster, avo, cuke, spicy mayo, and "wasabi caviar," rolled a bit too loosely (the slices fell apart when we bit into them). The flavors were engaging, the rice moister than in the American Dream roll. At a nearby table, we noticed a trio dining on a series of sushi assortments, never venturing elsewhere. My partner and I felt regretful for them. The sushi here are okay and show some imagination, but they're not in the same master class as, say, Kazumi, barely a mile east, whereas the tapas are unique.

We returned to exploring hot appetizers. House-made shrimp gyoza are unusual -- in each, the rear half of a medium shrimp is surrounded by mildly seasoned minced pork and scallions enclosed in a lightly browned, pan-fried flour pot-sticker wrapper with the shrimp tail sticking out. These came with ponzu sauce and a bottle of Asian hot chili oil. (Mix the oil into the ponzu by drops, to wake the dish up -- it needs it, and this will make the difference between an okay dish and an exciting one.)

Kara-age, spicy fried chicken, proved a treat. Deep-fried to a mahogany shade in a flour batter, the chicken pieces were thigh meat, moist and juicy and able to take on other flavors without forgetting their own. Evidently, they'd been marinated, since the spice flavor went all through the meat. Less exciting was age nasu, deep-fried Japanese eggplant cut into wedges. It appeared to be baked and was served with a topping of bonito flakes. "When I have to put salt on something, you know it really needs help," TJ said, pouring on a dribble of soy sauce as a salt substitute.

We expanded our explorations into other menu areas. One intriguing possibility was a list of a dozen kushi-age, deep-fried kebabs on bamboo skewers, all at $2.50 or less. You do want to go here -- interesting flavors, at a bargain price. We tried the Japanese sausage skewer, which featured a couple of thick rounds of meat. "It's a hot dog!" TJ exclaimed at first bite. "No, it's coarser-ground than that, it's a, hmm..." I contradicted. "It's like a fat breakfast sausage," said Sheila. Indeed, it resembled a breakfast link seasoned like a hot dog. The skewer came with a sweet, thick dipping sauce. If we hadn't been half full on the sushi, we'd likely have ordered more kebabs -- the shiitake, the pork, and maybe the octopus or tofu.

We also tried a couple of dishes that confounded us with their exoticism. Maguro yamokake, a cold appetizer of raw tuna with grated mountain yam (which is not the same as "mountain potato," a.k.a. yama gobo, the crunchy daikon-like root veggie shaved into many creative sushi rolls) proved an advanced course in Japanese cuisine, maybe even a postgraduate course. Raw tuna cubes were topped with nori seaweed slivers and scallion rounds -- no prob there. But underneath, the yam purée looked like cream of wheat and tasted bland, starchy, and seriously slimy. (To give you an idea of its texture without getting pornographic, one Japanese recipe website suggests okra as a possible substitute. Back in the Edo period of Japanese history, women used puréed yam as a sexual lubricant but were forbidden to eat it. Taboo "man food," I guess.) Getting back to the bowl, at the edge is a blob of wasabi to stir in -- cautiously. You need that wasabi, but a spot too much can leave you gasping. You can also stir in soy sauce. Or you can order something else. If you're curious about the white yam, you can try it in less risky fashion as one of the fried kebabs, called yama imo.

Sheila was interested in the Oka-Zuke listings -- a choice of four soups with rice, garnished with seaweed, salmon, eel, or mentai -- spicy cod roe. I chose the cod roe. (Can you blame me? With fellow adventurers, how could I resist?) The broth was thin with a near-neutral flavor. Resting atop a raft of rice was a half-inch layer of cod roe, packed into a mass of gentle crunch, strong fishiness, and chili heat. "This is -- uh -- interesting," said Sheila. Though we passed the bowl around for second opinions, the dish won no converts. Once again, we were out-exoticked.

We finished back in the land of ease with donburi, a rice bowl topped with Katsu (cutlet). This was TJ's favorite breakfast when we were in Hawaii, where he'd always get it garnished with Spam. That's not an option here, so we chose a Katsu combo of breaded fried-pork fillet and lightly cooked egg to garnish the rice. Unfortunately, the pork was lean loin rather than juicy shoulder, cooked until rather dry. The rice and egg combination was gentle and pleasing. A bowl for lunch, and you'd be full well into the evening.

Just as with Spanish tapas, we didn't love every single dish and you may not either, but the full array is there to play with. Whatever your palate, you'll find some dishes that turn you on -- and you'll never be bored. It's a whole new world of tastes out there.

IN MEMORIAM: TJ BYERS (5/11/47-1/10/07)

Everything I know about Japanese food, including learning to like it, I owe to my partner TJ. In high school, he had a teenage romance with the beautiful daughter of an American GI and his Japanese Occupation--era bride. TJ's girlfriend's mother often invited him for dinner, giving him a lifelong love for her cuisine. I'd eaten sushi before we met but only learned the "inside story" by helping him make it at home -- fanning the rice, carefully stirring in seasonings taste by taste, experimenting with ingredients. (A substitution of chopped nasturtium leaves from the garden, in place of unavailable shiso, was a great hit at one party.)

The Izakaya genre of restaurant was something new to us both. My partner in life, crime, and adventure, TJ was delighted to try the most esoteric dishes on this and any other menu and then plunge into the Internet to furnish most of the research material supporting my articles. (Like the Clintons in the White House, the Reader truly got "two for the price of one.") In the words of our friend and eating companion Alma, "You two could finish each other's sentences. You could share a common perspective and echo each other to make a conclusion...You learned from each other and you taught each other all at the same time."

TJ debriefed with me for hours on end when we returned home from a restaurant, "remembering" every detail, which I wrote down quickly, before we forgot. He was the one who noticed decor, and he edited my articles before they went to the Reader's editors, suggesting lively lead paragraphs when I had writer's block (constantly), clearing out logjams of clotted "English major" prose, rearranging ideas into clearer sequences.

But there was more to his life. Part of it was rocket science. As a young engineer working for Hughes Aircraft, TJ contributed to Neil Armstrong's "one giant leap for mankind" walk on the moon. Hughes paid TJ's tuition at UCLA, but after the moonwalk, the company laid off its moonshot staff. TJ, who'd been ailing but misdiagnosed for years, was finally diagnosed with terminal Hodgkin's disease. He joined an experimental program of draconian chemotherapy and massive radiation. The experiment bought him another 35 years of life -- and then death a few weeks ago by slow-acting radiation poisoning that seeded his lungs with fast-growing cancer.

In remission, he moved to Canyon Country, bought a bar, built his own house from scratch on leased government land, married his barmaid, and raised three of her children, along with a young son of his own from his first marriage. (In those days, divorced fathers rarely obtained custody, or wanted it.) He fed his family on the free-range ducks, squabs, pigs, and dairy goats that he raised lovingly on his own subsistence ranch. (What I know about organic livestock, I know firsthand from him.)

Meanwhile, he took up writing. Although his illness forced him to drop out of UCLA a couple of semesters short of a degree (taking only the hard-science courses and skipping the language and social sciences requirements), he went on to write 12 published college-level engineering textbooks for a major educational publisher. He also wrote for numerous technical magazines. We met after he moved to San Francisco to set up PC World's computer-testing laboratory. They offered him the job of managing the lab, but he didn't want to be anybody's boss and returned to freelance work. His then-wife hated San Francisco and left it and him. Soon after, he and I transited from a long-standing friendship to become a team for his final 13 years.

One of my friends says he was a "Dickensian character." He was indeed "a character," a bit eccentric and quirky, but always true to himself. His Native American grandfather was his mentor, teaching him to speak softly, walk silently, and never hit anybody weaker than himself unless it was to save his life, or someone else's. He was confident enough of his masculinity to treat a woman well. He could build or fix anything, although he rarely finished the fixes before moving on to the next project. He was brilliant, messy, sweet, funny. He was truly a man.

Please forgive me for substituting this personal note in place of a chef interview. The last restaurant we went to together could not have been more appropriate to TJ's vast enthusiasms -- for Japanese cuisine, for venturing into the unknown, for life itself. Reader, I never married him. (As refugees from long, troubled marriages, we didn't want to do anything that might change or jeopardize our extraordinary relationship.) But I can wish each of you no greater boon than a partnership like ours.

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