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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.

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