Izakaya Masa, Japanese Treasure in Mission Hills

Friends and foodies have been telling me forever to check out Izakaya Masa -- the little Japanese restaurant with no sign that is tucked into the corner of a strip mall on Fort Stockton Drive -- but it wasn't until last week that I finally heeded their strong recommendations, and I'm so happy I did. But not for the reasons I thought I would be.

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For some reason, I had it in my head that this was a strictly yakitori (grilled skewered meats and veggies) and ramen joint. But the menu was extensive, with a cross-section of all of my traditional Japanese dining favorites, from agedashi tofu to chicken katsudon.

I was happy to be there with a group, which meant I could see and taste more than if I'd just gone with David. We ordered a handful of small dishes off of the appetizer list. Agedashi tofu, of course, and a tofu steak with "Masa's blackpepper sauce." Both tofu dishes were extraordinary in their own way -- the agedashi was, as with Sushi Tadokoro's, served sans bonito flakes and therefore had none of that overwhelming fishy taste I don't care for. Atop the tofu was a mound of grated mountain yam.

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The black pepper sauce on the tofu steak had a rich umami flavor and a nice bite from the black pepper.

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My friend Kimberly and I couldn't go near the tongue, for reasons of uncomfortable mental associations, but David and Shawn said it was as tender as it was tasty.

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There was barely enough gyoza to go around, what with that satisfyingly crunchy side from where it has sat on the skillet.

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I felt terrible for demanding David to order the ramen so we could see how it compared, because his entree was the one disappointment of the evening. The broth was bland and watery, the noodles were thinner than the standard, and the pork was fatty (which, though not a bad thing as some people like that, we prefer leaner meat). After he tasted it, David looked as drawn and sad as the bowl in front of him.

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On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, I was experiencing a foodgasm with my nabeyaki, or hot pot udon (in a "cray" pot, according to the menu), which came with shrimp tempura, a perfectly poached egg, chunks of tofu, and spinach that managed to maintain its own flavor and avoid getting slimy in the simmering broth. Oh, the broth! Savory, spicy, just the right amount of salt -- it was the kind of bowl you're sure to tip to your mouth at the end to get every last drop. So my recommendation is, if you're craving something noodley and soupy when you hit up Masa (the nickname locals have given the place), skip the ramen and order the udon.

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Though the chicken katsudon (fried chicken tenders, egg, and onions on rice) that Shawn ordered looked amazing, I was too busy luxuriating in my udon dish to give it a try.

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