Good friends of mine are ardent plane geeks. When Japan Airlines began service from San Diego to Tokyo, it was not only an opportunity for them to see Japan, but also a chance to fly on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Fortunately, they didn't have any issues with overheating batteries that grounded the Dreamliners earlier this month, but they did develop a newfound addiction to udon noodles. Having never been to Japan, but a frequent visitor to Izakaya Masa (928 Fort Stockton Drive in Mission Hills), I suggested dinner to slake the craving.
"Hey, it looks a lot like the places we ate at in Japan!" one friend said excitedly.
Well, that's a vote of confidence for the décor's authenticity. Later, they said our meal reminded them of their trip, except there weren't pictographic menus and no worry about a language barrier.
Traditionally, an izakaya is something like a pub. It's a place to drop by after work for a drink (or more, depending on your job) and some good eats. Windowless with low and warm lighting, Izakaya Masa is proof that pubs have some common themes across cultures. The tables are close together and everyone is huddled deep in conversation over bowls of ramen or small plates of various grilled meats. Whatever happened dur- ing the workday can be washed away with beer, sake or shochu, Japanese distilled liquor.
The menu is fairly large, ranging from small appetizers to full combination meals. There was the udon my friends craved, but I usually go for a half-serving of hakata ramen and its slow-cooked, collagen-rich tonkotsu broth. It's enough for a small meal, but there's plenty of room for another dish, and I try something different each time.
Among the small plates, I like the beef tongue, grilled and served simply with a slice of lemon. There's also takoyaki (battered balls filled with octopus) and hamachi kama (grilled fish cheek). My spousal unit prefers the katsu-don, fried pork chop served with egg on top of rice. Sushi lovers will find a small sushi menu featuring nigiri and a few rolls; the chicken katsu roll, which probably offends many Japanese traditions, is delicious with beer. It's fried chicken rolled with rice and seaweed and ranks alongside chicken and waffles as a great way to eat fried chicken.
The near-residential location means parking is generally easy to find, but expect a wait. The small restaurant is usually packed, even on weeknights. They take reservations, which are highly recommended if you plan on going with a group larger than four. Service is brisk, and, while you're never rushed during your meal, don't be surprised if you're moved along quickly once you ask for the check.
If, unlike my friends, you're unable to make it to Japan any time soon, there's a taste of the izakaya experience in Mission Hills. No need for a plane ticket or worrying about overheating batteries mid-air.