Friday, November 30, 2012

Musha Pasadena

"It's still musical chairs around here with the restaurants," my friend Andy said to me when we went out to lunch on the third day I was back in town. This didn't surprise me in the slightest: it's the way it's been around here as long as I can remember.

And with only one or two exceptions, no place has revolved the way the space has that is currently occupied by Musha Pasadena. (This was another one of those restaurant names where I am deferring to the California ABC: I have seen the name referred to as Musha, Musha Izakaya, and Musha Tokyo Cuisine, but the license query reveals their DBA as "Musha Pasadena," so that's what I'm using.)

A decade ago this was The Rack Shack, a pretty average barbecue joint, but one where my friends and I could split two sandwiches, an order or spicy fries and a pitcher of beer for twenty bucks. Then it became Ari-Ya, the place where I first started to love sushi and had some of the most fun meals of my life, whether it was a birthday dinner one year or party for my friend the day she found out she passed the bar exam. Even friends of mine who dislike sushi would go to Ari-Ya and find things on the menu to eat. But the place went downhill after about a year, and when the end finally came it surprised no one.

Two of the five funniest things I have ever heard a server say to me occurred within the last two months of Ari-Ya: 1) After complaining about a dish I had received that was prepared in a completely different manner than the menu promised, the waitress explained "Oh, we have a new chef - we try to tell him to follow the menu, but he just makes things however he feels like." A week later was 2) After inquiring about a dish that I had ordered an hour earlier, the waitress said with a straight face "Oh, that was yours? We couldn't remember who ordered it so I threw it in the trash."

(My brother and I then asked for the check, which she presented to us, including the item that she had thrown in the trash and another item we had ordered that she had neglected to mention they were out of. We started to object but that got nowhere - she really believed she had no choice but to charge us for items we had not received - so we paid the full amount sans tip, then went next door for fish & chips at Lucky Baldwin's. But not before taking every bottle of soy sauce off the tables on Ari-Ya's back patio and adding them to the tables at the pub. "When the fuck did we start putting soy sauce on the tables here?" a confused Lucky's waiter asked.)

After Ari-Ya, they spent more than half a year "remodeling" the place, only to open Tani and have it look substantially the same. There were whispers along the alley that the extended remodeling job was a front for something else, but those may have just been the exaggerations of barflies with too much time on their hands. At any rate, I loved Tani, as did Elizabeth. (Even my parents liked the place, my dad being the person who just the other day claimed Zankou Chicken was "too exotic" for him.)

Tani closed and Blue Fish opened, and it was fine, but not nearly as good as Tani, and the quality of the food varied tremendously depending on who was making the sushi that day. I drove Murph to the airport one day and he repaid me a couple of weeks later with a long lunch at Blue Fish on a Friday afternoon, where we consumed large bottles of beer and plenty of food, but that may have been the only enjoyable meal I had there.

When I returned to Pasadena this month I noticed it was Musha, with a sign advertising "No Sushi!" and promising "Tokyo City Cuisine." I'd love to BS you and pretend to be hip enough to know what that meant, but I did not. Apparently it's synonymous with izakaya, which I usually enjoy. (The lettering in the window reading "Japanese Tapas" gave me some clue... I was hoping it would resemble that bar Anthony Bourdain visited in an episode of No Reservations where a whole bunch of crazy drunken Japanese guys watched baseball.)

The other night I was out having a few beers with Bryce when our talk turned to dinner. I asked if he'd tried Musha yet and he said no, so our plan was made.

The front of the house was busy and we asked if we could sit on the back patio. Our server, an extremely friendly guy, said sure. We had it all to ourselves, where we sat under what was, without exaggeration, the hottest heat lamp I have ever felt.

Several things looked good; several things did not.

The twelve-dollar pitcher of Sapporo looked great. It was the first thing we ordered.

We started with potato croquettes: tooth-rattling crispy, fried discs of potato. Some of the bites with the soft potato were tasty, but overall, the main flavor was the crispy breading. It was distracting. Not a bad dish, but not a particularly good one.

The M.F.C. (Musha Fried Chicken) had to be ordered: chicken marinated in sake, soy sauce, ginger and garlic. This was really good and we ended up getting a second order at the end of our meal. The breading was crispy but the interior was juicy, flavorful chicken. These little guys soak up beer in your belly even better than buffalo wings. The ponzu sauce wasn't really necessary but it was still tasty.

Bryce suggested we try the ebi mayo and I agreed. The sweet & spicy mayonnaise sauces didn't really do it for me, I wish they'd been spicier, but the shrimp were good (although unlike the croquette and chicken, they were not crispy enough). I have no complaints about these and we finished the plate, but there is a reason we ordered a second helping of the fried chicken and not these. 

I was intrigued when I saw garlic fries on the menu. Most izakayas to which I have been offer some variation of french fries, though I have never ordered any. My heart sank when they arrived: they looked just like the fries you get at most burger stands, which 90% of the time I dislike. However, there is one way to save such fries: cook them long enough to ensure they are crispy. Which these were. And the garlic seasoning was very good. We ate almost all of them, only leaving a couple in the bowl.

Murph dropped by to join us and he ordered his beloved Nigori sake.

And the gyoza soup. He offered me a taste but I was so full I declined. Plus there were only four gyoza in the soup, which I thought was a little stingy. But he liked the soup very much.

Obviously it was a fun meal, sitting on the patio with two of my best friends. But it was a good meal, too. I didn't see the total - Bryce almost never lets me pay when we dine together - but the food did not seem outrageously-priced on the menu. I do not plan to repeat any meals on this vacation; there is such a finite number of days that I'm not even repeating my beloved Taco Lita or In-N-Out, but I would lying if I said I don't want to return for some more of that fried chicken. And a pitcher of Sapporo.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hook Burger

I was sad to see, on one of my first drives on this Pasadena vacation, that Wolfe Burgers had closed. Yeah, the quality was not nearly what it used to be, and the friendliness of the joint had waned over the years, but for as long as I can remember, it was a solid standby. It wouldn't blow anyone away, but nobody complained. And on an autumn or even winter weekend, when the weather was warm, there was almost no place more enjoyable than their back patio, nursing a Pacifico and chowing down a burger.

But a door closes and a window opens, as they say. First they take Ugarte and then she walks in. I read that Hook Burger had opened, not too far from my parents' house, by the same owners of The Habit, a burger joint I like very much. So when my mom asked what we should do for lunch one day, I said "Hook Burger."

It was crowded inside but the line moved pretty rapidly. Like The Habit, the customer service at Hook was outstanding. All restaurants - from fast food to fine dining - can learn something from how Hook Burger's employees act. When was the last time an employee at a fast-casual burger joint came to your table to ask how everything was or offer to refill your drinks for you from the self-help fountain? (The latter has never happened to me until this visit.)

I had a Diet Coke, my mom had an iced tea.

Despite how crowded the place was (we weren't even sure we were going to be able to get a table; every one of them was occupied when we walked in) our food came out in less than ten minutes.

I had the Hickory Burger: Prime chuck, bacon, barbecue sauce, crispy onions, tomato (which I removed) and lettuce. I loved it. The brioche bun was wonderfully soft and fresh. I wish more burger places used buns like this. The crispy onions were really good and the patty was nice.

If I were to issue a complaint it would be this: the 5-ounce patty seems a little small for a burger like this. I mean, $5.95 seems like a fair price - hell, a lot of fast food restaurants are charging that for their burgers now - so I am not upset... I would just prefer a half-pound patty, even if it cost a dollar more. The toppings were very good, they just overpowered the small-ish patty.

My mom had the Prime Burger, adding avocado. She definitely liked it - and loved the bun like I did - though she wished there had been an extra slice of avocado. 

I ordered the fries and onion rings, realizing (correctly) even while ordering that they would be too much food. Normally I would have just ordered the onions, but I saw another customer had shoestring fries. As I wrote a couple of days ago, I love shoestring fries when they're fried up crisp.

Hook Burger's fries aren't as good as those I had at Ruth's Chris, but they were still damn good. Perhaps the second-best shoestring fries I have had in the last couple of years.

They onion rings were very good, too. They were breaded (I prefer the battered type that I showed you yesterday) but I still enjoyed them: they weren't too greasy and each ring was a good size and covered with batter. (I find it annoying when onion rings are carelessly breaded and half the ring is uncoated.)

I was impressed with Hook Burger. If I still lived in Pasadena, it would definitely be placed ahead of The Habit in my burger rotation. Habit's burgers are good, but this Hook Burger was just little bit better, and the fries are no comparison. I won't be back on this trip - I have about twenty places I want to visit in 13 days; it doesn't seem feasible - and I may never get to try it again, but I'm quite glad I went. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Football Eats 14: Sunshine Wheat Beer-Battered Onion Rings

I just drove back from San Diego County so I'm gonna post a short one today. The first thing I ever really made on my own (I used to "make" BBQ chicken pizzas when I was in high school, but that recipe was so laughably simple that I don't even count it) were onion rings when I was 20 years old. I was watching Food Network and saw Emeril making onion rings and I said "Wait a second... I can make those." And I did, and everyone loved them. But it has been years - literally maybe ten years - since I've made them. My mom asked me to do it again while I was here, so last Saturday, while watching football, I did.

Slice up some onions and soak them in buttermilk for at least a couple of hours. 

I used my favorite beer, Sunshine Wheat, for the batter. I poured it in a bowl and let it sit for hours, until it was room temperature and flat. I mixed in one egg and two cups of flour to form the batter.

I dipped each piece of onion in flour, then in the batter, then fried them up for a few minutes before removing them and letting the oil drain.

You can use any kind of seasoning you want, but as an homage I used Emeril's.

Some of the pieces were flabby - I didn't let the oil get hot enough between one of the batches - but the rings that were crispy were outstanding. As good as any I have ever had. The games themselves did not go the way I was hoping, but that's the nature of college football. Sometime you have great days, sometimes you don't.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ruth's Chris Steak House

I've mentioned this before - well, every year at this time - but I'll mention it again. (This blog is bicoastal now; I may be up to 20 or 30 readers.) My parents got married on the day before Thanksgiving in 1971, so every year they celebrate on Wednesday, regardless of the date. (The night before Thanksgiving is also perhaps the most empty restaurant night of the year; my parents claim to have never once encountered a crowded restaurant on that night.)

Every year my brother and I join them. Last year Elizabeth's parents were visiting so we ate at home, but the year before that was Green Street Tavern. Before that was Arroyo Chop House. 2008 was Yujean Kang, 2007 Gale's, 2006 Tokyo Wako... you get the picture.

As I mentioned yesterday, my brother had already announced that he was paying for dinner. I considered ordering the porterhouse for two with side(s) of lobster tail(s)... but I didn't think I could eat that much.

My dad selected the La Crema pinot. I wasn't in the mood for wine so I did not try it, but the bottle disappeared quickly.

My brother started with the veal osso buco ravioli. He offered me a taste but I instead opted to try the white wine demi-glace. It was delicious. I would have licked the plate... if he hadn't finished it off himself.

The server brought out heated butter for my mom and me, as we had both ordered surf & turf entrees.

I chose the 6 oz filet with Caribbean lobster tail.

The server offered to remove my lobster from the shell, but I said no thanks, I wanted to do it myself. I don't know why. The lobster was delicious - firm and buttery (even without the butter) and slightly seasoned.

I love shoestring fries when they're crispy. And these were about as good as any I have ever had. I could have eaten all of them.

My dad had the New York strip steak.

My filet wasn't quite as tender as my brother's, but it was still wonderful.

I tried it with Bearnaise sauce, but that wasn't necessary: it was fine by itself.

Everyone enjoyed their dinner. It had been years since I'd eaten at a Ruth's Chris. It's not my favorite steakhouse but it's always reliable. As the years go by, I find myself eating at steakhouses less and less; I usually enjoy the steaks I cook at home just as much (if not more) than most steakhouses. But Ruth's Chris does a very good job and I never mind returning.