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.


Anonymous said...

great meal, pp!

natalie said...

Amazing restaurant!! Definitely try more of the menu items if you go again. I've had almost all of them and with the exception of one or two they're all incredible!

JustinM said...

Natalie, can you give me two or three recommendations in case I do go again?