Monday, December 13, 2010

Masa of Echo Park: A small bite of Chicago in Los Angeles

"The greatest years of my life," I tell people when they ask me how I liked going to school at Northwestern.

"Except for the cold, right?" They'll counter with a wink. Because clearly a So Cal born and bred girl like me who breaks out in goose bumps when the temperature drops below 70 degrees could never have handled a Chicago winter.

So I tell them what they want to hear – that yes, the wind and frigid air made me cry myself to sleep at night and that I spent the entire four years of my matriculation in thermal long underwear. The truth is a lot less dramatic. It didn't bother me. In fact, I don't even remember a time when I thought, "I can't bear this for another second, give me Southern California or give me death!"

And for the record, I never wore long underwear either – thermal or otherwise.

My clearest memories of college involve the moments with my best friends and cross-country teammates. I think about watching “American Idol” with my roommates Ali and Caroline back when it was still cool and I still believed that there was actually coke in Paula Abdul’s Coca-Cola cup. I think about chasing after a shuttle bus while my friend Ashley cheered me on the last night of fall quarter my junior year. And I think about the food that made us temporarily "fat" together – the "Chocolate Storm" brownie sundaes from Flat Top, the late night runs for omelettes and sweet potato fries at Clarke's, and the deep dish spinach-stuffed pizza from Giordano's.

As I walk into Masa of Echo Park on Friday night, a homey pizzeria/bistro that specializes in a similar style of Chicago deep dish pizza, I can't help but feel nostalgic for Northwestern and those Monday evenings spent at Giordano's when the epic pies were 50% off. The tables were always crammed with large groups of us poor college students talking about anything and everything to help pass the 40 minute long wait while the pizzas baked.

In a way, I feel like Masa has the same communal vibe as Giordano's. The family-run restaurant is full of life when I arrive – the two dining rooms are brimming with couples having a “date night,” friends getting together to celebrate a birthday, and families laughing over shared pizzas. It brings a smile to my face – I half expect to run into one of the Northwestern football players I used to worship as a freshman. It's fitting that I’m actually meeting two college friends there for dinner.

It’s a given that we’ll be ordering the restaurant’s famed Chicago style pizza, a two-inch thick pie composed of a cornmeal crust that is first topped with cheese, then layered with toppings, and finally finished off with an ample blanket of chunky tomato sauce. Since the pie will take 40 minutes to bake, after we place our order for a small California Vegetable with spinach and sundried tomato ($14.95), we also tack on the Manchego Salad ($9.95) and the special thin crust Bistro Pizza of the night to keep our bellies satisfied while we wait.

The Manchego Salad with organic baby lettuces, dates, granny smith apples, caramelized walnuts, thick wedges of Manchego cheese, pear dressing and a drizzle of balsamic reduction ($9.95) is the first to arrive at our table. I’m initially confused by what appears to be just a heap of greens with Manchego, but as we begin scooping up the lightly-dressed salad, we discover the apples, dates and walnuts have been chopped into precise pieces that are actually more pleasurable to eat than large hunks. Despite the plethora of sweet components, the flavors in the salad are well-balanced. I especially enjoy the tang from the balsamic drizzle and the nutty bite from the cheese.
Just as we are scrapping up the last few leaves of the ambitious salad, our Bistro pizza arrives steaming hot with a fruitful display of farmer’s market fresh produce. The pie is artfully topped with greens, zucchini, beets, onion, and mozzarella, and we eagerly dig in without any apprehension about spoiling our appetites for the impending main affair. It’s a thoughtfully prepared thin-crust pizza – the crisp crust maintains its form underneath the fresh vegetable toppings and restrained application of cheese. The well-proportioned pie is a solid rendition of a California-style pizza, but I do find myself longing for a bit more flavor from the crust. An extra pinch of salt, perhaps?

When we’ve each devoured two slices of our thin crust pie, we turn our attentions to the real reason we’re here tonight – the Chicago Pizza. I’m shocked at how similar it looks to the spinach-stuffed version I loved so much at Giordano’s. Upon digging in with my fork and knife, however, I discover that flavor-wise it is considerably different. The sundried tomatoes and fresh leaves of spinach lend a sophistication to Masa’s pizza that was somewhat lacking in Giordano’s. It’s a bit bolder on the palate – an adult’s pie as opposed to an Abercrombie-wearing undergrad’s.

The crust is different, as well – lighter and less dense than the thick wedge of chewy dough that my tongue was expecting. It’s crunchier and perhaps better suited for the lofty layer of mozzarella heaped above it. Much to the surprise of our prompt and present waitress, we each devour another two slices of this pizza. It's no match for our Chicago-bred pizzatites.

We finish our carb-heavy meal with the restaurant’s other signature item – the Warm Croissant Bread Pudding composed of chocolate, almond and butter croissants that are pan baked in vanilla custard and drizzled with warm caramel sauce ($7.95). When the large meaty triangle of bread pudding is set down before us, I look up in alarm.

“Does anyone ever order this alone?” I ask our waitress.

She nods, explaining that sometimes people come in just to order the bread pudding – nothing else.

I still find this a bit disconcerting – or at least I do until I taste it. The fluffy folds of almond and chocolate-flecked croissant are a little too easy to eat. The caramel sauce ladled over the top is not overwhelming, so the pudding has more of a souffle-like French Toast quality rather than that of an overly dense, overly sweetened bread pudding. Long after my companions abandon their forks, I still find myself poking at the crusty edges.

My stomach is more than satisfied when I drain the remnants of my $5 glass of Syrah and retire my napkin to the table. All the dishes we ordered were good – maybe even great – but I can’t quite resign the image in my head of the first Chicago style pizza I encountered nearly 10 years ago. As tasty as Masa’s version is, I think I’ll always consider Giordano’s pie the gold standard – a little rough around the edges (like my poorly dressed, pudgy-cheeked collegiate self), but dense with tradition and memories. It is representative of the best years of my life – and the best friends I made while I wasn't freezing my So Cal butt off in Chicago.

Masa of Echo Park
1800 West Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90026-3227
(213) 989-1558


Gastronomer said...

Even though Masa doesn't match up to your memories of Chicago, it still sounds like a great place. And that bread pudding... nom nom nom!

Esi said...

Even if it's not 100% like Chicago, it sounds good enough to recommend to a friend from there. I'll send him this post!

Monet said...

Of course this restaurant can't compare to the original, but it seems like you had a lovely evening that brought back so many great memories! I think my college years are some of the must fun and exhilarating that I've had. Thank you so much for sharing this with me! I hope you have a lovely week!

Anna A. said...

Yah! Finally you made it to Masa - how does their bread pudding rank on your totem pole? You got everything I get when i go there. bravo talf!

weezermonkey said...

I am looking at the photo, reading your "light" description, and laughing.

Ashley said...

I love that the chasing after the bus scene was recounted here. Why on earth did you not ask me for the photos from after we made it onto the bus? I think they would have added a lot to this story of your college experience :)

glutster said...

awesome. thanks for the review of this place. I've been wanting to come down here and try their soy cheese option of deep dish pizzas too.

bagnatic said...

manchego salad and the croissant bread pudding are must haves...nice homey atmosphere there.

Tsz said...

MMM, masa. Their mushroom penne pasta is out of this world too!!

SinoSoul said...

You can always get them deep-dish wonders shipped FedEx in a frozen state. I hear they don't defrost fast enough if priority overnight is used...

Also, AA is having flight sales to Chicago right now for traveling after NYE.

Caroline said...

Yayyyy. I think my "temporary" fatness was about three years long, ha. :)

Diana said...

Cathy - Oh the bread pudding... nom nom nom, indeed! Meet you there some time?

Esi - Definitely! Recommend away - I'll for sure be back for another Chi-town fix soon!

Monet - College really is such a special time -- when else do we get to live with and see our best friends every day?

Anna - I'd say Corkbar's breakfast bread pudding is at number one right now, but Masa's is definitely in my top 5!

Weez - It was relatively light! Ish.

Ashley - If you want to send them, maybe I'll arrange for them to appear in a subsequent post...

Javier - Didn't know they had soy cheese at Masa! Giordano's definitely didn't have that option! Point for LA.

Amy - That bread pudding is gonna haunt me now. I really could take down that whole thing if I wanted to!

Tsz - I'll have to remember that for next time! Was thinking it was kind of odd when I saw people ordering pasta, but I guess it's not at all!

Tony - Thanks for the tips! Still might be a bit rich for my blood right now, but I'll look into it!

Caroline - But in the end, we all turned into beautiful, slender butterflies... ;)

Ellen said...

Our son Bendow is in Chicago as we speak, finishing his first semester at the School at the Art Institute of Chicago. He's home for a week to thaw out, then back to Michigan for a winter arts program. Glad to hear you survived. And we'll check out Masa.

Kung Food Panda said...

Check out Tony's in Placentia as well. Very solid deep dish, better than Masa IMO, though not as good as in Chi Town!