When Jin Kim and Jeesoo Lee opened Masita this past winter, they (like the rest of us) had no way of knowing what was right around the corner. The coronavirus hit restaurant owners incredibly hard, and many Ithaca businesses were forced to close their doors and regroup. Kim and Lee, having only been open for a month, were at a major disadvantage, as they lacked the dedicated fanbase of other established restaurants.
Fortunately, Masita was not their first rodeo. Back in South Korea, the two women were longtime business partners and owned multiple successful restaurants together. After spending some time out of the food business, they ended up in Ithaca and agreed to take over the sushi restaurant Miyake from a mutual friend. Before the outbreak and lockdowns, they managed to revamp the eatery with a new name (Masita means “delicious” in Korean) and a pan-Asian menu with Korean and Japanese options. They knew their food was good, but how does a new restaurant establish itself as a Collegetown staple during the pandemic?
Well, they start by earning straight five-star Yelp reviews, which is how I knew I had to try it out. A few friends and I visited the restaurant, conveniently located on Eddy Street, on a late Thursday afternoon. What struck me the most was the emptiness. The bare sushi bar and large dining room echoed with the ghosts of potential customers, clearly built for noisy groups of college friends. Because of COVID restrictions, Masita reopened with an abbreviated menu and no longer serves sake bombs (sorry everyone).
Large pictures of each menu item hang on the wall by the entryway, which my friends and I found to be helpful (let’s just say we’re not exactly experts on authentic Korean dishes). As we approached the counter to order, Jeesoo Lee came out to meet us with a smile on her face. Whatever difficulties are created by social distancing was made up for by Lee’s infectious energy, as she patiently answered our questions about the menu. She was also quite attentive to any dietary needs or preferences, asking us about our preferred spice level and detailing ingredients to us; I don’t eat meat and my friend is gluten-free.
After ordering, Lee led us to a table in the large dining room, where Jin Kim’s interior design skills (she attended Parsons in NYC) were evident. Rather than sterile plexiglass dividers, colorful tapestries hung between each table, ranging from maps of the U.S. to images of the Eiffel Tower. We settled in and waited for our food, which didn’t take more than ten minutes to come out. For safety, the orders are served in takeout containers, which also makes taking home leftovers all the easier. The portions are huge — you will have leftovers. Lee also treated us with two bonus containers of fried rice and a mystery fried dessert for free! As “Come Together” by the Beatles played in the background, we eagerly dug into the heaping containers of hot food.
Each of us ended up with a large serving of the fried rice, which was fluffy and light with the perfect ratio of vegetables. It was definitely the highlight of our meal, and the item that still makes us salivate when thinking back in the days since. According to my friend, the pork barbecue was delectable, with a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Although we are far from experts on traditional Asian cuisine, there was a noticeable elevation in the flavor and presentation of the dishes. If the signs on the door proclaiming “HOMEMADE NOODLES AND DUMPLINGS” left any confusion, one bite of the steamed beef dumplings cleared it up. They were clearly made from scratch, with a fresh wrapping and well-seasoned filling. I ordered the vegetable Ja Jang Myon, which Jeesoo told me is a thick noodle dish in black bean sauce. I did feel that it could have been served hotter, but the flavor was pleasantly savory without being pungent.
From start to finish, our experience at Masita was a joy. If you have any qualms about ordering from restaurants during the pandemic, it’s the ideal environment for takeout or dining in safely. The food was delicious and affordable (around 10 to 13 dollars per entree), especially given the portion size. Most importantly, the people behind the business are smart, accomplished and truly care about providing authentic and top-quality food for the Ithaca community. The past seven months have been brutal for business owners and customers alike, and those struggles have not disappeared with the reopening of restaurants. If you and your friends have been looking for a new spot to add to the rotation or just want to support our local entrepreneurs, you might as well get some delicious fried rice (and maybe, one day, a sake bomb) while you’re at it.
Sadie Groberg is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].