Any day of the week
Take Mana on Alta Arden Expressway. Tucked just off Fulton Avenue, across from Target and near a few check-cashing places, Mana is a luminous beacon in that corner of Sacramento. The turn off Fulton is relatively dark, but you can see the Mana diners eating their Japanese meals–be they sushi, sashimi, rolls or the teriyaki, sukiyaki and tempura dinners.
Mana, owned by the Shirasaka family, stands out for a variety of reasons. First off, the dining room has a good vibe. Good vibes come from happy diners, who emit a highly satisfied aura. Second, it has a friendly staff. Though the sushi chefs at many Japanese restaurants will give a hearty greeting at the door, Mana’s staff is unusually attentive (but not overly so), with water, edamame, refills and other such niceties. The staff has its timing down. Third, Mana gives you free food, and it’s really good.
Our particular server was an elderly mother type—happy, pleasant and round as they come. She was so cute I wanted to put her in my pocket and take her home. But I refrained, seeing as how we hadn’t eaten yet.
We ordered lots of food, like sashimi dinners, weird-sounding rolls and nigiri sushi. (Our friend Chicken Teriyaki was absent this week, so we didn’t get any chicken teriyaki.) Then we got some tasty morsels we didn’t order—which is just about the greatest thing.
The freebies were little tasters: a little dish of moyashi (pickled mung bean sprouts) and a serving of edamame (the boiled soybean pods that are so fun to eat). Also, two very full bowls of steaming-hot miso appeared. They were hearty, smoky and deep in flavor. A deep flavor is the opposite of a shallow flavor, which is like having a cold and being unable to taste the food. Medium cubes of tofu and a sprinkling of scallions made it a perfect soup.
Whatever they put in the soup to make it come alive, they also put on the sashimi. Cut in small, triangular shapes, the yellowtail, tuna and fresh salmon were velvety and vivid with flavor. Even the lesser pieces (yes, in my mind alone), such as octopus, squid, red snapper and halibut, stood out as paragons of freshness. And in case we didn’t get enough fish, the nigiri had large pieces of fish that dwarfed the rice underneath. They were like extra-long hotdogs on an average-sized bun.
The rolls were good but ambitious. The L&A roll was deep-fried and contained smoked salmon, cream cheese, tobiko (flying-fish roe), green onion, teriyaki sauce and special sauce (a spicy version of Russian or French dressing). It was soft, moist, slightly fishy and sweet. It worked for one, but eight pieces were too rich. Likewise, the Dino and Lisa, a non-fried roll consisting of spicy hamachi, soft-shell crab, avocado, green onions, tobiko and special sauce, had a lot to commend it. Still, it was difficult to get through so many substantial ingredients in one bite.
On the other hand, the California roll was a simple, non-mayonnaisey rendering with no extras. It went down smooth and clean. The California roll was part of the sashimi dinner, along with the Tony roll. The Tony roll rallied around fried shrimp—always a good thing, never a bad thing.
We came back for lunch a few days later and found Mana just as full of happy lunchers as it had been with evening diners. We ordered udon and tempura, à la carte, which were no less pleasing than the sushi and sashimi we had eaten previously.
The udon was exceptional. The noodles had a lovely, extra-soft texture on the outside but were firm on the inside. The broth was pale and clear, with some background smokiness detectable. The presentation—three thinly sliced fish cakes with pink edges, white cabbage slices and long stems of green onion—was very refined.
The mixed tempura came with generous portions of shrimp (three) and pieces of carrot, sweet potato, zucchini and broccoli coated in tempura batter. Why anyone does this to broccoli, I will never know, but Mana did it quite well. There was no trace of the mushy texture that often results from heating the tree-like structure of broccoli. As for the other pieces, what can I say? Fried food is good.
Mana has been around for more than 10 years. I say, keep up the good work, and I’ll see you on Monday.