My good Mana
Sacramento, CA 95825
Mana—yes, the stuff mostly spelled with a second “n” that falls from heaven—hit the quarter-century mark this year. At 2580 Alta Arden, Mana exudes longevity, which is most markedly exhibited by the relaxed efficiency of its chefs and staff. No panic here, been getting the J-O-B done for decades, arigato very much.
Further evidence is the list of 64 special rolls, most named after the customers that helped create them. It’s like saying goodnight at the Waltons sextupled: Alan, Anita, Becki, Beth, Brenda, Brent, Carlos, Christopher, Colin—take deep breath here—followed by another 22 names ending with Thor (Thor?), Tony, Trey, Vennie and Wendy. Perhaps for the holidays, Donner, Blitzen and Prancer rolls?
The clinical coldness created by the beige-tile floor, acoustic-tile ceiling and two-tone cinder-block walls is countered by tan and teak tables, darker wood-backed chairs and, foremost, an overall amiability. Mana is a family-run restaurant well-suited for families. The large stack of plastic booster seats and quartet of wood highchairs are confirmation. As further proof, at a nearby table are two profoundly happy children. A girl, 4-ish, has taken a fork and wedged it between two chopsticks, whose ends are still connected to form an X. “Fly birdie,” she says, whooshing the fork-sticks through the air. Her younger brother has done the same thing but calls it a plane. It’s been said before: Women are from Venus, men are from McDonnell Douglas.
In one of those kismet moments that happen every so often, Mana was last visited in this space in November 2003 by Lark Park. She went on a Monday, as was the initial case in 2010. Lark says this: “Go to any restaurant on a Monday night, and you’ll see the place’s true following. If it’s doing good business on the slowest of weeknights, it’s worth trying any night of the week.”
On a December Monday around 8 p.m., Mana is fairly quiet. After laying a couple customized rolls on my table, the rowdiest folks in the joint are the sushi chefs, washing away their cares at a back corner table.
To define customized: The Niko Niko roll normally consists of shrimp tempura, smoked salmon, crab, tuna, avocado and cream cheese. By request, the cream cheese is dropped and extra heat added. Rather than a patina of jalapeño slices across the top, as most sushi joints do, Mana buries the jalapeño inside and artfully provides the boost in temperature without sacrificing flavor.
Similar heat is added to the SMF roll, which already has spicy tuna leavened with snow crab, soft shell crab, seared tuna, avocado, scallions and tobiko, or fish eggs. More than a meal for one and both $8.50, a relative steal compared to most other sushi places.
A festive appetizer for the deep-fry crowd is kushikatsu, which, for want of a better comparison, is a Japanese shish kebab of pork and onion covered in panko. Dip in tonkatsu, ooh and aah at will.
For fishier, more vegetarian folk, the tako sunonomo is almost a meal. A thicket of wakame tops four slabs of octopus laid across crescents of cucumber flecked with shredded carrot. Sharply fresh scallions kick-start the almost-too-decorative-to-eat udon dinner entree, which arrives in a crowded cast-iron pot. A fan of three fish cake half-circles resting atop a blanket of cabbage, bok choy and the aforementioned scallions masks the fat noodles, fried egg, boiled chicken and beef beneath. Two 4-inch tempura shrimp sticks poke out from the pot’s edge like stirrers in a cocktail. It’s odd that the udon comes with miso. A small shaker of shichimi togarashi accompanies, and its zip of red pepper, orange peel and black sesame seed breathes life into the broth.
Regarding Henry, the waiter. He is both endearing and attentive despite a penchant of referring to at least one patron as “my man” or “my good man.” Style points added for his performance.