Monday, March 8, 2010

Manpuku in Oakland

With rolls as cheap as $2, the sushi at Manpuku is the draw but not the highlight. The first two times I went to the College Avenue eatery in the Elmwood district, I was indifferent about the sushi. Good for the price, but I got what I paid for. Rolls are heavy on the rice and not always properly made so the filling is loose. But, I cannot complain about 12 pieces of California and spicy tuna rolls for $6.

Over the weekend, I returned to Manpuku skipping the so-so sushi and ordering the beef yaki soba. Eating here can be confusing, crowded and hectic. Space is tight, so whether ordering takeout or dine-in, everyone orders at the cashier. If dining in, check your receipt for your number, grab free water or tea across from the register, and take a seat, if you can find one. Seating is limited to the sushi bar, several two-seaters and a couple of four-seaters in the back, so I would avoid eating here with groups. The no-frills dining matches the inexpensive prices. With a few scattered posters on the walls and tidy tables with only napkin holders, chopsticks and soy sauce bottles, the atmosphere is more like a cafeteria than a five-star restaurant.

Once ordered, the food arrives quickly but staggered. They bring out orders when they are done, never all at once, which can be a problem if you are in a group. So, while my boyfriend was enjoying his unagi donburi, I was wondering whether my yaki soba was worth the wait. Five minutes later, my noodle dish arrived slightly glistening in oil but topped with a perfect combination of beef yaki, shredded cabbage, carrots and picked vegetables. The noodles were cooked perfectly with just the right amount of sauce so that they were not drowning in oil or dry and bland. The dish was well balanced, seasoned and tasted exactly like yaki soba. Best of all, it cost $6.50.

We also ordered the Manpuku roll of yellow tail and avocado with unagi on top, which was consistent with the rest of the sushi I have had there: good, but nothing great for $6.75. I also tried the unagi don, which tasted just like the sushi roll and cost just as much but was presented beautifully in a decorative bowl with bright, colorful pickled vegetables placed artfully.

While Manupuku has amazingly low prices on sushi favorites like spinach and shiitake mushroom ($2), California ($2.85) and caterpillar ($6.95) rolls, I would return for the noodle and rice dishes. They are more complete meals, cost as much as specialty rolls and are presented so well that you may forget you are eating in a hole-in-the-wall. With some rain predicted later this week, I will be heading back to try the ramen.

2977 College Ave., Oakland

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