There was no table for us at Maneki on Friday. And no table for us at Maneki on Tuesday. And if you show up at 7 tonight, or this weekend...
There was no table for us at Maneki on Friday. And no table for us at Maneki on Tuesday. And if you show up at 7 tonight, or this weekend, or anytime soon, chances are there won’t be a table for you, either.
Take that, Wasabi Bistro. Suck eggs, Saito-san. Don’t grouse, Umi Sake House. After 100 years in business, give or take a few, Maneki’s had plenty of time to build up a customer base.
That’s what happens when a restaurant withstands two World Wars, Japanese internment, a move, the distinction of having a former dishwasher go on to become the 66th prime minister of Japan and — amazingly enough — only a handful of ownership changes in a century.
The regulars stream into this old Japantown storefront as they have for generations, for a bargain-priced bonanza including bountiful bar snacks, Japanese comfort-food classics, sushi, sashimi and a handful of entree combos. They knew to call in advance to say they’re headed toward the Chinatown International District, securing a spot on the waiting list ahead of yours.
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Meantime, you stand in a reception hall, taking in historical photos and old news clippings while owner Jeanne Nakayama casts a look that says, “You’re dreaming,” before issuing the sad news: “It’ll be an hour — at least.”
Peek into Maneki’s perpetually populated dining parlor to learn why.
A happy crowd is dining in casual comfort. Some have kicked off their shoes and commandeered a trio of tatami rooms, where everyone from toddlers to teens, Gen-Xers to geriatrics, parties like it’s 1969. They’re eating maki rolled with eel or salmon skin and gargantuan slices of fish served as nigiri sushi, prepared at the tiny sushi bar in the way-back. No dice getting a seat there, either. Few are available, and besides, it’s a service-bar-only during high-volume dinner hours.
But once you find yourself sitting among the old-timers (and a surprisingly young crowd who’ve adopted this place as their own); taking your first bite of tako-yaki (savory “doughnut holes” stuffed with bits of octopus scattered with bonito flakes); and lifting a beer and shouting “Kanpai!” alongside them, chances are you’ll ask yourself, as I have: Where the hell have I been all these years?
If the answer is, “hanging out in high-priced sushi bars, high-tech kaiten palaces and trendy izakayas,” isn’t it time to trade rock ‘n’ roll for country?
It is if you’re looking for country comfort foods like agedashi tofu — soft and custardy under its crackly coat. And sukiyaki, the slippery noodles soaked in a mild broth with slivers of pork, vegetables and tofu. Or big-bellied oysters unveiled in their covered hotpot, huddling over sticky pearls of “seasoned” rice in need of a little seasoning. You’ll get that from a hit of spicy togarashi, sprinkled over geoduck bata-yaki — the big clam sautéed with “bata”-ry mushrooms.
Skip the shishamo, or broiled sardines: Even their hit of lemon couldn’t revive those leathery fishies from their lethargy.
Regulars are intimately familiar with the many handwritten “specials” posted throughout the restaurant.
Order awabi (abalone) and you may be told “We’re out.” Ditto for other seasonal specialties, like monkfish liver, though this time of year you could luck into a hearty hotpot whose matsutake mushrooms lend smoky flavor to steamed rice.
A meal at Maneki might consist of a parade of appetizers, drinking snacks and sushi-bar items: neon-orange salmon roe resting on a hillock of shredded daikon radish; bony collars of caramelized black cod, a miso-sweet luxury; tender fried eggplant, silky in its dashi bath; and crunchy kelp and cucumber splashed with rice wine vinegar.
Don’t miss bargains like whole aji, the horse mackerel’s silvery carcass sectioned into sashimi, its head and skeleton taken back to the kitchen (if you ask), returned as a second course, fried to a brittle crunch ($6!). Or the gingery ponzu-tossed salad greens dressed with avocado and slices of raw tuna and amberjack ($7!).
Your Maneki experience will not be complete until you pay a visit to the cramped cocktail lounge, where a couple of nights each week sassy septuagenarian Fusae Yokoyama presides over a 10-seat bar. She may also be found lending her “daughter” Jeanne a hand, working the door and the floor on other evenings.
“Okasan” (or “Mom,” as Yokoyama is known in these parts) doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
What she does is mix cocktails, pour sake and keep (much) younger staffers in line — as she has since Lyndon Johnson was in office.
Ignore the cheap warm-sake dispenser on her bar, and consider the many on display, some offered in a lacquered masu — the health department’s OK’d version of the square cedar drinking-vessels stashed on high shelves.
And if there’s a single thing you must know about Maneki, it’s this: If there’s no empty seat in the bar and one of Mom’s lady friends elbows her way in for a bottle of Bud, stand and deliver. Because these are your elders, this is their home-away-from-home and you, my friend, are just keeping her seat warm.