We Tried Mana Sandwiches, a New Japanese Sando Shop
The Ala Moana eatery has up to 30 sweet and savory choices tucked in creamy Japanese bread.
Mana Sandwiches, just opened next to Brug Bakery at Ala Moana Center’s Lānai food court, reminds me of a tiny Japanese sandwich stand. All the sandos are lined up in perfect rows—25 to 30 savory and sweet choices ranging from tonkatsu, margherita and avocado egg edamame to mixed fruits, sweet potato, and strawberry with Nutella. I grew up in Japan, where sandos are staples of breakfast and snack time, so the sight alone is already exciting my taste buds.
As a sweet tooth, I’m leaving the savory choices to Frolic’s Thomas Obungen, who is also in the crowd at this hosted media tasting. There’s a coffee menu, a soft serve cone and a parfait, but it’s the sandwiches, made with Brug’s soft, fluffy white bread inspired by Japanese milk bread, that we’re here for.
I scan the display and choose a strawberry cream sando, another filled with matcha anko, a soft serve parfait and a strawberry milk. My first bite of strawberry cream rewards me with cream whipped to perfection. Instead of tasting overly sweet, it carries more of the flavor of the heavy cream that is used. By itself, the cream has a hint of bitterness, but the strawberries give it a little kick of sweetness. The bread, made with extra cream, has a mild milk taste that pairs deliciously with the flavor-packed filling. The one downside is the $5.75 price for a half-sandwich—while some offerings include whole sandwiches, others, especially the fruit ones, only come in halves.
The matcha anko sando ($5.50) turns out to be my favorite item of the day. Unlike the strawberry cream, the matcha anko is a whole sandwich cut into thin halves. The flavor is like strong matcha mixed with the same cream as the strawberry sando. Anko, or sweetened red bean paste, is a delicacy in Japan. The juxtaposition between the bitter, mildly sweet matcha and sweet anko makes for a yummy snack.
Thomas chooses two potato-ey sandos and sends over his verdict: “The croquette sando ($3.50 for a half) is one of the more interesting options that Mana has concocted. Similar to its cutlet brother, the tonkatsu sando, this peculiar sandwich has a fried potato croquette with cabbage and a touch of katsu sauce. It may not pack a lot of (or any) protein, but it is savory and flavorful with a hint of Worchestershire tang from the katsu sauce,” he says. “The mentaiko potato sando tastes like something you’d find on a tower at high tea. The umami of the smooth potato salad is tempered by sprigs of fresh dill, and on that soft shokupan milk bread, it’s a perfect match.”
For dessert, the soft serve parfait ($5.25) is garnished with strawberries on top and crushed Oreos at the bottom. The combination of milk-flavored ice cream and sliced strawberries reminds me of a strawberry sundae, just fresher. Paired with the chocolatey taste of Oreos, you can’t go wrong with this creamy and cold treat.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the strawberry milk tastes exactly like it sounds. A small layer of froth on top attests to the thickness of this milk. At the bottom are a strawberry purée with some chunks of strawberries. My verdict: If you love the combination of strawberries and milk, ditch the steep price of $6.75 and make your own.
In Japan your average sando at a kombini or convenience store will cost about $2 to $4, with fruit sandwiches at the higher end of the range. Mana Sandwiches is no convenience store—the quality of fillings and bread make them perfect for a “treat yourself” moment. They live up to my expectations of what sandos should be. If you love sandwiches or contemporary Japanese food culture, this could be your happy place. If not, I would say save your coin.