It may be a Japanese restaurant, but there is a definite air of American exorbitance at Mango Factory, a new sushi and tea cafe in Cedar-Riverside. Portions are big, showy, and, confoundingly, there is a whole lot of deep-frying going on.
Though sushi is advertised as the main event, we found that most customers were stopping by this former Noodles location at Seven Corners for a study break and a sweet treat. So we followed suit with the in-the-know crowd and started with dessert. Mango Factory's menu includes smooth caramel, chocolate, and mango puddings served inside glass eggs; traditional mochi, the sticky little rice cakes flavored with red bean paste or taro root; "fluffy snow," a refreshing cross between sorbet and shaved ice; eggy, almost omelet-like crepes stuffed with durian fruit or bananas; and toasts — huge slices of hot, freshly baked brioche slathered in honey and butter and topped with ice cream, fruit, and whipped cream. The signature toasts are basically entire loaves of bread hollowed out and used as edible vessels for other desserts, but even the version that is intended for a single person could easily serve a family of four. It's pretty and fruity and rich, and its availability at Mango Factory means that we now have two — count 'em, two — establishments in Minneapolis where you can get both sushi and French toast. If you're an avid reader, you may recall that the bananas foster French toast at Eat Street Buddha Kitchen was one of our 100 favorite dishes of the past year. New trend alert? It's a strange one, but we're fully on board with it.
On the weekends, Mango Factory offers a modern twist on afternoon tea service that's part Francophile garden party with macarons and tiny tins of mousse, and part Japanese pop culture with Pocky (those sweet coated biscuit sticks they have in every imaginable flavor at United Noodle) and bubble tea. If you're already a fan of the chewy, tapioca pearl-laced beverage, this is certainly a fun way to try more flavors, and if you've always been intrigued, consider this your opportunity to take the plunge. In addition to a full menu of hot and cold teas, Mango Factory serves fresh fruit juices and smoothies, all made on the spot and low in cost compared to some other options in the area. We tried the buttery avocado smoothie and a mango one, which was fragrant and floral but surprisingly not too sweet.
With our appetites whetted by dessert, it was on to dinner. Tackling a menu with nearly a hundred dishes is always a little daunting, but we figured out early on that none of the stuff on the entree side was worthy of a repeat order. The pork katsu, a pounded-thin piece of tenderloin, breaded thickly with panko and deep-fried, had lots of flavor and crunch. But the coating fell off the meat easily and suffered from an overdose of the sticky, vinegary sauce. The chicken curry, served with a few shreds of iceberg lettuce atop a massive pile of sticky rice, contained passably tender meat, but tasted almost exactly like a Trader Joe's frozen entree. That may be high praise for a pre-packaged dinner, but not a great endorsement for a restaurant meal. Pan-fried udon noodles with a handful of snow peas, peppers, and mixed mushrooms had a nice springy zip for a few bites, but was ultimately too oily to finish. Some prodding around in the bottom of the bowl produced a piece of something that our server identified as beef, but looked like a slice of fruitcake that had finally spoiled. Either because the ramen is so good that they run out often, or because no one ever orders it, Mango Factory was out of it on each of our visits. We opted for the miso soup instead, which, even with the welcome addition of a few sliced mushrooms, was a little weak on the umami front.
Thankfully, the regular sushi section proved more promising. The Colorful Tobiko Roll lived up to its name on every level. Each sharply cut piece was blanketed in technicolor flying-fish roe — red, black, melon green, and safety-cone orange. The slight grittiness and pop of all the tiny eggs were a fantastic textural foil to the finely chopped spicy tuna, creamy avocado, and sweet lumps of blue crab rolled up inside the rice and nori. We also loved the oddball Kani Roll, light and uncomplicated with snow crab and cucumber inside and an unexpected bit of creamy sweetness from bits of banana on top.
While we did enjoy most of the raw-leaning rolls, the line of special "Zodiac rolls" that Mango Factory produces feels more closely related to jalapeño poppers than actual sushi. The Twin Cities Gemini rolls were deep-fried duds, stuffed with so much cream cheese and avocado that the yellowtail was completely lost in the mix. The Sagittarius Cupid, topped with fully cooked fatty salmon, was unobjectionable, but the shrimp tempura that came with it arrived cold, overly greasy, and unnecessarily drizzled with eel sauce. The house special Mango Butterfly includes pieces of deep-fried tuna and salmon sushi garnished with mango mayonnaise, a combo that sounds more at home at the State Fair than a Japanese restaurant.
Now, we're not elitists here: We appreciate a good shrimp tempura roll every so often. But isn't the point of sushi to showcase the fish at its most pristine? Maybe they're just playing to the appetizer-hungry university crowd, but much like attempting to cover up a clumsy, flavorless pizza crust with highfalutin toppings, opting to deep-fry, sauce-shellack, cream cheese-stuff, and mayo-squiggle nearly every special maki roll on the menu doesn't exactly communicate confidence.
So while it may not be your best bet for the next big blowout sushi date (stick with Origami, Masu, or Sushi Fix), Mango Factory does offer a fun, twee bubble tea cafe experience with some interesting novelty sweets to share. And if you're in search of affordable, simple rolls or à la carte sushi on the West Bank, Mango might also fit that bill. We left stuffed and paid on average only $20 per person, including tip. Just resist the urge to order most of the rolls named after astrological signs.