Nagame has apparently been a Merced mainstay for many years. It is located just off the 99 a bit north of town, but in a location that seems particularly hard to get to at night or if one is coming from the south. Perhaps that is why hubby and I hadn't made it there yet despite more than three years in Merced, but it has been on my list to try after hearing from several local friends that it was worth a visit. If you have driven down 99 you may have noticed its sign that reads simply, 'Cookery', which of course just increased my curiosity about the place...
Finally made it there last night, and we will be back. Not really hard to find, just go north on 16th Street until you can't go any further, and there it is, but way off the street at the end of a not particularly well lit parking lot. On a Friday night, the lot was fairly full, and the restaurant was about half full. We were seated in a comfortable booth in the back, with an interesting view of the freeway, and immediately felt at ease: the exterior of the place is very basic, but the diner like interior has been warmed up with Japanese prints and lanterns, as well as soft Japanese music. Place was surprisingly quiet and tranquil, particularly given the proximity to the 99 perhaps 25 yards outside our window.
Wine and beer are offered, as well as sake. The server was not particularly helpful in pointing out that they do have a few premium sakes, served cold, along with Japanese beer, and we didn't realize that was the case until after we had ordered the house sake, served hot, as an alternative to the very bleak wine list (which doesn't list the sakes). However, some of the sake and beer varieties are displayed by the counter (not easily visible from our booth way in the back); we will try some on our next visit.
Menu is limited, with just standard cooked items and sashimi. No sushi was offered, which actually is fine with me. Definitely a more limited menu than my go-to Japanese place in the Valley, Modesto Sukiyaki in Modesto, but obviously a lot closer to home as well.
Rumor has it that Friday night is the best night to order sashimi, since that is when they get delivery, but on a cool, rainy night we stuck to hot, cooked dishes. We ordered an appetizer portion of vegetable tempura, one beef sukiyaki dinner, and one chicken sukiyaki dinner. This turned out to be way too much food. Portions are very generous; the appetizer portion of tempura looked dinner size to me, and all dinners come with pickled cabbage, cucumber salad, miso soup, and lots of well-made rice in a separate serving dish. I thought the miso soup was particularly tasty.
I was not a fan of the batter on the tempura, which was too thick and chalky, and probably would not order that dish again, even though the vegetables themselves, particularly the broccoli and sweet potato, tasted fresh and bright. I would guess they were locally grown.
However, my beef sukiyaki hit the spot: decent quality beef, very nice vegetables, tasty broth, good quality tofu. I didn't taste hubby's chicken sukiyaki but he gave it a thumbs up. I look forward to going back to try the gyoza and the pork cutlet.
Service was friendly and reasonably efficient, although we had to wait a while for the bill. Nagame is really a place to relax and take one's time.
It is also a bit of a time warp. I doubt if the place has changed much, if at all, in at least twenty years, and I suspect it has been there at least that long. The crowd included several family groups and more seniors than you see at a lot of places; I am sure many of the patrons have been dining there for years. Definitely an old-time Merced crowd. This is one place the UC Merced students don't appear to have found yet.
If students don't go there because of reports on other sites that it is pricey, well: those reports left me scratching my head. The place is a bargain, IMO. A full sukiyaki dinner is $10.95 (including green tea, the cabbage, salad, soup and more than enough rice, along with a large metal serving bowl of sukiyaki). In what universe is that pricey? Our total for dinner, including the tempura appetizer, three carafes of sake, tax and quite generous tip, was $47, and we ate much too much (our server knowingly offered us to go containers for the leftovers.) It was easily enough food and drink for three people. The prices at Nagame also represent a bit of a time warp.
To be clear, Nagame isn't a place I'd give much thought to in the bay area, but as a Friday night date night-on- a- budget go-to place in a small town, it more than holds its own, particularly in winter or early spring when the old-fashioned comfort food combined with the tranquil interior seemed to be the perfect way to end a busy week and kick off a rainy weekend.