Cafe Reviews

Korean Score

Considering our location here in Phoenix, I'm sure I'd benefit from a few Spanish lessons. But I'm not always a practical person. Lately, I've been thinking it'd be cool to learn some Korean.

Blame it on a friend of mine who visited South Korea earlier this year. She loved the place, went to all kinds of great restaurants, and shopped like a fiend. So I've been thinking that the next time I make it to Japan, I should take a jaunt to the peninsula. My friend promises the trip will be cheap; I love the thought of soju-fueled nights of noodles, stir-fry, and barbecue galore.

That's a total pipe dream at the moment, but recently, I've found another place where it would be fun to use my Korean, if I ever learn it: Manna Café in Gilbert.

Don't fret — the wait staff spoke English at this friendly neighborhood spot, and there was a bilingual menu on every table. Still, I was intrigued by a handful of items with no English names. Those were clearly geared toward Manna Café's mostly Korean clientele, who often showed up in large groups, and whose tables ended up with a huge spread of mouthwatering dishes. Looking for authentic Korean flavors? Try Manna Café.

First you'll have to find it. It's really not out of the way at all, but Manna's Gilbert address is somewhat misleading, giving the impression that it might be farther south and east than it really is. It's actually just past the southeast corner of Country Club Road and Guadalupe, and shares a building with a Bruegger's Bagels. Thanks to 411 and some aimless driving, my dining companion and I found out the hard way that there's a little patch of Gilbert between Mesa and Chandler. Good to know.

Mention Korean barbecue, and some folks immediately think of do-it-yourself dining, where the griddle's built into the table. Not here. The place is clean, spacious, and about as nondescript as it gets. From the looks of the décor, or lack thereof, you'd be hard-pressed to guess what kind of cuisine they serve. Korean pop music is the lone giveaway. Luckily, prices are no-frills, too — most dishes are under 10 bucks, and portions are big enough to take home leftovers. (In one corner of the dining room, there's a handy table of Styrofoam containers, lids, and plastic bags just for that purpose.)

The menu doesn't include a list of appetizers, but there are a few mixed in with the main dishes. If you like Chinese pot stickers or Japanese gyoza, try the yakimandoo (pan-fried dumplings served with salty soy-based dip). These were plump and golden, with a crispy, bubbly exterior that crackled when I bit into them. I also enjoyed the savory seafood pancake, a thick, pizza-sized portion studded with shrimp, octopus, and bits of scallion.

Either of those dishes is a great start to a meal, but I can understand why appetizers don't loom large here: the panchan (traditional side dishes) are satisfying on their own. At Manna Café, the waitress delivered seven different ones, along with steaming bowls of white rice.

I appreciated the range of tastes and textures, and tried quite a variety over the course of a few visits. There was spicy-sweet cabbage kimchee, tangy kimchee made with julienned daikon and jalapeño, peppery baby bok choy, mild chunks of stewed potato, shredded cabbage with creamy, nutty dressing, bean sprouts dressed with sesame oil, thin strips of chewy fish cake, lightly pickled cucumber slices, and mini seafood pancakes. It was hard not to fill up before the entrees arrived.

As soon as the barbecued dishes hit the table, though, my appetite caught a second wind. Served on a super-hot platter, on a bed of raw onions that steadily sizzled their way into caramelized sweetness, the red chile-marinated baby-back ribs were as delicious as they were noisy — and the aroma was irresistible. The succulent "spicy chicken" was coated with a hot-sweet sauce that didn't detract from the smoky flavor of the grilled meat. And the bulgogi, a heap of sliced, marinated rib eye, was impressively tender, with no gristle.

There was a handful of stir-fried dishes on the menu, too, but the majority of the items were stick-to-your ribs soups and stews. The house special noodle soup was surprisingly light, with a delicate clear broth that was similar to what you'd get with Japanese udon and Vietnamese pho. It contained wisps of egg (much like egg drop soup), long strips of cooked scallion, and a pinch of dried seaweed that resembled confetti. For anyone looking to try Korean cuisine without diving right in to the mouth-searing stuff, this would be a good choice.

Of course, spicy dishes were the reason I came here, and I didn't leave disappointed. On my first visit, I fell in love with the beef brisket stew, with clear noodles, scallions, and shreds of meat in a bright red chile broth that also got the egg-drop treatment. I could've slurped up that broth with a straw.

Another time, one of my friends attempted to order the spicy fish stew, but the waitress steered him toward the seafood tofu stew instead. Perhaps she thought it was more accessible to an American palate, but it was still a very spicy dish, filled with oysters, shrimp, clams, and chunks of tofu as silky as custard. The dish was so hot it was sputtering when it arrived, and the waitress offered to crack a raw egg into it. By the time it had cooled enough for a careful sip, the yolk was already cooked.

Since there weren't any sweets on the menu, I was happy to sneak one last bite of kimchee, pack up my leftovers, and call it a meal. On my last visit, though, I found myself gawking at a nearby table of Korean customers, who managed to clear away some plates to make room for some kind of fruit and bean-topped sundaes. They looked really tasty, and although I probably couldn't have eaten one at that point, a few spoonfuls would've been perfect.

I don't know that I'll ever get to study Korean, but there is one phrase I really should learn:

"What's for dessert?"