On a recent Saturday in downtown Austin, everyone was moving. Sidewalks were teeming with UT kids, happy to have reached the weekend. Panting joggers darted through intersections. Scullers zipped under the Congress Avenue Bridge that spans Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake). We, on the other hand, just needed some lunch. Preferably Asian in nature. And hopefully very close by, since it was going on 2:00 p.m., which for our family is a time so late in the day as to cause panic, hallucination and temporary vision and hearing loss if we have not yet eaten our second meal by then.
SIRI “suggested” a Mama Fu’s Asian House close by. We had never eaten at a Mama Fu’s. A little over a year ago, the chain opened its first location in Houston on West Gray, and, with 6 locations in Austin, it’s already a pervasive presence there. Great, then–lunch was settled.
Well, not so fast…
When you’re cross-referencing your vehicle’s GPS with two different map apps and you still can’t find a place, you know it was never meant to be. By the time we figured out that we had overshot the restaurant, it was too late to turn back. Bereft of a destination, we floated along aimlessly with the flow of traffic on North Lamar Boulevard, until, like a little oasis, the bright red and blue lettering of a strip mall sign appeared in the distance. Among its many offerings were a bakery, a market, and a couple of restaurants, all Korean.
What is it about East and Southeast Asian food that makes it so delicious and trendy? Maybe it’s because much of it is still a bit exotic to mainstream American diners. Maybe its the use of fresh, often lightly cooked vegetables and the layering of contrasting flavors–sweet, spicy, salty and sour. A lot of big-name chefs seem to crave Asian food. Last year, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells sang the praises of Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas. Located well away from the Strip, Vegas chefs love to gather there for robata (Japanese-style charcoal-grilled meats, seafood and vegetables). And in a recent survey of top Houston area chefs, when asked to name their favorite places to chow down after quitting time, almost half of them chose to relax and unwind at Asian restaurants.
Suddenly faced with the luxury of more than one good choice, we paused for a moment to consider the Rockin’ Rice restaurant (The slogan on their sign is, “Let’s go bowling with rice.”), but decided to save this place for another visit. Instead, we made our way to the larger restaurant at the back of the shopping center. A quick Google search informed us that the Korean characters above the door translated to “Manna.”
Although it was now well past 2:00, Manna was still crowded, and we stood by for a moment until someone could clear a table. The whole room bustled with activity. its pace and energy emanating from one whirlwind of a lady with a movie star-quality updo that was pinned in place with a cacophony of bejeweled pins and clips. She was everywhere at once: greeting, clearing, scooping ice from a large bucket and filling water glasses, pivoting around to grab a tray from the order window, swooping into the kitchen to shake a pan or ladle soup into bowls. There was a flat screen TV on the wall, playing Korean cable programs. But there was far better entertainment to be found in watching her command the room.
Compared to most people, we order a crazy amount of food. Today was no different, as a) we were ravenous, and b) it had been quite sometime since we had experienced a really good neighborhood Korean place, the last being the well-known Seoul Garden, on Long Point in Houston. So the three of us ordered four entrees, plus vegetarian egg rolls, plus fried rice. “Good order,” whispered our lady with the upswept hair when I selected the grilled mackerel. (I felt quite pleased with myself for eliciting a compliment.)
Before long, we were munching on Manna’s crispy vegetarian egg rolls, followed soon after by a whimsical bunch of small bowls filled with pickled vegetables and other delights known collectively as banchan. This array of communal side dishes is usually served along with a bowl of white rice. There was nokdumuk (slices of jellied mung bean starch paste, given flavor with a splash of soy sauce and a sprinkling of chopped scallions) and seasoned bean sprouts, or sukjunamul. There were crispy glazed sweet potatoes (goguma mattang) and, of course, a well-fermented mound of Napa cabbage kimchi, the cabbage having been tamed by the fermentation process, but still sporting enough crunch to give some body to the spicy, hot punch of sour flavor. Between the egg rolls and the banchan, our table was already full. But we weren’t.
No sooner had we finished off the last egg roll, than out came a steaming platter of chicken fried rice topped with a bright egg and a smattering of toasted sesame seeds. Our lady then brought forth the mackerel and John’s dak bulgogi–chicken sliced thin and marinated in a blend of soy, hot spices, garlic, ginger and other ingredients.
The godeungeo gui, or grilled mackerel, is one of several oily fish that are often found on Korean menus. Served headless, but otherwise whole, the skin was well-seared and the buttery flesh was flavorful and easily separated from the bones–delicious with a squeeze of lemon. My son and I shared it, leaving nothing but the carcass.
Fitting these additional dishes onto our table took some strategic rearranging. We then doubled down on our gluttony by ordering another round of egg rolls. Was that a suppressed chuckle of disbelief from our lady as she turned away to place the order? No matter. All dignity was cast aside when the opportunity presented itself to feast on something we don’t get the opportunity to eat every day.
It wasn’t much longer before the second order of egg rolls was presented, along with the star of the afternoon, a hot dish of bibimbap. Exquisite in its beauty and simplicity, bibimbap consists of julienned vegetables and a sliced protein, usually beef, beneath which is hidden a mound of hot rice. We ordered ours served in a dolsot, or hot stoneware pot. Usually prepared with a bit of sesame oil in the bottom of the pot, the rice becomes crusty from the heat and the oil, imparting a nutty flavor that is irresistible. All is topped with a runny egg, still waiting to be cooked more completely in the sizzle of the pot as you mix everything together with your chopsticks just before eating.
Though the bibimbap is listed as a “snack” on Manna’s menu, it ended up serving as a fine finish to our feast. Put this place on your checklist of worth-the-search neighborhood joints for the next time you’re in Austin. And make sure you arrive hungry. Because over-ordering here is pretty heavenly.
6808 North Lamar Boulevard