James Cho, co-founder of Manna Dosirak at Kingman Park, doesn’t need a Netflix show to spark his imagination. He grew up with dosiraks as a boy in Iksan. His mother would pack him a lunch for school. It would vary from day to day, of course, but could include rice, kimchi, anchovies, and fried eggs. He called it “Bento”, perhaps because some suggest Dosiraks were influenced by Japan during its brutal occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. (I should note that others argue that dosiraks predate Japan’s culture war against its neighbor.)
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Regardless of how the dish has evolved, South Korea is experiencing an air of nostalgia for dosiraks, a trend that began before the pandemic. Perhaps the nostalgia affected Cho, too, but as the owner explains, in February 2020, he and his wife Jenny were simply looking for ways to keep their business afloat, just as the pandemic was preparing to take hold for the long term. They had already tried their hand at tacos (Far East Taco Grille with her son Alex) and burgers (the short-lived K Burger). Dosiraks were her latest piece.
As the son of a civil engineer who valued precision and order, I’ve always been fascinated by the compact architecture of a bento box. Every element in its place, no flavor cross-contamination, the lunchbox equivalent of mental lockdown, that coping mechanism we all need to get through this thing called life. Manna’s dosiraks have a similar geometry to bento boxes, so naturally I’m inclined to applaud their presentation.
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Manna is essentially a two-person operation: James and Jenny, both in their early 60s, prepare, cook and pack just about anything that comes out of their compact kitchen. You shut down your system. It relies heavily on cross-use, so any of the available proteins can be the featured ingredient in a box (a separate menu category in Manna’s World), bibimbap, or dosirak. If you choose the latter, you’ll get a neatly wrapped tray of rice, protein, banchan sides, mandu, and maybe even a long, slender piece of fried shrimp draped on top, all for $15.50 or less. I’ve paid more for entrees that provided less satisfaction.
James and Jenny are self-taught. If you ask James how he learned a particular technique, he will often give a two-word answer: the internet. I mention this because James’ shrimp setup demonstrates a skill that belies his lack of formal training. Each morning, he takes a box of shrimp — dozens and dozens of them — and removes their shells, making strategic knife cuts and pulling each crustacean into a straight stick. He breads and freezes each shrimp before frying them. When you bite into this stick, your first pleasure is the crunch, loud and crackling, before you even experience the clean, nutty flavor of the shellfish.
Jenny is tasked with making bibimbap sauce, a really subtle condiment that combines gochujang, sugar, garlic and an unlikely American stowaway – Sprite soda – that adds an element of… what exactly? I can’t pinpoint exactly, but I can’t stop slathering the sauce on just about everything at Manna, well beyond the superbly marinated beef for the bibimbap bowl. It’s not just the heat, that steady pounding of chili pepper capsaicin. This is how the spice sticks to an ingredient and pulls it through a deep umami hole.
Like bibimbap, some dishes aren’t done until you pour sauce over them. This is especially true of the pork and chicken chops, which are crusted with panko and fried to a thick, dry consistency with no discernible personality. The chops only come alive with one of the house-made sauces, be it Jenny’s bibimbap or James’ sweet alternative, a Worcestershire-cooked condiment, sugar, ketchup and water. Personally, I will always go for the less sweetened route.
Other proteins, whether that be spicy roast pork or sweet and sour chicken, can be enjoyed with little to no help. The same goes for the Soondubu Jjigae, which the Chos added to the menu last fall. The spicy tofu stew might not compare to the gold standard of Tosokchon in Annandale, but it makes room for the well-known interactions: the sting of chili flakes, the balm of silken tofu.
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With Dosirak, the fullness of the traditional Korean table shrinks to a single tray, but at least you don’t have to share your banchan with anyone. You can enjoy the kimchi cabbage, shredded radish, or yellow corn with cheese all on its own and enjoy how the funk, spiciness, sweetness, and acidity interact with your main dish. It’s a compromise, I would suggest, for those days when you’ve reached your limit of human interaction. Dosirak is a table for one, the antidote to a world of shared plates.
Even the inside of Manna doesn’t invite too much socialization. Just a handful of metal stools stand beside narrow tables, which are either wall-mounted or set behind lighted shelves adorned with figurines and Korean ingredients. But despite the cramped quarters and uncomfortable chairs, I might be tempted to linger if it weren’t for another element in the room: the childish music, a happy, whistle-like tune that plays on an endless loop. After about 20 minutes, you feel like you’ve been doomed for the rest of your life to the It’s a Small World Ride at Disney World.
Of course, Manna doesn’t want to be the happiest place on earth. His joys are smaller, more intimate, more personal, and I’m okay with that.
409 15th St. NE, 202-921-9456; www.mannadosirak.com.
Hours: Monday to Saturday noon to 9 p.m. Sunday closed.
Nearest subway: Stadium-Armory, less than a mile from the restaurant.
Prices: $1 to $15.50 for all items on the menu.