Who among us isn’t panting for a break from this summer heat? I’m seeing mirages of golden leaves along the Mall, cozy cocktails by the fire at Tabard Inn, and a parade of tweed prancing down M St. There are certain foods that, despite my cravings, I try to hold off on until the sweet breath of autumn blows into DC. Well, sometimes I just can’t wait. The siren song of Mandu’s pickled spicy flavors were too much to resist one evening so we made our way over to the Logan Circle restaurant to sweat out the heat.
Korean food is uncharted territory for Mike and I. To really get into the cuisine – which I’d like to do – we would benefit from a knowing guide. Like tourists, we’re familiar with important landmarks like kim chee and bulgoki. but we ack the roadmap that would allow us to get to know the food in a nuanced, authentic way. So, every journey begins with one bite.
We started the meal with traditional kim chee featuring pickled vegetables like green beans and cabbage in addition to a soft tofu. At Mandu, all tables receive complimentary kim chee which is great as it gives novice diners a first taste of the cuisine before they even order. For appetizers we moved on to goo jul mari: a crepe-style pancake rolled with a mix of veggies plus egg and beef. The rolls were thicker than I anticipated, reminding me of injera, Ethiopian spongey bread. The four rolls were served with a light mustard dressing, complimenting the veggies with a bright tart flavor.
While there is an ocean of Korean foods to chart, I’m always drawn back to the dolsot bibim bap, a hot stone bowl served with sizzling vegetables, beef and rice topped with a soft yolk fried egg. The crackling bowl arrives with each ingredient in its own section, waiting to be mixed together with a spicy bean paste. Taken together this becomes a hearty, soul-fulfilling dish of spicy and earthy notes. I’d put it up against a hot chicken soup as a perfect comfort food on any rainy day of the week.
Mike, meanwhile, went for the deadly delicious combination of spicy chili paste, beef, and thick tubular rice cakes with his duk bok gi. The concoction simmered together with onions and mushrooms rounding out into a robust spicy flavor that brought tears to my eyes and my fork reaching across the table for another bite. I love the texture of rice cakes; Chewy, doughy, and smooth, these are not the same as your Quaker Oats low-cal snack.
As our exploration of Korean food continues, I know I’ll need to branch out to new restaurants. The problem is, Mandu has everything I am looking for: a quality, well-edited menu of traditional fare done well, good service, and perfect people-watching from their sidewalk.