Thursday, August 09, 2007

From the Heavens, in Bovine Proportions

There's a certain sensation I'm thinking of. It has to do with a mundane weeknight meal becoming somehow festive, almost like a holiday. It's extremely casual. Mellow and friendly, and weirdly exciting. Usually there is a sense of the communal to it, and it's very blue-collar. It tends to take place somewhat outside. It has a taste of third-world to it, but the last time I experienced it was right in my own backyard: Manna is all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, in Koreatown, in a tent.

For the first memory of this sensation, we go to Guadalajara. 2001ish, on a balmy night. We rounded up a bunch of Guadalajaran cousins -- strangers to me, as they were some sort of second cousins of the boyfriend of my friend (gushy sidenote: said friend and boyfriend are getting married tomorrow. woo!) -- and went to dinner. The place was called La Esquina, perhaps because it is on the corner, and it had a ceiling but no wall on one side. On the night's menu, shrimpburguesas.

OK, they weren't really called that, but that's what we were calling them. From the counter you'd get a burger, except instead of a patty was a bunch of shrimp, held together with a thin layer of melted cheese. So you got your shrimpburguesa, and customized it with toppings: basic hamburger stuff, plus strawberries pickled in jalapeno juice. Nothing fancy at all, but something about it was jubilant -- the place had a pulse.
Next we go to Israel and the world's most utilitarian kabob joint. A broad, completely unadorned hall with concrete floors simmered with activity. Stacks of cheap plates and mismatched flatware sat on a table against the wall. At every folding table was salt, pepper, and a bottle of lemon juice. Again, you'd order from the counter from a menu stripped down to the essentials: salad, rice, kabob. Skewer after skewer of chicken, ground beef, chunks of steak, made the place smell amazing. This place was a far cry from the trendy restaurants right on the sand in Tel Aviv, with perfectly groomed beach babes everywhere you look. It was in some town off the main road, in a strip mall, most of the clientele were families, and class-wise, it was a side of Israel that I hadn't really experienced before. But it was bustling, delicious, and just right.

Which brings us back to exotic retreat in our own backyard, good old Koreatown. Manna brings this lively, gritty scene to LA and adds to it a decidedly American bent: all-you-can-eat (17 bucks a person -- not bad at all considering how kbbq can add up). The tent has the proportions of a commissary, but is decorated with random twinkly lights -- about the only intentional decorative touches in the place. Sit down, order some beer (not included), and tuck into the extensive panchan. And prepare yourself for much meat: mounds of thin slivers of marinated beef, thick cuts of boneless short rib, or even chicken and pork keep coming faster than you can grill and eat them. And how's the meat? Solid. It doesn't feel buffet-quality at all -- it's quite good. Just try to balance it out with some rice or fresh green salad, also included and constantly refilled. A large crew of servers manage to wrangle the needs of a dining room full of patrons, and they'll even help normalize the temperature of your table's built-in grill if you seem to be struggling not to burn your meats.

There is nothing pretentious about Manna. Everyone seems to have a common goal: a straightforward path to as much Korean barbecue as possible, and enjoying themselves once they get there. It's the jolliest beef assault you can find, and everyone's invited.

Manna is at 3377 W. Olympic Blvd., 2 1/2 blocks west of Western.

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