James Cho, co-founder of Manna Dosirak in Kingman Park, doesn’t need a Netflix show to spur his imagination. He grew up with dosiraks as a boy in Iksan. His mom would pack him a lunch for school. It would naturally vary from day to day but might include rice, kimchi, anchovies and fried egg. He called it a “bento,” perhaps because, as some suggest, dosiraks were influenced by Japan during its brutal occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. (Others, I should note, argue that dosiraks predate Japan’s culture war on its neighbor.)
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However the dish evolved, South Korea has been experiencing a flush of nostalgia for dosiraks, a trend that started before the pandemic. Maybe the nostalgia influenced Cho, too, but the way the owner explains it, he and his wife, Jenny, were merely searching for ways to keep their business afloat in February 2020, just as the pandemic was preparing to settle in for the long haul . They had already tried their hand at tacos (Far East Taco Grille with their son, Alex) and burgers (the short-lived K Burger). Dosiraks were their latest play.
As the son of a civil engineer who valued precision and organization, I’ve always loved the compact architecture of a bento box. Every element in its place, no cross-contamination of flavors, the lunch box equivalent of mental compartmentalization, that coping mechanism we all need to get through this thing called life. The dosiraks at Manna have a similar geometry to bento boxes, so I’m naturally predisposed to embrace their presentation.
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Manna is basically a two-person operation: James and Jenny, both in their early 60s, prep, cook and package almost everything that comes out of their compact kitchen. They have their system down. It relies a lot on cross-utilization, so that any one 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 select the latter, you’ll receive a tray neatly packed with rice, protein, banchan sides, mandu and maybe even a long, slender piece of fried shrimp draped across the top, all for $15.50 or less. I’ve paid more for appetizers that delivered less satisfaction.
James and Jenny are self-taught cooks. If you ask James how he learned a certain technique, he will frequently provide a two-word answer: the internet. I mention this because James’s facility with shrimp demonstrates a skill level that belies his lack of formal training. Every morning, he takes a box of shrimp — dozens and dozens of them — and removes their shells, makes strategic knife cuts and pulls each crustacean into a ramrod-straight stick. He proceeds to bread and freeze each shrimp before frying them. When you bite into this stick, your first pleasure is the crunch, loud and crackly, before you even experience the clean, nutty flavors of the shellfish.
Jenny is tasked with making the bibimbap sauce, a seriously fine condiment that combines gochujang, sugar, garlic and an unlikely American stowaway — Sprite soda — that adds an element of … what exactly? I can’t pinpoint it, but I also can’t stop applying the sauce to almost everything at Manna, far beyond the superb marinated beef for the bibimbap bowl. It’s not just the heat, this steady throb of chile-pepper capsaicin. It’s the way the condiment clings to an ingredient and drags it down a deep umami hole.
As with the bibimbap, some dishes are not complete until you douse them with sauce. This is particularly true for the pork and chicken cutlets, which are encrusted with panko and fried to a thick, arid consistency, with no discernible personality. The cutlets come alive only with one of the housemade sauces, whether Jenny’s bibimbap or James’s sweet alternative, a condiment cooked down from Worcestershire, sugar, ketchup and water. Personally, I’ll always opt for the path less sweetened.
Other proteins, whether the spicy stir-fried pork or the sweet-and-sour chicken, can be enjoyed with little to no assistance. Same goes for the soondubu jjigae, which the Chos added to the menu last fall. The spicy tofu stew may not compare to the gold standard at Tosokchon in Annandale, but it holds a space for those familiar reciprocal forces: the sting of chile flake, the balm of silken tofu.
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With dosirak, the bounty 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 savor the kimchi cabbage, the shredded radish or the yellow corn with cheese all by yourself, appreciating how the funk, spice, sweetness and acid interact with your main dish. It’s a trade-off, I’d suggest, for those days when you’ve hit your limit on human interaction. Dosirak is a table for one, the antidote to a world full of shared plates.
Even the interior of Manna doesn’t invite much socialization. There are only a handful of metal stools positioned next to narrow tables, which are either mounted on the wall or facing backlit shelves decorated with figurines and Korean ingredients. But even with the cramped quarters and uncomfortable chairs, I might be tempted to linger if it weren’t for one other element in the room: the childlike music, a happy whistle-like melody that plays on an endless loop. After about 20 minutes, you feel like you’ve been sentenced to the It’s a Small World Ride at Disney World for the rest of your life.
Manna isn’t aiming to be the Happiest Place on Earth, of course. Its pleasures are smaller, more intimate, personal, and that’s just fine with me.
409 15th St. NE, 202-921-9456; mannadosirak.com.
Hours: noon to 9 pm Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Stadium-Armory, with less than a mile to the restaurant.
Prices: $1 to $15.50 for all items on the menu.