I first tried to go to Manpuku at about 6:30 on a Saturday night, and there was already a thirty minute wait! There were a couple of empty tables outside, but they're only for waiting--in order to barbecue your food, which is the whole point, you need to sit inside, where all the tables have built-in grills. It's better inside, anyway--you won't have to cringe every time the valet service backs an SUV into a space that's within inches of your chair.
Waiting. . .
If you want a reservation at Manpuku on a weekend night, make sure to call in advance--days in advance! Otherwise, you'll be waiting outside for close to 40 minutes. Fortunately, Volcano Tea is just a few doors down if your stomach is rumbling, and Manpuku is one of the few restaurants in the city that has places to sit down while you wait. The staff was very friendly and updated us occasionally on our wait time--it's nice when a place actually cares about keeping your business.
Salted beef tongue on the grill
Manpuku is a work-before-you-can-eat-it restaurant. I don't much enjoy cooking my own food in restaurants--it takes a long time, and it seems like the portions are always too small. Manpuku is no exception, but to eat their amazing beef, the effort might actually be worth it.
If you've ever been to a Korean barbecue restaurant, you'll probably feel pretty comfortable here. This is not Korean barbecue, however--it's Tokyo-style barbecue. The major difference? Manpuku's meat isn't marinated.
When you're ordering, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. First of all, each plate of meat, though it may cost $10 or more, is not enough to feed one person. Make sure to order at least two plates per person.
Second, make sure to read the menu's instructions on how to cook the meat--and remember them. They instruct you to place the meat on the grill and watch for bubbles on the exposed side. When the bubbles form. . . well, now, this is where I got confused.
The menu says not to turn the meat over more than once--in other words, don't grill it a little on one side, a little on the other side, and then go back to the first side. But if you've ordered something that's covered in toppings on one side, you're not supposed to grill that side at all, and the menu doesn't explain that. It seems sort of obvious--if you turn it over, the toppings all get stuck to or fall into the grill. But on the other hand, we all know that when you cook meat, or grilled cheese, or pancakes, you cook both sides. So if the meat has no toppings, grill it once on each side, and if it has toppings, only put the topping-free side on the grill.
In theory, you shouldn't need to worry about cooking your meat to death here. Given that Manpuku serves raw beef (that is, they offer a plate of beef that you are supposed to eat uncooked), I have a feeling they serve only the highest quality meat--stuff that isn't likely to make you sick. Though the FDA means well in its internal temperature recommendations for cooking meat, if you actually cook meat to those temperatures, most of the time the results will be dry and flavorless.
The cucumber kimchi was not what I was expecting. Instead of spicy slices of cucumber, this kimchi was cut into wedges and tasted like rice vinegar. I prefer the Korean version--not only does it taste better, but Korean restaurants serve it as a free side dish. At Manpuku, only the water is free, and this little bowl costs around $3.
Salted beef tongue
I'd never had beef tongue before, and it didn't sound like something I'd like, but as is often the case, someone on Chowhound had raved about Manpuku's beef tongue, which convinced me to order it. The flavor was incredibly rich and wonderful--quite possibly the most flavorful meat that's ever crossed my lips. I couldn't get past the extra chewy texture of the meat, though. For tongue, it was probably on the tender side (I'm basing this assessment on the overall high quality of Manpuku's meat), but for the palette that's more accustomed to fajitas and burgers, tongue is chewy. If you think you can handle the texture though, you should definitely order this dish.
The skirt steak is a more familiar cut, and very tasty, though somewhat more difficult to cook due to its thickness. If you aren't familiar with the words for different cuts of meat, you will have a hard time deciphering the menu, so don't be afraid to ask your waiter for suggestions. Or, learn before you go (warning--mooing cow).
My first experience with bibimbap was underwhelming. The dish derived most of its flavor from the chili paste we added--by itself, it was just veggies and crunchy rice. The rice's crunchiness comes from its contact with the bottom and sides of the super-hot bowl it's served in.
The bibimbap came with a brothy, seaweedy sauce that barely added any flavor to the dish, so we weren't sure what the point of it was.
I was surprised at how nice the restaurant looked inside. I know by now not to judge a restaurant by its strip mall exterior, but it's still hard to associate a neon sign with a decent interior. The atmosphere is energetic and somewhat noisy, but not too noisy. Depending on where you're sitting, you might get warm from the grill, and with so many people cooking meat in such close proximity, the air can get a little smoky. The service was friendly, but not noteworthy.
Valet parking is free (of course, you'll want to tip), or you can try your luck at the meters along Sawtelle. You might also check out the underground lot across the street (you might end up paying if you park there, though--it depends on if the parking attendant is present, and the lot is technically only for that minimall, of course).
If you've been to Manpuku, how was your experience? Leave a comment!
2125 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Use this number--you'll want to make reservations.