Young Kho whirls around the dining room of her small Lauderhill restaurant.
One moment, she's laughing and chatting in Korean with a family of regulars. The next, she's patiently explaining the menu to a table of elderly New Yorkers.
A few minutes later, she's effortlessly gliding from the kitchen, in a pair of conservative wedge sandals, with a huge silver tray of banchan (side dishes) and barbecue.
Young and her husband, Tae, opened the doors four years ago to their modest eatery, Manna Restaurant, on State Road 441.
When the economy tanked, so did their clothing business. The couple, who have three children, were left looking for alternative options to make a living.
"We were looking for a business to support our family," Young says, her face lighting up in a cheeky smile. "We needed to make money."
Armed with a vast repertoire of family recipes, Young and Tae decided to leap into the restaurant industry, setting up shop in the burgeoning Korean district sprouting up around University Drive and Commercial Boulevard.
Right across the street from Gabose (the first Korean joint to grace the area) and just down the plaza from Korean grocer Kim & Lee Oriental Mart, Manna has become a firmly entrenched part of the local Korean community.
It strives to serve the kind of healthy, home-style fare one would find in any Korean household.
"Every mom makes food for her family," says Young. "We do the same."
While Manna doesn't offer the fancy charcoal pits found at other spots, the barbecue dishes are still some of the most popular offerings.
Bulgogi, voted number 23 on CNN Go's readers' poll of World's 50 Best Foods, is a favorite here. Thinly sliced sirloin is marinated in a blend of soy and sesame sauces. Served on a sizzling skillet between sliced onion and a sprinkling of scallions, it's supposed to be consumed sandwiched between the crisp lettuce leaves that come on the side.
A covered aluminum bowl of steaming white rice and a wide assortment of banchan are supplied as accompaniments.
Ranging from spicy kimchee and bok choy to savory fish cakes to vegetable pancakes, the banchan are light yet vibrant, bursting with exotic flavors -- one of the highlights of the meal.
Pork belly, samgyeopsal, is served in the same manner. Supplied on the same hot plate (with onion and scallion), crisp fat-lined slices of meat are simply grilled with no marinade. Two sauces -- a straightforward mix of salt, pepper, and sesame oil as well as a complex chili-infused soybean paste -- are served in small ramekins on the side for dipping.
"Bibimbap" means "mixed rice" in Korean; Manna's version is composed of white rice, namul (a mix of seasoned vegetables), sliced beef, and spicy chili sauce, topped with a runny fried egg.
Although the dish is enjoyable no matter what, the dolsot, served in a hot stone pot, is the way to go. Let it sit for a while; the fiery pot creates a crisp golden layer of rice around the sides -- but don't wait too long or the egg will overcook.
Japchae is lesser-known to Westerners but beloved among Koreans. Served as a celebratory dish for special occasions (New Year's, birthdays, weddings), it features stir-fried vegetables, thinly sliced beef, and dangmyeon (a version of glass noodles made from sweet potatoes) flavored with soy and sesame. It's one of Young's top recommendations to newbies.
The dumplings are another; offered fried or steamed, vegetarian or pork -- we suggest the fried pork -- they are handmade and served with a vivid, red-hued sauce made of vinegar, chili, and a hint of soy. It's not as heavy or salty as the condiments served with your typical takeout dumplings.
Korea is not home to one, homogenous cultural cuisine but has diverse culinary regions and traditions. While Young originally hails from the area outside Busan -- according to her, it's known for its spicy and salty fare -- Manna offers lighter, less pungent, Seoul-style cuisine.
Even so, the Khos have no issue adjusting the level of spice -- from mild to extra spicy -- and ingredients (anything can become vegetarian, if requested) according to guests' dietary preferences. For them, the goal is customer satisfaction.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," says Young. "We didn't start off in the restaurant industry. It's hard work, but we're happy we're doing this now. When people come in and they're tired and you see excitement on their faces when they eat, it makes us happy. When a customer is happy, we're happy."
Manna Restaurant is located at 4966 N. University Drive, Lauderhill. Call 954-748-6088, or visit koreanfoodfortlauderdale.com.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.
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