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If Mandu was going to reopen during the pandemic and for the foreseeable future, co-owner Danny Lee was going to make it worth his while. He and his mother, Yesoon Lee, hired a new executive chef and overhauled the menu at their Korean restaurant in Mount Vernon Triangle that’s been open since 2011. What’s coming out of the kitchen tastes like the restaurant has leveled up.
“The first thing I asked was if it was worth it to reinvest into a restaurant when we don’t have much revenue at all,” Danny says. “You have to have a realistic audit of your own business and ask whether it’s worth losing money for the next year in the hopes of being profitable again. I talked to my team. ‘Do you want to continue being here? If so, here’s my plan.’ They were very gung-ho about it.”
Mandu’s sizzling bibimbap legacy in D.C. dates back further than 2011. The original restaurant in Dupont Circle operated from 2006 to 2017. A fire destroyed much of the property in July 2017, forcing its closure. Rather than reemerge from the rubble as Mandu, Danny brought in his Fried Rice Collective partners and introduced a more modern take on Korean food with a focus on bar snacks that pair well with soju. Anju opened in August 2019 with Executive Chef Angel Barreto helming the kitchen.
During the intense growth period between 2017 and 2019, Danny and Fried Rice Collective also opened three locations of CHIKO, known for its casual Korean and Chinese food. “I wasn’t as present as I should have been at Mandu,” Danny admits. “We were just doing opening after opening … Things got a little stale. We weren’t changing things.”
In an about face, the Lees, together with newly appointed Executive Chef Minsu Son, have introduced one new dish at a time since May. Son most recently served as a sous chef at Momofuku CCDC, which closed early in the pandemic. He comes from a restaurant family. His parents owned Chinese restaurants in Maryland and Son grew up with a Korean grandmother who had a strong repertoire of recipes.
Son is putting his degree in food science to use by creating more base ingredients in house like the spicy and umami pastes used to build flavor in savory dishes. Yesoon remains the heart and soul of the operation and has been mentoring Son as he settles in. The dishes they’ve worked on together are decidedly more traditional than what’s on the menu at Anju, but have benefitted from some refinement.
New dish highlights include albap—a light starter combining chilled grains, sweet peppers, sesame leaf, tomatoes and trout roe ($13); hwe—scallop crudo with a radish water kimchi brine, shiso oil, lime zest, and puffed quinoa ($14); jorim— spiced snapper swimming a ruby red broth with braised radish and perilla kimchi ($24); and, for dessert, kkwabaegi—a cinnamon and sugar-dusted twisted donut served with peach coulis and ricotta cream.
The popular offerings that the culinary team carried over to the new menu all received an upgrade, starting with the restaurant’s namesake dish. Mandu is now grinding its own short rib and pork shoulder for its meat dumplings ($9). The updated blend introduces more fat and makes them juicier. The shrimp and vegetarian mandu have also improved through recipe tweaks.
Order the fresh take on dduk mandu guk—a beef broth soup typically served on New Year’s Day containing beef and pork mandu and rice cakes ($19).“We season ground beef with black pepper and soy and use that as a garnish,” Danny explains.
The soon doobu has more robust briny flavor thanks to a new broth base made from seafood and clam stock. Cooks finish off the soft tofu stew ($22) with shrimp, scallops, cockles, and soft egg by dusting it with shaved dehydrated scallops.
Mandu has also changed up how it serves its banchan—the small side dishes that typically kick off or accompany a meal. At many Korean restaurants banchan are free. Danny believes that can lead to food waste and has found a middle ground.
“People are used to more banchan even if they haven’t finished what’s in front of them,” he says. At Anju they experimented with asking customers to pay for banchan, except for a serving of kimchi. “People ordered them and we rarely got any negative feedback.”
At the turbo-charged Mandu, diners will receive a set of banchan with every entrée purchase featuring kimchi, pickled and spiced cucumbers, seasoned bean sprouts, and assorted house pickles. Other seasonal and speciality banchan, such as Korean seaweed combined with mushrooms, will be offered a la carte. See the full food and drink menus below.
Mandu is currently open for takeout and delivery Mondays through Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m. and Thursdays through Sundays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The patio is open for dine-in service from 5 to 9 p.m. nightly, depending on the weather.
“We’ve reopened as a better version of Mandu,” Danny says. “I’m very happy with how the food is coming out right now. We’ve further emboldened traditional tastes and flavors.”
Mandu, 453 K St. NW; (202) 289-6899; mandudc.com