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Eat This, Riverside: Spicy Buckwheat Noodles and Tasty Spam Roll-ups at Manna Grill

Cold spicy noodles and savory rice rollups are the anchors on the menu at Manna Grill, a home-style Korean restaurant located in the University Village mall. Learn more about their offerings and what to order for lunch in this week’s “Eat This, Riverside”.

The University Village shopping center, at Iowa and Chicago, boasts an ever-changing cluster of fascinating restaurants offering food from across the globe. One day, I’d love to do a vertical tasting here and write up a feature that consists of capsule reviews of each and every restaurant option in this melting pot of a mall. In the meantime, allow me to recommend one of my favorite Riverside home-style Korean comfort-food spots: Manna Grill. 

Wedged between a shabu-shabu joint and a juice-bar, Manna Grill is a brightly lit informal counter-service restaurant with an expansive menu of home-style Korean items. Owned and operated by husband and wife Kwang and Mi-jung Kim for the last two years, it’s a gem of a spot. The Kims kept the previous owners’ name when they acquired the restaurant - “I love the name Manna,” Mr. Kim tells me. “It’s from the Bible, but it also has two Korean meanings which work for the restaurant - in Korean ‘manna’ means ‘meeting together’ but pronounced differently it also means ‘really tasty’.”

Really tasty is right! This is the kind of comfort food you might get from your Grandma when you visit home for spring break, if your Grandma happened to be a nice Korean Umma with a refrigerator full of fermented kimchi and a pantry stuffed with ramyun noodles and tteokbokki rice cakes.

It’s not a fancy place by a long shot. K-pop blares from the wall-mounted TV. The seating is mostly bolted to the floor. I have yet to see a single non-styrofoam serving container or non-disposable utensil. Diners bus their own tables with bright red plastic cafeteria trays. However, the food that comes out from behind the counter is terrific: accessible, delicious and filling.

My go-to order is the spicy naengmyun. For the non-noodle-cognoscenti - naengmyun are slender chewy noodles, usually made from buckwheat flour, served ice cold in a sweet and spicy sauce with accouterments like spicy pickled cabbage and radish, hard-boiled eggs and raw skate or other protein.

Manna Grill’s rendition is simple - extra chewy deep-brown noodles that spring back pleasantly when you bite them are served in a murky, mildly spicy gochujang-spiked cold broth sweetened with Korean pear, topped with sesame seeds, crunchy cucumber slices, pickled daikon and half a hard-boiled egg. The veggies are crisp and refreshing, the noodles chewy and resilient, and the sauce is flavorful and balanced. Each bite is a careful composition of sweet and hot, smooth and crispy, savory and tart. Manna’s naengmyun also comes as a combo, paired with your choice of meats, or in a non-spicy configuration for more timid palates.

Don’t skip the kimbap - Owner Kwang Kim informs me it’s one of his wife Mi Jung’s specialties (along with the tteokbokki). If you haven’t had kimbap before, think sushi roll but without the raw fish. Dried seaweed is wrapped around rice, fresh and pickled veggies, and protein, then served with a soy-sauce drizzle. At Manna Grill, you can choose your filling - go all-veggie, or opt for grilled marinated beef bulgogi, sliced fried fish cakes, or chunky batons of Spam. I often order a roll for later and then wind up devouring it in the car on the way home. (Devouring things in the car on the way home is a recurring theme in my life, by the way. Delayed gratification was never my strong suit.)

Other snacks on the menu are also worth trying at Manna Grill. Their fried chicken wings are tasty - little wing-flings and drumettes marinated in spicy gochujang and heavily breaded in a crispy rice-flour dredge (similar to Bon Chon). 

It’s worth a few visits to explore their menu - I’ve yet to delve into their hot noodle offerings (thick square-cut udon and ramyun along with stir-fried japchae glass noodles), though I’m happy to report their bibimbap is a satisfying rice bowl with a gratifying variety of fresh and marinated veggies on top.

They offer several configurations of katsu (fried chicken or pork cutlets) drenched in sweet BBQ sauce (which is not my cup of tea) as well as several preparations of thick rice tteokbokki - cylindrical noodle / dumplings in a spicy sauce. I’m eager to return to sample the spicy squid as well.

Manna Grill is located in the University Village Shopping Mall at 1201 University Ave, in Suite #110-B - just to the right of the perennially soon-to-open LOOK movie theater. They serve lunch and dinner Monday through Friday from 11:30am-8:00pm and from 12:00pm-8pm on Saturday.

Do you have your own favorite restaurant-dense shopping mall in Riverside? Let me know about it with an email to the tip line: I’d also love to hear about your favorite hole-in-the wall joints, especially if they have the kind of comfort food your grandma used to make …. or that you wish your grandma used to make.