Dumpling domain. Photo by Matt Otto
Dumpling domain. Photo by Matt Otto

This Hole-in-the-Wall Life

I occasionally receive complaints from readers upset that the restaurants I recommend are inaccessible: gruff, English-free holes in the wall. But if the couple who ate lunch with me a couple of weeks ago at ANNA'S MONDU could enjoy a meal at this Korean dive, so can you.

They are the Ugly Americans. The obese woman sported frazzled hair and sweats; her mate wore a rumpled jacket. The two walked in and asked the diminutive Korean owner if their dog could sit at their table; the owner pointed to an outside chair. The pet whimpered for the next hour, and the couple continually reassured her from afar. "It's okay! Mom and Dad are here!" she cooed at the dog—and then turned to a befuddled Korean patron and beamed, "That's our baby!"

Anna's Mondu keeps an English-language menu; bright pictures on the wall hint at its specialty: the massive Korean dumplings known as mondu—steamed giants of minced meat, buckwheat noodles and green onions. Nevertheless, the couple asked for fried rice and chow mein, items that not only weren't on the menu but aren't, you know, Korean. The owner pointed to the menu, tried to explain mondu, but to no avail. I finally stepped in.

"It's all dumplings here," I said. "There's something that's like sushi, and another thing that's like super-fat noodles. But stick to the dumplings. Get the C combo for all of them."

I described my lunch for them: a trio of meat mondu, kimbab and dduk bok ki. Anna's freezes its mondus for sale ($15 gets you 50), but those sold in the restaurant are fresh—I saw the owner and her Latina assistant make them with my own peepers. The ladies shaped a mondu wrap from fresh flour, smeared it with ground beef and pork, then tapered the edges so the filling wouldn't leak out during the steaming process. The finished product bounced with freshness, smelled of sweet onions and were the size of fists. I followed the mondus with kimbab: a Korean take on sushi but twice the size and warm, with egg, spinach and cucumber stuffed inside toasted seaweed.

The true revelation at Anna's Mondu, however, was the dduk bok ki. The menu unimaginatively translates the dish as "rice cake" but it's really more like a plateful of stretched gnocchi over which the chef has drizzled a sweet-and-spicy chile sauce. Just three of the dduk will meet your daily caloric maximum; the plate comes with at least 20.

"Get the C combo—you won't go wrong," I promised the couple again as they gazed in hunger. They ate, and when they finished, they confessed this was the first time they had tried Korean cuisine—and they loved it. Mr. and Mrs. America: if these poor souls could do it, so can you.



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