There are a few things I consider when visiting a new place. Is it local? Is it clean? Is the menu easy to navigate? Do they have an actual idea of what they're doing? It took three visits to Café Manhattan House to answer these questions.
I stopped in for my first visit to pick up some dinner. The shop is located in the same center as a Luciano Neighborhood Pizzeria, a Fitness 19 and Thai + Sushi Café, among other small businesses. And that's exactly what Café Manhattan is, a wee business, scrapped together by the couple that runs the joint. The space takes on a corner store vibe (even when sandwiched between a bread shop and a liquor store) with its Coca-Cola fridge, mismatched tables, gray carpet, blue walls and framed photos of random Manhattan buildings and tourist favorites. The counter near the back of the restaurant holds a menu, along with several varieties of chocolates, mints, gum and protein bars.
The menu is presented in several ways. There are clusters of bright Day-Glo orange poster board filled with menu items, of which there are many. Items are broken down into lunch (15 items), dinner (12 items) and vegetarian (10 sandwiches available for lunch and dinner).
As soon as I started asking my server/chef questions, he pointed my attention to the dozen or so images with some of their most popular items. While, yes, this was quite handy, it didn't hold every item on the menu. I chose the popular angry porky, and a batch of vegetarian spicy noodles and waited. And waited. And waited.
I'm all about waiting for great food, but as the only customer there that evening, I just couldn't compute what was going on in the kitchen when only two dishes were being made. My sandwich, served on wheat bun (likely from the shop next door, and still quite fresh) was hot, filled with spicy grilled pork, lettuce, onion and spinach. The pork was tender and moist, and at spice level four it was still plenty hot. The heat took a turn for the worse with cold spicy noodles, a crimson dish offset with julienned cucumber and carrots. Definitely heavy on the Korean red pepper, and not for the faint of palate, this dish was a bit of a miss in my book.
A lunch companion and I stopped in on a recent rainy weekday. Seeking refuge from the cold drizzle and sensing a theme, I chose the spicy noodle Mr. Shin soup, while my lunch pal opted for the spider Philly, basically a Philly cheese steak. My ramen-esque noodles proved savory, balanced and just the cure for the gloomy weather as they floated amid a tomato and chili powder-laced broth. The Philly, served on the same wheat roll as the angry porky, was an interesting take on a classic, though the bites of roasted beef seemed more bulgogi than roast beef. The plates are whipped up from scratch, but we were once again the only two customers in line for lunch.
Sidebar: One of my personal pet peeves is the use of carpets in restaurants. They're painfully difficult to keep clean and often soak up every aroma, good or bad. If there's anything they could improve as far as I'm concerned is their lack of serious ventilation. As the recent winner of WOAI's Kitchen Cops Blue Plate Award for their "squeaky clean" kitchen, Café Manhattan House definitely meets at least City criteria for running a clean eatery. So it's hard to pinpoint why they're a ghost town during lunch and dinner.
I returned for dinner on a recent Friday with an adventuresome co-worker to take in the Korean dinner items. He settled on pork bulgogi, while I took a chance on their seafood pancake. The couple behind the counter toiled away in the back and no, we didn't wait nearly as long as before. Although my pancake was flavorful and large, filled with white onions, scallions and shredded carrots, the shrimp and squid promised by the staff were scarce. My partner-in-crime's dinner plate, which included a rather delicious seaweed soup, was only off by one teensy quibble—he had ordered pork, not beef. Even so, the bulgogi was perfectly seasoned and served on a bed of white rice and iceberg salad.
Local? Yes. Is it clean? Yes, and they have the plate to prove it. Is the menu easy to navigate? It could use some serious editing. Do they have an actual idea of what they're doing? My third visit points to yes ... just make sure both owners are behind the counter and you'll be out of there in no time.
15614 Huebner, Ste 116, (210) 314-7151
The Skinny: Think New York bodega meets SA. This shop adds a bit of everything, including sandwiches, soups and Korean favorites.
Best Bets: Beef bulgogi, spicy noodle Mr. Shin, angry porky
Hours 10am-9pm Mon-Sat; 10am-4:30pm Sun
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