Review: Manimal Smokehouse, Itaewon
My clothes reek of smoke. And meat. My clothes reek of smoke and meat. Which can only mean a hell of a good evening. Yes, I made the mistake of wearing my best shirt and a decent blazer for my second visit to Itaewon’s newest smokehouse, Manimal, and now I may have to burn both of them. Whatever.
What I know about genuine American-style BBQ is only what I’ve eaten – starting at the legendary Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on a trip to the States about a decade and a half ago, and downhill ever since. I don’t know zip about theory. Dry and wet rubs, smoke rings, Memphis vs Kansas City styles – I know nothing of all this. Well, OK, I’m being modest; I know a little. But in the main, I follow my gut, which is considerable. And it says that Manimal, which officially opened on the first day of May, is the real deal.
The entrance is hard to find, which is just as well as the interior, though hardly small, was almost full by 5:50 on a weekday evening – though the Instagram crowd have yet to find it yet, and it’s not on Naver maps so far as I can see, most of the seats were taken. Accompanied by a couple of hungry college students, I perched on some of the cute stools at the window and checked out the menu.
At this stage (no doubt it’ll change and maybe expand as time goes on) it is pretty simple. There’s pulled pork, ribs, brisket and chicken, all present and correct. In addition, you can take your pick of sides, a small selection of cocktails and mixed soft drinks, and beers from the excellent Hand and Malt company.
We went for pulled pork, brisket and chicken, along with a couple of sides. The meat came out within ten minutes or so, freshly sliced up and served together on a board. Take a look at this.
Yeah, I know I said I didn’t know anything about smoke rings, but check out the colour round the edges of that brisket in the middle. And it all tasted as good as it looked. The pulled pork was great – moist but not wet (steady at the back, there), flavoursome, with more than a hint of spice.
Brisket was tasty as well; with a dip into the spicy sauce that accompanied it, I was utterly happy. Just the right amount of fat, right amount of char. Some have described it as under-flavoured. Maybe, but I had nothing bad to say about it.
My favourite was definitely the chicken. A miracle of juiciness, it’s deboned chicken leg meat with charred crispy skin on the outside and bursting with flavour. I could eat this for the rest of my life and pause only to order more beer. I resented having to share it with my dining companions, and toyed with the idea of creating a diversion and making off with the rest of it into the Noksapyeong twilight. The sort of food you look forward to eating again, even as you’re enjoying it the first time.
Sides are also good. There’s a fine mac and cheese, served piping hot in a miniature skillet. I might have preferred a more earthily cheesy taste, but with some jalapeno to punch up the flavour, there was nothing at all to complain about. Cornbread was sweeter than I’d expected, but great for mopping up chicken juices nonetheless. It seemed a bit drier and crumblier than on my first visit, and didn’t hit the heights. We finished it all anyway.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the sides for me was the potato and egg salad. Enriched with lime, chipotle, some mustard seeds and spring onion, it was just great. I’m a great partisan of Linus’ potato and egg salad, which makes me happy like I haven’t been since kissing Lucy Cove during a lunch break some time in sixth grade, but if you asked me to pick between them, I’d get a look in my eyes like Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. Don’t make me choose.
The same dilemma exists when you are asked to adjudicate between the charms of Manimal and its most obvious competitor, Linus’ BBQ at the bottom of the hill. They even both have banana-based desserts – in the case of Manimal, this is a vanilla ice-cream with banana and custard that made one of my fellow eaters go a very interesting shade of pink and make noises that I will refrain from describing further, just in case she’s reading this. Really, really good. Prices? A tiny bit on the high side, but totally reasonable, hovering between 14 and 17,000 for the main meat dishes and 3 – 7,000. Given that you’ll pay 10,000 won or more for a 200g portion of raw meat in any Korean gogijip around the city, that strikes me as completely fair. My only caveat is that, without fries, onion rings and suchlike to pad out the meal, you’ll end up ordering and finishing more meat than you otherwise would, and be damn pleased that you did.
Our bill for three people, including three portions of meat, three sides, a drink each and dessert between us, was just a shade over 30,000 per head. Had we been less gluttinous, it would have been less. But considering that I paid 22,000 for a bowl of pasta at Libertine at lunchtime (albeit an excellent bowl of pasta, let it be said), I felt like I got my money’s worth at Manimal, no doubt. I staggered, blinking, into the fading daylight, laden with protein but happy. No doubt each of Itaewon’s two heavyweight BBQ joints will have their champions, and the chat I’ve seen on the various Facebook groups and Twitterati that I follow has tended, for what it’s worth, to lean towards Manimal. My co-eaters also felt that Manimal would suit the Korean palate – a little spicier, maybe a little less greasy. Your mileage may vary, and Linus remains a place of pilgrimage for the faithful among us, no matter what.
At the end of the day, comparisons are invidious. It’s great having two fine exponents of the art of BBQ within a stone’s throw of each other at the Noksapyeong end of the main Itaewon drag, where just two or three years ago your eating choices were limited to begging Aussie Tony to heat up a pie and chips or making the sullen, self-hating trek into McDonald’s. What a time it is to be alive.
Off to burn my treasured lilac dress shirt and plan my next trip to Manimal. Who’s in?
- Category: American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Chicken
- Subway: Noksapyeong station exit 1 or Itaewon station exit 1.
- Directions: From Noksapyeong subway exit, walk over the bridge and turn right past Petra, walking along the top of the hill overlooking Noksapyeong and the US base. Manimal is situated above Yona Yona burger and the daftly named Modest Pub, opposite Coreanos. The entrance is on the left side of the building at the back – look for the piles of wood stacked up either side of the steps. If you approach from Itaewon, walk along the main road towards the Noksapyeong end until you see McDonalds, and then head up the hill opposite.
- Hours: 5:30 until 10:30pm, six nights a week except Monday.
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