While interviewing Shannon Roper for a story about S&B’s Burger Joint, he asked me if I’d ever been to Manna. “We get takeout from there once a week,” he said.
It had been years since I’d been to Manna. 2015. It was a more innocent time. I could still fit into pants that weren’t made from decommissioned circus tents. Nobody thought Donald Trump could possibly become president. Gas was roughly the same price it is now. I was glad to hear Manna was still going, because I’d worried the place might close. My previous visits included a nearly empty dining room, an almost complete lack of decoration and a man who stared at me and muttered vaguely threatening things as if we were having a conversation. But the food...was wonderful. So I decided to go back there, this time with my friend Sara Cowan as snarky backup, to see what had changed. The answer may shock you. But it probably won’t. Almost nothing was different. Shannon told me as much, but it was nice to experience it for myself. Well, not “nice” in the traditional sense, but kind of perversely fun. Manna doesn't have a sign. Well, there's a sign on one of the windows, but in the traditional spot for a sign, there's nothing but the remains of the sign for a Chinese restaurant named Bangkok that used to be there. To the best of my knowledge, there’s only one menu at Manna. When the owner-chef brought it to us, we were surprised. When the next table came in and needed it, she came and got it from us. The man who stared at me was still there, but he was looking at his phone. It wasn’t until another couple of tables came in that he began muttering to himself. Frankly, I wish he’d started sooner, because there was some kind of right-wing sermon on the TV with sweaty men praying for Mike Pence to appoint more conservatives to the Supreme Court and I could have used the distraction. It is very nearly a solo effort for the chef-owner. She took our order and went back to cook it, meaning the next table had to wait a while before she came to take their orders. It’s not efficient. But the chef-owner-server is so nice. She smiled and walked us through the menu.
And, most importantly, she went back in the kitchen and made some seriously delicious Indian food.
I’m not sure if Manna was out for the night or just don’t serve them at all anymore, but there were no vegetable samosas ($3) to be had. This broke my heart, because I love samosas. They’re like beautiful fried baseballs full of potatoes and carrots and spices. Show me a man who doesn’t like samosas and I’ll show you a man who is planning to murder the Queen of England. I mean...they might even be the same guy. So, without that crispy, savory pastry, I moved on to an order of chicken vindaloo ($9.99). The menu tells you it’s (Hot), but when I asked for it to be medium heat, I knew it was but a pipedream.
The vindaloo is a dark, creamy sauce with big chunks of chicken simmered in it, soaking up loads of extremely tasty and mouth-scorching spices. I think it was supposed to come with white rice, but none ever came. That’s not great, because rice is absolutely necessary to soak up all that flavor and help tame the heat. One thing that did come with it was a bowl of yogurt, which I happily used to extinguish the flames coming off my tongue. Sara opted for the saag paneer ($9.99), which is a dish of spinach, homemade cheese and spices. Sara likes spices, but they can’t be too hot. She asked for the lowest possible spice on the saag paneer and, from what I tasted, she got it. There was no discernible heat to me, but it was still a little too much for Sara. I felt bad for her, because I quite enjoyed it. The spinach was almost black in the bowl with chunks of white cheese peeking at you from below the surface. Homemade Indian cheese is a bit spongy and has a slight chew, keeping the earthy flavor of the spinach and spices on your tongue a little while longer. Though no white rice appeared, I did order a platter of chicken biryani ($10.99). Unfortunately, it was “medium hot,” as well, meaning it was spicy enough to get me sweating. Biryani is kind of like Indian fried rice. Lots of seasonings, some fat to keep it from getting sticky and a bit of crispy crunch where the heat dried out pockets here and there. It’s a delight. The chicken was moist and flavorful, though I quickly began to lose feeling in my lips and tongue, so what I got was fleeting.
To help tamp down on the fire, we each ordered some bread. I got garlic naan ($2), which is puffy and crispy and buttery. Sara got paratha ($2), which is made with butter and whole wheat flour and has a slightly doughier, chewier texture. When it was time to go, the chef-owner-server-cashier came out to run my card and I asked her about her favorite dishes. Butter chicken, she said. I’d had it and it’s wonderful, but it’s nice to hear from the person cooking it, too. Truly, I do not know how to help Manna. Would more business do it? I can’t imagine so, given the small staff. Could decorations or more menus help? Maybe. But that’s more aesthetic than anything else. I’m sure Manna will survive without any effort on my part, but I definitely agree with Shannon — that’s some excellent Indian food. Next time, though, I’m getting takeout.
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Chicken vindaloo (ask for it very mild)