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Manuel’s Downtown—So Not Delicious

I waited to post a long report on this place until I’d made at least 2 1/2 visits. The 1/2 visit refers to a trip there that was devoted solely to drinking. It was my best experience. The food at Manuel’s is sometimes okay, but it is not good. And it’s certainly not delicious or one of the “best” options in town, which you might think if you listened to the conventional wisdom.

Appetizers

Let me just start by saying how deeply revolted I was—and still am!—by Manuel’s “gorditas.” I tried the ones with a filling of sautéed corn, garlic, cilantro, and tomatillo salsa. If this consisted of more than just barely seasoned frozen corn kernels, I couldn’t tell. Perhaps I might have noticed some truly nuanced seasoning if I weren’t so distracted by the wet, undercooked mess that was the corn-masa and mashed-potato base. Let’s assume that there is a rewarding culinary pay-off to combining two very good but distinct entities: gorditas made from corn masa and latkes or mashed-potato pancakes. Let’s further assume that an almost-all-potato “masa” achieves a flavor dimension that just couldn’t be achieved with a potato-filled traditional gordita. If this is the case, then at least learn from people who make latkes (potato pancakes) or croquettes (breaded and fried mashed-potato balls, usually stuffed with cheese). You need to ruthlessly drain the liquid from the potatoes before seasoning and shaping them, or they will be a soggy mess. Which they were. How the kitchen managed to hold these things together long enough to grill them on the comal is a total mystery. This gordita-inspired concoction was disgusting, either by potato-pancake or gordita standards. Well, what about by mashed-potato-gordita standards, you might ask? Still gross. Only half of one gordita (three to an order) was even touched. I’ve said it before: Combining two different dishes into a hybrid new one does not necessarily make the final result twice as good.

The gorditas came with a cooked-tomatillo salsa that was faintly spicy but reminded me of jarred salsas. I suspect they use tomatillos from a can. The pico de gallo with cilantro, onions, and green chiles was spicier, but the cubed tomatoes were very mushy (it’s a bad time of the year to find firm ones, let alone good ones).

The chips that come with each meal are of the standard store-bought variety. They’re crisp, but they lack salt (and flavor). The red table salsa is made from a base of pureed fresh tomatoes and green chiles. It’s very watery, and has a slight burn that’s slow to build. I'd say the salsa is okay to decent. The guacamole that we ordered as an appetizer also came as a side with some orders. It ranged in spiciness from downright bland to fairly spicy. It appears to be made principally of mashed avocados, cilantro, and varying amounts of their red table salsa. Their avocados were not particularly flavorful; thus, the guacamole wasn’t, either.

I’ve also tried their Baja taquitos de callo de hacha, which are lightly battered and fried scallops that are served with shredded cabbage tossed in "chipotle mayo crema." In other words, fried scallops encased in a corn-chip-like case. They were a bit soggy overall; the scallops were not very memorable; and the chipotle-mayonnaise crema was not spicy.

Main Courses

Are Manuel’s beef fajitas “marinated & grilled to perfection,” as advertised? Well, they were marinated. You could taste the marinade, which was a clone of teriyaki sauce. Considerable leftover marinade was served with the fajitas. With that liquid, the meat and grilled peppers and onions were downright soupy, as though they’d been sautéed/steamed rather than grilled. Maybe they were cooked in a covered skillet. The meat was very tender, however. Grated Monterrey jack cheese, a cilantro-heavy salsa fresca (pico de gallo), black beans, and sour cream came on the side.

The flour tortillas that came with the fajitas were made in-house. They were thin, of a wider circumference than usual, and gummy to the point of tasting raw. There was no discernible lard in the masa, which also needed salt.

The lomo de res, or grilled beef tenderloin, came medium-rare and was served with a topping of poblano-goat-cheese garlic butter. The sauce mainly tasted like cheese; there was no poblano flavor. I thought this dish was boring, though the meat was, again, fairly tender. The steak came with black beans with crema on top and Mexican white rice that included strips of red bell-pepper and some disks of steamed carrots that were sautéed in a lot of oil with the rice. A diner at a nearby table warned us that the rice might contain chicken broth (in case we were vegetarians), but I couldn’t taste it. The guacamole that came with the steak was very mild.

Desserts

The flan was a coconut version of standard flan, cut in wedges from a larger round rather than in little squares. It wasn’t exciting, but at least it wasn’t cloyingly sweet. The budín de chocolate, or “bitter-sweet chocolate bread pudding topped w/ homemade chocolate sauce & whipped cream,” was also inoffensive but not spectacular.

The worst dessert I’ve tried there is the postre de coco, which they call a “tiered buttermilk cake” with a cream-cheese frosting. The cake was very dry, and the “homemade” pecan-caramel sauce did nothing to save it.

I understand that Manuel’s is trying to do the kind of Mexican food that El Mirador in San Antonio does so effortlessly. Unfortunately, Manuel’s kitchen does not have the same flair with sauces and soups, and their technique can be seriously flawed. For example, the grilled tenderloin that fails to interest at Manuel’s pales in comparison to the pork and beef dishes with complex sauces at EM. On the other hand, I know that some ‘hounds enjoy Manuel’s margaritas and appetizers, some of which are half-price during happy hour. I also recall seeing raves about their ceviche and other seafood options. After my 2 1/2 visits, though, I’m forced to conclude that nothing I’ve tasted there warrants a return trip—for a meal.

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  1. Your experience here mirrors my own. Speaking generally, the food has been mediocre; the drinks have been excellent!

    I also think that while their Mole is OK, it certainly isn't "the best in Austin" as advertised. I don't really know where to start with this list, but off the top of my head Curras, Fonda San Miguel, and even the humble Flores have superior Mole.

    1. I'm going to agree with MPH on this one. Even the much lauded tortilla soup came to me tepid to cool at the north location and I was similarly disappointed with the gorditas filled with black beans and venison chorizo. There was no evidence of venison chorizo and the gorditas were little more than gridded mashed potatoes. Blah. Decent margarita, though.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Greg Spence

        You, too, Greg? Ugh. Those "gorditas" shouldn't happen to anyone else. Just say no!

        There were so many things wrong with them: the size, the runniness of the potato mixture, the attempt to stuff a filling into what was essentially a semi-liquid, and even the name (since there was nothing gordita-like about them).

        I've had very good tortas de papas before. However, they’re just Mexican latkes or potato pancakes. They're fried patties (about 3 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick) of mashed potatoes, egg, some flour, and various seasonings, served with salsa and avocado on the side.

        Apparently, Manuel’s would rather serve a bad combination of gorditas and latkes (or tortas de papas) than make a good version of either one.

      2. I've had really great, complex, mole at their north location several times. But I recently went to the downtown location and was served a pedestrian, somewhat bland, version. I thought maybe I was just remembering the mole wrong, but my wife agreed. Have other people also found that the food at the downtown location is worse?

        1. Thanks for your continuing detailed posts. I've not been to Manuel's downtown, but the Arboretum location seems to have many of the same problems. It's a great place for outdoor dining (the Arboretum one), but in my opinion the food doesn't measure up.

          1. I'm going to continue to jump up and down and wave my arms around like an idiot while yelling, "Polvo's! Go to Polvo's!"

            3 Replies
            1. re: hooliganyouth

              I'm afraid that much of what I've tried at Polvo's has been terrible: their breakfast food in particular, but also the side dishes, tortillas, and desserts. People seem to love this restaurant's "vibe" and their dazzling array of salsas, but even Polvo's most vaunted dishes—like fajitas or seafood—are just mediocre to okay, in my opinion.

              1. re: MPH

                I agree for the most part but I really dig their beer fajitas. Have you tried the fajita joint on Anderson? I can't remember the exact name of the place but I know it has Enchiladas y Mas in it.

                Where do you go for fajitas?

                1. re: hooliganyouth

                  All of us local 'hounds seem to be currently thinking about Mexican food. It must be dinnertime!

                  I really like the fajitas rancheras at Habeñero Cafe. The grilled tongue may be even better. I just posted a link to this earlier review on a different thread, but here it is again:

                  http://www.chowhound.com/topics/307124

                  As long as you stick to items from the grill (and ignore the terrible tortillas, flavorless flautas, and spongy gorditas), there's also nothing wrong with the fajitas and other carnes asadas at Los Comales.

                  And thanks for the tip about the place on Anderson. I'm still exploring every last place on the Hispanic east and southeast sides of town, but I'll try it when I make it up north.

                  Best,
                  MPH

            2. Polvo's seems to be about the same type of place, a great place for drinks but not so great for food. At least imho.