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Nov 9, 2008 02:06 PM

Manuel's in Austin

As a native Yankee from the Big Apple, a majority of my experience with Mexican food had involved dishes overly seasoned with cheeses, tomato-based sauces and heavy spices. The oils and fats of the food would often linger, which left me wanting to avoid Mexican food for the rest of my life. Needless to say, when someone recommended that I give Mexican food another chance at Manuel’s, I was extremely resistant.

When I walked into Manuel’s in the Aboretum Area, I was greeted by a huge, breathtaking floral bouquet. Upon being seated outside in the courtyard, beneath a beautiful oak tree, we were served chips and salsa. When I reached for the chips, I discovered they were piping hot! Upon asking the server about them, I was told that Manuel’s makes their own chips and salsa fresh everyday. I was quite impressed. However, I was still hesitant to try the food, as most of my past forays into Mexican foods were lackluster at best. To ease my anxiety, I ordered one of their “signature” drinks, the Cucumber-Lime Martini. After the first sip, I knew I had discovered a new friend. The cayenne pepper rim was spectacular. The fresh cucumber and lime juice was utterly refreshing. As I took my second sip, I thought to myself, “Maybe this Texas heat won’t be too bad if they have drinks like these.”

For my entrée, I ordered the Chile Relleno del Mar. I must confess that I love fresh seafood, especially sushi. So, when I saw fish and seafood on the menu, I was surprised and skeptical. How could there be seafood at a Mexican restaurant? How could it be remotely fresh or tasty? But, despite my better judgment, I took a risk. My expectations were very low. When it arrived, I smiled given the nice presentation of the pepper. I dug right in, and discovered that the bay scallops and shrimp were all buoyant and very flavorful. The white cheese atop the pepper was extremely mild, and never once masked the natural flavors and textures of the seafood stuffed into the pepper. The side plate of fresh fruits was a nice surprise too, as I cleansed my palate between food bites and sips of my martini. Unfortunately, I did not have a dessert as I was full by the end of my entrée. I would recommend limiting your consumption of chips and salsa at the beginning of your meal in order to save room for dessert.

As for the service, I found the waitress very perky and friendly. She was knowledgeable about the menu and attentive. The atmosphere, especially in the courtyard, is quite romantic. Towards the end of my meal, the restaurant had become crowded and the noise levels higher. But, I assume that is to be expected of any popular restaurant. Unfortunately, I found the men’s bathroom a bit cramped and small. The restrooms were also located right off the bar area, which leaves little area for you to stand if you do have to wait for the restrooms.

All in all, I found my reintroduction to the world of Mexican cuisine at Manuel’s not only satisfying, but also delightful. The fresh food with its clean flavors took center stage for me. This was followed very closely by my Cucumber-Lime Martini. Since this first dining experience at Manuel’s, I have taken all my Texan and non-Texan family and friends to Manuel’s during their visit to Austin. I am happy to report that the feedback thus far from them has been mostly positive, despite the occasional non-attentive server or slow-moving bartender. However, if you are looking for some fresh, clean Mexican cuisine, then you must try Manuel’s in Austin.

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  1. Just curious...what did you mean by "clean Mexican cuisine"? Certainly many authentic Mexican recipes rely on the use of lard but that doesn't mean that they are unclean.

    3 Replies
    1. re: sanmiguel


      When someone uses the word 'clean' in reference to food or nutrition, I usually think of this type of reference to "Clean Eating"

      Click on the tab, "Clean Eating?" and then
      "Clean Eating Info"

      I don't know if Foodie888 meant this of course.

      For fast food mostly-clean and w/ nutritional analysis right on the wall, I like "Samurai Sam's" with the brown rice option
      Samurai Sams
      9003 Waterford Centre Blvd #150
      this is behind Golds Gym at 183 and Burnet

      1. re: sweet100s

        Thanks, I hope that is what the OP meant. I thought that the reference might have been to pork lard which is viewed as unclean by some. Personally, I think that the use of "manteca" gives genuine Mexican food its unique flavor and that the more healthy adaptations pale in comparison. Unfortunately, its use also is partially responsible for the high incidence of obesity and diabetes in the Mexican community :-(

        1. re: sanmiguel

          I had a whole other interpretation I'll throw in. Just above the "clean Mexican cuisine" note, there's a mention of "fresh food with clean flavors". I thought of things that "cleanse the palate" or are refreshing, eg citrus. Then they mentioned a cucumber lime martini, which would sort of be the epitome of crisp, clean flavor. IMO. Maybe that's not what they meant at all.

          I've only been to Manuel's for happy hour, but I love the chicken mole appetizer. And that, using my definition, would not be a "clean" flavor. But, still very delicious. (And not "dirty" either).

    2. Amen! I read Chow all the time but have never signed-up to add my voice until now. I have had dozens of great meals at Manuel's over the years and couldn't agree more. It is always one of our go-to places in Austin: classy but not stuffy, kid-friendly without being noisy, great appetizers and drink specials. I start to crave the Chile Relleno in Nogada and it is hard to find elsewhere. And Changos (their burrito place) is one of the best on-campus options for fast , cheap and good. And they said it couldn't be done...

      1. I guess I may have to give Manuel's another try. In addition to your review I had a coworker also recommend the Chile Relleno del Mar just a few days ago. I have only been there once, and at the time I would have said that they had a nice patio, but that was about the only thing good about it. The service was bad, I felt the food was way over priced, and not all that good. Maybe I was just there on a bad day.

        1. Glad you enjoyed Manuel's and I hope it encourages you to try other Mexican options.

          Mexican seafood dishes are hardly surprising. Mexico has about 11,000 km of coastline and consumes something on the order of 11.5 kilos of fish per person (2003), according to the Mexican Department of Fisheries.

          (Whoops, I let my secret nerd out!)

          That being said, I wish there were more Mexican seafood restaurants in Austin and in general. Their seafood dishes can be amazing.