Old favorites and new surprises delight at this Austin mainstay
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Oct. 26, 2012
Manuel's310 Congress, 472-7555
10201 Jollyville Rd., 345-0142
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm; Sun., 10am-10pm;happy hour daily, 4-6pm; Sunday jazz brunch, 10am-3pm
Manuel's excellent presentation of regional Mexican cuisine has made it a Downtown mainstay for more than 25 years, and a reliable Arboretum-area dining destination since 1998. Over the years, co-owners Greg Koury and Ahmad Modoni have taken care to periodically renew and refresh their eateries to ensure continued popularity with Austin's Mexican-food-savvy public. Early this year, for instance, they hired internationally known Mexican chef and winemaker Juan Jose Gomez as consulting chef for the company. Gomez created new appetizers, soups, and entrées, in addition to updating the plating and presentation of the entire menu. Other recent changes include the use of all-natural premium Black Angus Texas beef, all-natural chicken and pork, wild-caught fish and shrimp, corn tortillas and corn chips made with non-GMO corn grown in East Texas, sustainably-harvested tea blends from Austin's Zhi Tea, a selection of "skinny" cocktails, and eco-friendly, compostable to-go packaging.
We've had the opportunity to check out many of Manuel's new menu items over the past few months and found them eminently satisfying. Yes, the prices are somewhat higher, but the food quality is first-rate and the presentation is appealing to both the eye and the palate. Manuel's half-price happy hour offerings have long been one of the best deals in town, and we found that to still be true, although we would have preferred more roasted poblano pepper strips in our molten bowl of chile con queso ($8.50). The Baja Taquitos de Callo de Hacha ($10) are wonderful: tiny scallops perfectly fried in a light, crisp batter, served with a carrot and cabbage slaw in chipotle crema, and an envelope of hot flour tortillas. Make your own tacos and be sure to squeeze the lemon wedge over them for an acidic flavor pop that makes all the ingredients sing in harmony. The real star of the new appetizer menu, however, is Gomez' rendition of ceviche ($13), an elegant cylinder of finely chopped yellowfin tuna, cilantro, onion, and chile serrano that has been tossed with olive oil, lime, and orange juice. This precise and innovative creation is as well-balanced in flavor as it is lovely to look at, a must for ceviche aficionados. For those who prefer the old version, it's still available on request, though it's not on the menu.
Among the new offerings from the entrée portion of the menu, we're particularly impressed with the Chile Relleno del Mar ($22), a whole roasted poblano pepper stuffed with toothsome shrimp, scallops, and lump crabmeat in a light, creamy sauce. The pepper arrives lounging like a supermodel on a bed of corn and carrot-studded white rice, accompanied by a plate of geometrically-shaped, thinly sliced tropical fruits – a light and flavorful combination. One of my dining companions who's on Weight Watchers chose the Pescado a la Parilla ($21), a fresh and flaky grilled black drum fillet complemented by a delightfully subtle dollop of mango mint butter, and deemed it a righteous selection within her dining-out guidelines. For a taste of the tried and true, it's impossible to go wrong with shredded pork enchiladas ($18) dressed in Manuel's award-winning mole poblano, the multilayered and complex queen of the Mexican culinary lexicon. Whether you've worked up an appetite after a long day at the Texas Book Festival or an afternoon of shopping and movie-watching this weekend, Manuel's can satisfy cravings for a sophisticated Mexican meal.