Restaurant Review: Fusion Confusion at La Mancha Tex-Mex Tavern
But the quest for a great plate of food is no impossible dream
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Aug. 23, 2013
Mon., 11am-9pm; Tue.-Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., 10am-9pm
La Mancha Tex-Mex Tavern2203 Hancock Dr., 512/467-4108
Mon.-Thu., 11am-10pm; Fri., 11am-12mid; Sat., 10am-12mid; Sun., 10am-10pm
Happy Hour: 3-6pm weekdays; all day Tuesday
We were pleased to see longtime Rosedale neighborhood residents John Korioth and Will Muntz breathe new life into the run-down, 40-year-old building that once housed Casita Jorge's. Restaurant designer Michael Hsu and builder Mark Herron opened up the dark and dilapidated space, bathing it in natural light and bright colors, and decorating with Mexican movie posters, large loteria cards, and license plate art pieces. The whimsical, playful design elements contribute to a casual and inviting ambience, and the young staff is friendly and eager to please. There are comfortable, well-stocked bars inside and out, and the restaurant has plenty of off-street parking. Why, then, has the public's early response to La Mancha been so polarized? The consternation seems to revolve around higher prices, errors in menu descriptions, and a Tex-Mex/Interior Mexican/Spanish concept fusion confusion.
La Mancha's name and some of the menu items reference the locale and characters of the most famous Spanish novel of all time, yet Tex-Mex is clearly also part of the title, and there is no discernible Spanish culinary influence. Prices here are certainly higher than they were at Jorge's, but the basic ingredients are more expensive and the infrastructure of the building is renewed. (Prices are also a little higher than some other Mexican eateries that have opened recently, but no $40-per-pound fajitas.) The menu definitely offers some standard Tex-Mex dishes: chile con queso, nachos, combo plates, beef or cheese enchiladas with chile con carne sauce, fajitas, and huevos rancheros. However, consulting chef Chris Chism's menu reflects a very strong influence from the cuisines of Interior Mexico, featuring interpretations of street food dishes from Mexico City and Oaxaca, coastal shrimp paired with fruit or tuna with horseradish guacamole, and the overused house signature La Mancha Manteles sauce straight from the heart of Mexico. While the traditional manchamanteles (literally "tablecloth stainer" in Spanish) mole dish with stewed fruit and poultry is usually a rusty, orange-red color that will indeed stain tablecloths, Chism's darker, pureed version comes with the bite of guajillo chiles – not a standard Tex-Mex ingredient. Even for those who like the sauce, it is a predominant theme throughout the menu and likely to put off someone looking for a straightforward, old-school Tex-Mex taste experience.
Despite the menu's multiple personalities, I've had some very satisfactory dishes in my three visits to La Mancha. Our group of six sampled items from all sections of the menu, plus several rounds of margaritas and Mexican martinis one evening at dinner, with nary a complaint at the table. I find the La Mancha Queso ($4.95 cup; $6.25 bowl) appealing because it's made with poblanos, my favorite pepper. I can also give high marks to the chile relleno with shrimp and crab ($15.95), which featured a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with a creamy seafood filling that made a good counterpoint to the assertive blanket of La Mancha Manteles sauce. Another winner that night was the La Mancha Bowl with beef fajitas ($11.95), which presents layers of rice, beans, crunchy grilled vegetables, buttery slices of avocado, and sour cream under a mantel of the house sauce and a dusting of queso fresco. The bowl packed plenty of flavor with none of the added calories of a deep-fried taco bowl or even tortillas. The former Tex-Mex cook in our group (of El Matamoros, back in the day) evaluated the beef enchiladas with chile con carne ($10.25) and said what he always says about any new Tex-Mex joint: "The plates are too dry; they need more sauce."
On a pleasant brunch outing, we liked the huevos rancheros ($9.95) presentation atop a crispy tostada and were impressed with the Stacked Breakfast Enchiladas ($11.95), though I would have preferred the dish had come with the chile con carne listed on the menu, rather than the darker house sauce. The Pork Carnitas Hash ($10.95) was a toothsome tangle of moist, shredded pork under an overly astringent salsa verde, but the overall plate suffered from greasy, undercooked home fries. The pleasant surprise in this meal was the hotcakes ($11.95), fluffy Maseca pancakes garnished with fresh fruit and whipped cream, an appealing Mexican twist on a Southern hoecake. My impression of La Mancha is that the sauces and the menu could still use some tweaking, but the important thing to remember when dining here is that Jorge has definitely left the building.