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.