(Disclaimer: Manuel's Mexican Food is a place I have been eating at since I was a small Chadwick. In the spirit of honest disclosure, I am letting you know this so you can judge my review accordingly.)
For many years, the battle over good Mexican food in East Phoenix was between two giants. At 42nd Street and Indian School, the Tee Pee Tap Room was first on the scene with an old stone house converted into a restaurant. The world's largest Chile Rellenos, lots of beer and some sports program on the television made this place a hot spot in the Arcadia District.
Not too long after, a small strip mall at 32nd Street and Indian School was built and in the far northwest corner of the mall, a small Mexican food restaurant opened it's doors. Manuel's was born and the battle between the two began. There were always debates over which was better. Manuel's won the hot sauce war, but couldn't touch those Chile Rellenos. Then, one day, something odd happened. A second Manuel's opened up just three blocks from the first Manuel's. This was in a free standing building at the corner of 28th Street and Indian School.
There was confusion. East Phoenix was in turmoil. What did it mean? Apparently, some family strife had competing sides of the family battling for the heart and soul of "Manuel's." Ultimately, it came down to the issue of whether you wanted a plain place to have a meal or something a bit more fancy. Conventional wisdom was that the original Manuel's was slightly better than the new one.
As with all things, however, some amends were made and the original closed several years ago. The newer Manuel's is still operating to plenty of business. Thus, begins my review.
Madge and Boris were a bit peckish on a Sunday afternoon and asked me to join them for lunch. We all had a taste for some Mexican food and decided to go to Manuel's. Although it was Sunday, the parking lot was still quite busy and we had a very short wait before being seated in the non-smoking section of the dining room. (There are dining tables in the bar for smokers.)
We were there for only a moment before one of the bussing staff brough out a couple of bowls of chips, hot sauce and salsa. The chips were crisp and fresh, but I wished they had been heated. The hot sauce was tomatoey, slightly spicy and salty. The salsa was very fresh and cold. It also had a slightly sweet taste to it which was a nice contrast to the hot sauce.
We reviewed the menus and knew what we wanted. Our waiter came to take our drink order, but we decided to place our food order as well. Madge ordered the Hawaiian Pork Tacos ($10.25) and a soda ($2.15). Boris opted for one of the lunch specials and decided on the El Pollo Fundido ($6.95) and some iced tea ($2.15). While I normally get the combo plate of taco, tostada and enchilada, I really was craving something different, so I went with the #2 Combination ($9.10) which consisted of a shredded beef taco and a Green Enchilada with sour cream. I also got my Diet Coke ($2.15). We also decided to start our meal with an extra crispy Cheese Crisp ($4.95).
The place was fairly busy and our bus staff kept our water and soda glasses full including bringing a couple of carafes of soda and iced tea for the table. We munched on chips and salsa and I got to hear all about Madge and Boris' weekend. (I noticed that Madge's neck had been playing with the curling iron again!)
Our extra crispy cheese crisp arrived and the scent of bubbling, melting cheese sent my stomach into fits. The appetizer was piping hot and we literally burned our fingers getting a piece. The cheese was stringy and the tortilla was very crisp, making a great crunchy sound upon my first bite. It was delicious. Now, I know some would wonder how you could ruin a tortilla and cheese. Trust me. There are some God-awful cheese crisps out there that look like they were microwaved. But this was really quite good and we scarfed down each piece, dousing it with either sauce or salsa. Madge and Boris were also quite happy with the crisp.
We had just finished the last slice when our entree plates arrived. Each was super hot and we were given the standard warning of "Careful. These plates are hot." My enchilada was still sizzling away. While I was allowing that to cool, I spooned some sauce into my taco and took my bite. Ouch. Hot. Hot. Hot. Several sips of soda later and I was fine.
I waited a few moments and attempted the taco attack again. It was much cooler now. The shredded meat was tender, but could have used a bit more seasoning. The tortilla shell was pretty good, but had gotten a bit soggy from the heat of the plate and enchilada. The lettuce and cheese were cold and balanced out the taco.
I smeared the sour cream over the green enchilada before attempting my first bite. Learning my lesson from the taco, I cut a piece of the enchilada with my fork, blew on it to cool it down and took my first bite. The corn tortilla had been filled with ground beef (again, could have had a bit more seasoning) and then covered with a green chile enchilada sauce. The sour cream gave the bite a nice soothing quality. The enchilada was very good, however, I think you absolutely need the sour cream to really make the enchilada. The rice that accompanied the meal was standard. The portion size was very large, though.
Madge was thoroughly enamored with the thought of a Hawaiian Pork Taco. She knew she wanted to try them the minute she saw them. I told her that my roommate Dave loves these things, so she ordered them. She was very glad she did.
Two corn tortillas were filled with a combination of marinated pork cubes, sauteed onions and pineapple chunks. They were then wrapped in aluminum foil cozies for the trip from the kitchen. Madge opened the first one and put a bit of sauce on it and took her first bite. She was fairly silent before declaring them "wonderful." The tacos were served with a variety of toppings including a pineapple-chile chutney, chopped cilantro, and a spicy salsa. Madge loves Pico de Gallo sauce, so she ordered that to go along with her meal. Rice and ranchero beans were also served with her meal in little tortilla cups.
Madge loved the tacos for their flavor, but felt the rice was institutional and the beans were not so good. However, she said the tacos made amends for the failure of the rice and beans. The pork was tender and the pineapple chunks had been seared a bit while cooking giving them a nice dimension.
Boris was busy waiting for his El Pollo Fundido to cool. His fundido was a large flour tortilla filled with a shredded chicken mixture and then topped with a green chile sauce and cream cheese. Boris took his first bite and said the flavor was good. The chicken was tender and the sauce was spicy while the cream cheese added a solid change to the dish.
He also felt the rice was okay, but he did like the refried beans that had been topped with melted cheese.
Service was quick and attentive and I was pleased with the carafes of drinks on the tables. I was, however, a bit put off when they started vacuuming the floor in the dining room while we were eating. I could have understood if there was a particular problem at one table, but they vacuumed the entire carpet, including around our feet.
We finished our meals, stuffed to the gills, and paid the bill. The total was $41.56 including tax. The restaurant was fairly empty when we left, but we had very few complaints.
As I said in my disclaimer, I have been eating at Manuel's for decades and have only had a few bad meals. Most of the time when I go to the location at 28th and Indian School, I see some of the same faces of patrons. Manuel's food is not going to win any James Beard awards, but it is solid comfort food.
Madge and Boris, when they aren't fiddling with curling irons, would agree.
Manuel's Mexican Food
2820 East Indian School Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Notes: Other locations in the Valley, including North Phoenix and Glendale.