Manuel's Downtown

(Austin, TX) — Our Texas vacation is drawing to a close. Austin has proven to be a mecca for creative cuisine, and it is with some sadness that we must choose our final dinner venue since our flight leaves very early the next morning. After some deliberation, we realize we have yet to try “Tex-Mex”. Nearby is a place called Manuel’s Downtown which is known for regional Mexican cooking and actually popped up on a friend’s recommended list. We bundle up and head out...

He Fed:

The first thing I notice is one of the neon lights has burned out on their sign. It makes me uneasy. We check in at the hostess station and are then led back to the dining room. Where other diners are sitting tells me all I need to know: this is one of those restaurants who like to cram in the guests for maximum occupancy and server efficiency. That’s fine, and it’s a valid business process, but I don’t want to sit at a small table next to the large family with children. We ask the hostess if we can shift over to one of the empty booths adjacent? No. Those are reserved. Fair enough, we take our seats. (The booths remains empty for nearly all the time we spend there, and then only one of them is occupied when we leave. This does not make me happy.)

The family next to us is clearly recovering from sickness. They cough and sneeze. Ugh. Juliet and I look at each other, consider getting up and trying another venue. However, the family is wrapping up their meal and soon is gone. Meanwhile, our overworked and distracted waiter takes our drink order. Initially, he forgets which beer I requested; later, though, he warms up and we discuss Mexican beers at length.

The complimentary chips and salsa are good, but nothing special. I tend to like thicker, chunky salsa and theirs is more “juicy”. We must try their guacamole, though. It comes to the table looking like a cockatoo, homemade guac nestled in a hand-crafted mini taco shell bowl. Pomegranate seeds are artfully scattered around the edges of the plate, but they do add a touch of sweetness. Juliet and I playfully fight over the last few bites of the creamy, slightly spicy avocado. Yum!

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chile relleno, and Manuel’s offers several varieties. The Chile Relleno de Nogada has my name written all over it, with shredded pork, almond, and raisin picadillo stuffed into a roasted poblano, then baked and topped with walnut cream brandy sauce. When it arrives, I have to do a double-take. The presentation is like a Rorschach painting with a certain languid, erotic repose. For a brief moment, I don’t know whether to eat it or make love to it. Bright red pomegranate seeds are sprinkled on top and the pepper sprawls in a heart-shaped pool of black bean puree. An island of buttery white rice offers sanctuary. My fork goes to work. I am thrilled by the sweet heat and sensual textures, pork and pepper married so well together by the nutty sauce.

Despite a free platter of fresh fruit—banana, cantaloupe, pineapple, watermelon—I have no room left. Manuel’s proves to be an uneven experience, with awkward service and seating, but outstanding fresh food preparation. We pay, then head back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep before winging our way home in the morning.
She Fed:

I don’t know about you, but when I’m travelling on a long vacation and everything goes according to plan, I get a little nervous. Our airline travel to Austin was uneventful. The two hotels we stayed in were as pretty much as expected. (The DoubleTree Suites being surprisingly nicer and much cleaner than Barton Creek Resort, in our experience.) We rarely got lost driving or walking to any of our destinations. Nearly every meal we had was tasty and the majority of the service solid. We slept too much, ate too much, and imbibed too much; it was the perfect vacation.

Unfortunately, our last dinner in town is at Manuel’s, home of “fabulous Mexican food and epic margaritas,” we are told. When we arrive, the interior is light and airy with beautiful people sipping martinis at low tables and trendy music playing softly in the background. We are shown to a table in the dining room next door and it’s an abrupt change, darker and much noisier. The hostess offers us a table squashed right next to a table of three adults and five children. The family gives a look like we’ve just spoiled a surprise party, so I quietly ask if there’s any chance we could be seated at one of the booths on the other side of the room. The hostess looks flummoxed and stumbles over her words as she explains the booths are reserved for parties of four. No worries, we assure her taking our seats. The adults stare as Jeremy is forced to move the youngest girl’s coloring books and hat over to their side of the banquette so he has room to sit. At which point the little girl begins to cry.

Yuck—each page of the menu is sticky and several members of the family next to us are sneezing and coughing. I lean in to suggest making a run for it to go find a taco truck, when our server appears asking what we’d like to drink. He’s super peppy for someone who works in a place with sticky menus. My escape plan up in smoke, I nervously order a Dos Equis. We split an order of guacamole sprinkled with pomegranate seeds which give the dish a sweet little bite.

When our entrees arrive, they’re presented with a plate of sliced fresh fruit—pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, and banana—which is beautiful and a really nice touch. I’ve ordered the shrimp flautas with a lime crema. The shrimp is overcooked and incredibly tough, while the rice is undercooked with crunchy grains showing up now and again. I know we’ve got cheese and crackers in the room, so I ignore my entree and dig in to the fruit.

We notice twosome after twosome being seated in the row of booths we requested, while one booth sits empty during our entire visit. We hurriedly finish and leave. Maybe we caught them on an off night or maybe this is the place to come have margaritas and chips before dinner elsewhere.

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