Review: Manuel's

How can a place so popular get away with such iffy service?

We hear about Manuel’s in many a radio commercial break, it seems, and we’ve cheered their frequent promotional activities like fundraising CD releases and concert sponsorships. And it’s always nice to find half-price appetizers and drink specials during happy hours (4-7 every day and 10:30-midnight Friday and Saturday) and hot sauce with a nifty peppery afterbite that doesn’t kill the taste buds before dinner.

But when the bartender pans other Texas cities just because they’re not Austin, then serves us watery cocktails, we’re not amused. When a waiter dilutes one of our appetizers with the famous Watermelon margarita, then forgets to replace it until well into the entree course, we stop smiling altogether. And when our check arrives with several mistakes, we must protest. Still, we understand why the customers keep coming.

Much of what Manuel’s serves is very tasty. So’s the jazz at Sunday brunch, though it’s a tad loud. So go and enjoy, if this is your kind of place. Just be prepared....

Back to the food. Those frequent radio commercials tout three "specialties": the watermelon margarita, the flautas, and the fajitas. All three were fine, but they were far from our favorite orders. (I admit that having been served a lot of watermelon juice as part of a three-day fast may have sent me off the margarita. It tasted like spiked watermelon juice, which is fine if that’s what you want.)

The Flautas de Papas ($6.95) earn extra points for being grilled, not deep-fried, but were unexciting with potato filling. Try the fresh chicken variety ($7.95) instead. The sizzling Fajitas (chicken or beef; $8.95 to serve one; $15.95 for two) also were OK, but nothing special. Through brunch and dinner, we were happiest with the Campechana (6.25), a ceviche-like, Snap-E-Tom-spicy appetizer of poached fish, shrimp avocado, tomato and onion, and the Enchiladas de Jaiba ($12.95) filled with crab and topped with verde or creamy suiza sauce. (Go with your preference of sauce; both worked for us.) The Chile Relleno de Elote ($8.95) comes recommended, too: a toasted poblano pepper with sauteed corn, garlic and cilantro, topped with white cheese.

From the more standard fare, we tried Nachos, Gorditas and Sopa de Tortilla, and the Nachos won our vote. Manuel’s offers five varieties, from $5.95 black bean to $8.95 fresh lump crab, For brunch, try the unusual Huevos Motulenos ($5.95), with fried eggs and black beans sandwiched in a couple of flour tortillas and topped with ham and peas. Another special egg dish, Huevos Revueltos ($4.95), was a tad too generous with its scramble of venison chorizo. Though not completely overpowering, this dish is not for the faint of heart.

The three desserts we tried were all worth the rush: the very sweet Flan ($3.25); the Mango Parfait ($2.95); and my favorite, the Budin de Chocolate ($3.50), described as a bittersweet chocolate bread pudding, but in reality a warm, nutty brownie surrounded by whipped crema. Fortunately, they all came through as very sweet endings to our spicy, tumultuous meals.

--Betsy Thaggard

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