500 Tacos: Manuel’s

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
10201 Jollyville Road (map), 512-345-1042, www.manuels.com
Hours: 11am-10pm Sun-Thu; 11am-11pm Fri-Sat. Also at: 310 Congress Ave. (map), 512-472-7555
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 04.25.15
Friends invited us to the sprawling, upscale Manuel’s up north for a birthday dinner. I like the loungey vibe of the Manuel's downtown better, but they were paying. So ... north. I mention the birthday only because tacos played the poor country cousin alongside our friends’ more elaborately dressed Mexican dinner party plates. Everything they ordered — a seafood chile relleno, elegantly seared tuna, massive battered shrimp — looked and tasted better than my build-your-own tacos. Even the neighboring table’s sizzling iron platter full of fajitas with a sidecar of beans in a fried tortilla bowl made me feel like I was missing the party, leaving me to conclude that Manuel’s is a good place for dinner — as long as you’re not ordering tacos.
The taco: Fried scallops
The winner by default for tacos at Manuel’s is from the appetizer menu: Baja Taquitos. Served with four full-size tortillas, the “-ito” part of these taquitos is their value-to-price ratio: $12 for a small bowl of popcorn scallops with two little gobs of overdressed purple cabbage. Pile enough of the snack-size bites of unremarkable shellfish together — there’s enough for two tacos at best — and the breading creates a good crunchy contrast to the sweet slaw, but that’s grasping for a high point. A more meaningful stab at ... meaning? At happy hour from 4-6 daily, they’re half-price — as are all the appetizers — suddenly a nice botana to go with a tart house margarita made with Z Tequila or a sweet glass of red wine sangria fortified with Southern Comfort and tequila.
 More tacos: I can’t recommend tacos made with small, dry shrimp cut into extruded ribbons nor tacos made with overcooked shards of underseasoned black drum. ($15-$16 for a do-it-yourself plate with salsa fresca, lettuce, cheese and sides of rice and black beans)
 Meanwhile: The best dish at the table was a roasted poblano pepper filled with a sweet mixture of shrimp, scallops and crab in chile de arbol crema ($24 with rice and black beans). The same crab meat barely made a showing on a plate of overpriced $22 nachos. Two more winners at the table could have come from an American-style bistro rather than a Mexican restaurant: a plate of large, butterflied fried shrimp with sides of pico, guacamole and a mild chile tartar sauce ($26) and a seared tuna steak with mango mint butter ($25), proof that Manuel’s can do better with fish than they do with fish tacos.
 Tortillas: Manuel’s makes its own corn and flour tortillas, barely distinguishable from each other in their pale, full-moon color, size and soft, steamed texture. They come wrapped in yellow paper like party favors.
 Salsa: The table salsa is a sweet, mild tomato red, but the real stuff showed up with the tacos: a chile de arbol with a deeper orange color and a deeper voice with sweet undertones that made its dry heat hurt so good.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)