Manuel's
Dining Reviews

Manuel’s Offers Festive Atmosphere and Consistently Good Mexican

Plus a tribute to Dexter Ahlgren, and a successful Sustain Supper for Homeless Garden Project

Leonardo and Patricia Santana, owners of Manuel’s, at the bar

Landmark margaritas and incomparable atmosphere continue to make Manuel’s a destination for devoted locals and adventurous visitors. I’ve been coming to Manny’s since the first week I arrived in Santa Cruz a few decades back. It was great then. And it’s great now. One of the rare restaurants to deliver exactly what you remembered, it has stayed the same even though so many  other places changed, morphed or declined.

Filled, no, make that packed, with a happy and vivacious crowd last week, Manny’s made us feel right at home. Seated under the portrait of John Tuck painted by founder Manuel Santana, Melody and I each immediately ordered a house Top Shelf Margarita ($9.75)—a hefty and complex creation of triple sec, Cointreau, and tequila—and checked out the menu. Yes, all of the famous chiles, tacos, burritos, and entree specials were still where we left them. But Melody only had eyes for the justly famed chile relleno dinner, a landscape of melted cheese over eggy chiles, with rice and sensuous refried beans ($14). My à la carte order of a carne asada taco ($6.50) and a quesadilla filled with shredded chicken, tomatoes, peppers, and cheese ($6.75) proved—like those gargantuan chile rellenos—enough for a World Cup after party. Thick slices of grilled beef filled the soft, warm tortillas, to which I applied the sour cream and pico de gallo adorning the side of my plate. I’m a fool for a quesadilla, and these delicious gooey wedges of filled tortillas were exactly the partners for the smoky, salty margarita. You’ve got a choice here: fill up on chips, salsa, and drinks and then take your dinner home for another day. Or, exercise restraint with the chips and do justice to the fine cooking. We managed to aim somewhere in between. The service here is always warm, friendly, and fast. After more than 50 years, Manuel’s continues to earn its happy reputation. Lucky folks who live in South County. The family-owned treasure is their neighborhood haunt. And it’s open late! Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant, 261 Center Ave., Aptos. Daily 11:30 a.m.-Midnight, and 11 p.m. on Sunday.

Tribute to Ahlgren

Raise a glass to one of the movers and shakers of our Santa Cruz Mountains wine region—the late Dexter Ahlgren—at a Harvest Dinner in his honor, Aug. 19, 4-9 p.m. Ahlgren, who died this past April was founder of Ahlgren Family Vineyards, was also a founding member of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association, and helped put our viticultural region on the international map. Join friends and fellow winemakers at Deer Park Ranch, home to Lester Estate Wines, for an all-star evening of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay tasting, followed by a bountiful farm-to-table dinner prepared by chef Brad Briske of HOME restaurant in Soquel. You’ll be sure to hear a few tales about the colorful winemaker. Tickets $150, available at the SCMWA website.

Sustain Supper Sensations

Congratulations to the organizers of the recent al fresco dinner to honor the Homeless Garden Project. Congressman Jimmy Panetta described the follies in Washington while we enjoyed a wonderful succession of courses, starting with Cafe Cruz chef Steve Wilson’s delightful appetizers, and a fabulous chicken confit over black bean feijoada with orange balsamic reduction sauce from Peter Henry of the Cremer House. Equally enchanting was an unusual zucchini lemon cake with roast strawberries from Aubergine’s Yulanda Santos. Gorgeous food, lots of progressive honchos in attendance—vibrant company.

Wine of the Week

La Honda’s 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Sauvignon Blanc. The first of the 2017s and it is delightful. New wine! Crisp with limestone, lemongrass, and kiwi fruit. 13.5 percent alcohol. Utterly refreshing. $22ish. Everywhere.

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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