Full Plate

dining_manuelsA repertoire of Mexican sauces and neighborly atmosphere has made Manuel’s an enduring Aptos treasure

For more than 45 years the Santanas have shared their family’s traditional Mexican recipes with their Aptos neighbors. Recently renovated, the interior is as cheerful as the staff, and the flavorful foods are filling.

We kicked off dinner with crisp, house-fried tortilla chips and Manuel’s legendary cooked, puréed salsa; well-spiced with cumin and chilies. It is so good that the kitchen bottles it for sale at the restaurant and markets such as Shopper’s Corner.

Manuel’s has a surprising local wine selection and glasses ($4.50) and bottles ($17) of house wines also. From the full bar domestic and imported beers ($3.50/$4.25) join glasses and pitchers of margaritas ($5.75/$15.75) plus Mango or Strawberry ritas ($5.95/$15.75).

The restaurant’s combination plates with rice and beans range from Huevos Rancheros ($9.50) to Chile Verde or Colorado ($11.75). There

is also a nightly regional dinner special ($15.95—reservations recommended) which on Sundays is Mole Poblano, while Wednesdays feature Enchiladas Tropicales.

To experience the menu’s breadth we ordered à la carte. The half-size Manuel’s Salad ($4.50) with iceberg lettuce, garbanzos, black olives and tomatoes, was topped with blended avocado. The side of sharp Italian red wine vinaigrette was flecked with chili flakes.

A pancake-sized Chili Relleno ($5.50), stuffed with thick white cheese was coated in fluffy egg batter, fried until tanned, and smothered with chunky tomato and green pepper Ranchera salsa.

I was taken aback by the size of the Crab and Shrimp Tostada ($11.25) which was presented in a large, fried flour tortilla bowl. Crisp lettuce and a layer of large shrimps and crab meat lay under tomatoes, soft avocado slices, sharp red onions and red and green bell peppers. It was served with a side of delicious, creamy, Louis dressing.

Two tubular Flautas ($5.95), thickly coated with blended avocado, rest upon a bed of lettuce with tomatoes and sour cream. The crunchy corn tortilla shells were stuffed with lean chicken breast.

A Cheese Enchilada ($4.75) was bathed in smoky red sauce, slightly spicy with bits of onion.

Seasoned beef was encased in soft, dense cornmeal masa in the Tamale ($4.75). Its brick red sauce, different from that on the enchilada, packed just enough heat.

Weekday lunch specials include six single-item plates ($6.50 to $7.50) such as a chicken Chimichanga with rice, and a quesadilla with rice and beans, as well as hearty Pozole soup with a salad and Chile Colorado or verde ($7.25) with rice and beans.

Long a fan of green sauce, I enjoyed Manuel’s rendition of Chile Verde. Tender chunks of meat fell easily into strips in a mild pepper and onion sauce. The refried beans were pale and creamy.

For dessert, chilled flan ($4.25) was topped with whipped cream. As a soothing finale, the smooth molded custard sat in a puddle of caramel-flavored syrup.

Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant, 261 Center Ave., Aptos, 688-4848. Full Bar. Open daily at 11:30 a.m., closing at midnight Monday through Saturday and 11 p.m. Sunday. Visit manuelsrestaurant.com

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