Manuel’s restaurant resides firmly in my memory as being nothing short of genius.It was a clean, modern, hip restaurant with neon signage, concrete floors, black booths and cloth napkins in the days when Mexican restaurants were styled with red and green flags and usually adorned with the smell of refried beans and slightly rancid oil.
When Manuel's opened in 1984 in Austin, Texas, Hubby and I were fortunate to live very close by in our Travis Heights cottage by Town Lake, just minutes from downtown and the pleasures of Manuel's.
I don’t think there was a Manuel; at least we never met him or heard about him. It didn’t matter that there wasn't a Manuel because the restaurant was perfect that we never missed him. It was so perfect that Manuel’s is still there today, thirty years later in the same location on Congress Avenue. Sadly, I haven’t dined there in over twenty years, but an online menu shows that my favorite dish, the chile relleno unlike any other, is still being served.
Manuel's spoke to me, offering culinary experience, not just sustenance. There was often live music playing. The bar in the back had blenders whizzing making delicious margaritas served without umbrellas. Hubby and I met fun and interesting people there. And amidst all that loveliness, all that great service and style, the highlight was still the food.
While traditional chile rellenos are stuffed with cheese, battered and fried, the Manuel’s version was stuffed with sauteed corn and and baked with a piece of cheese on top and served in a tangy tomato sauce. I’ll be the first to admit that if recovering from a hangover, a traditional relleno can nurse the pain with it’s heavy batter and fat-filled spiciness. But since hangovers have never been my specialty, I loved the Manuel’s version with the fresh crunch of sweet corn inside a spicy roasted chile with lovely mild cheese on top. I salivate when writing about it.
Hubby and I discovered Manuel’s at it's very beginning. It opened next door to a bar on Congress Avenue that we went to on occasion for a very special beer. I was never a huge fan of beer and only liked very light ones that were more like water. But this beer was different. It was light and refreshing and had a hint of citrus flavor. It was called Hoegaarten White and the bar on Congress Avenue was the only place we had ever seen it. It was not available in liquor stores so we went to the bar just for that beer. The first time we visited the bar, Hubby, who liked to try new beers, ordered one. His immediate reaction was to tell me, “You need to try this beer. You will like it.” Hubby was right and so a couple of times a month we would head down to the bar on Congress for a beer. One night, we saw the neon sign for the new restaurant next door. We peeked in and it looked so inviting we had to try it.
For a decade after we moved away, we traveled back to Austin, never getting quite enough of Manuel's to satisfy. One of our favorite friends from our time in Austin (and still a favorite friend today) even brought a Manuel's special delivery to New York for us!
Knowing how much we missed the delicious flavors, our friend Henry asked the owners if they could pack up some special meals, with all the sauces separate, in a cooler that Henry could carry on the airplane, back in the days when you could carry onto an airplane whatever you could hold. We knew nothing of this until he arrived. The car dropped him off and drove away. Before even greeting us, Henry panicked and started yelling at the car. The cooler was still in the car! I cannot remember the details of what happened next, but he somehow got in touch with the car company, who contacted the driver, and within an hour, the cooler had returned. Meanwhile, Henry had told us what was in the cooler and we waited in great anticipation, praying our treat would return.
My version of the baked relleno was created long after we moved away from Austin, and away from New York. We moved to Mexico City, Mexico, in 1991 and although we were surrounded with the delicious sights and tastes of Mexican food, I still sometimes craved my Manuels Chiles. The ingredients were readily available and so I started experimenting.
I don't know if I have come close to the perfection of the original dish from Manuels. It has been too many years to trust my taste memory. But I love the clean flavors of my baked rellenos that were inspired by Manuel's. Even more, I relish the memory surrounding the flavors. Eating my baked chile rellanos reminds me of my days as a young newlywed, living in Austin and eating at Manuel’s with my new Hubby.
“Marriage is a mosaic you build with your spouse. Millions of tiny moments that create your love story.” -Jennifer Smith
Manuel's Baked Chile Rellenos 8 Poblano Chiles, roasted and peeled* 1/2 pound queso fresco (available at Mexican markets) sliced into 1/4' pieces
For Filling: 1 T high heat canola oil 3 T butter 6 cobs sweet corn, cut off the cob or 4 cups frozen corn 2T finely chopped shallots 3/4 cup chopped yellow onion 1 tsp salt 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro 1/4 tsp pepper 1 T lemon juice Put canola oil and butter in a saute pan over medium high heat. Stir in corn, shallots and onions. Saute 3-5 minutes until no liquid remains in pan. Remove from heat and add cilantro, pepper and lemon juice. Mix well.
For Salsa: 2 lbs ripe roma tomatoes, cut into quarters 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped 1/2 medium onion, quartered 2-3 serrano chiles, cut in half, stems and seeds removed 1 tsp salt 1 tsp sugar 2 T avocado oil Put everything except avocado oil on a baking sheet and roast at 500 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool 5 minutes or more. Scrape everything into a large blender, being sure to get all juices. (If you are concerned about level of spice, set aside the serrano chiles and add one at a time to test spice level.) Puree well. Stream in the oil and taste. If you still want more spice, you can add raw serrano in pieces until your desired level is achieved. I find 3 serranos to be medium hot.
Place your roasted and peeled chiles in a baking pan in a single layer. Spoon filling into each chile carefully to fill the chile completely. Mold the chile around the filling to almost close the slit. Place the slices of cheese the length of the chile. Pour desired amount of salsa around the bottom of the pan and drizzle a bit on top of the cheese. You may have some left over. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30-45 minutes until salsa is bubbling and cheese is melted. You can make the salsa and roast and stuff the chiles a day prior to serving. Bring to room temperature before baking and keep salsa separate until ready to bake.
*There are many methods to roast chiles and you can see demonstrations on the internet but here is my method, taught to me by my housekeeper in Mexico and refined over my years of roasting. Lay the chiles over a high flame on a gas range. Let the flame burn the skin. Using tongs, rotate and turn the chiles until all sides are blackened. Cool for just a couple minutes and then put the blackened chiles into a plastic bag. Close the bag so the chiles steam inside. Leave at least 15 minutes. Remove chiles from bag and using a paper towel, rub off the blackened skin, carefully so as not to tear the skin. Make a vertical slit in each chile and cut/pull out the seeds, leaving the stem in tact.