Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Dim Watt: The cantina-style lighting transports diners to the quintessential Mexican beach town.
Manuel's in Aptos provides a comfortable ambience fit for any gathering
By Selene Latigo
Juliette's birthday was in February and we three remaining co-workers have been trying to take her out ever since. With various vacations, academic endeavors and familial obligations, the last three months have flashed by, dashing all harmonious scheduling attempts until this week. To some, celebrating a birthday this belatedly is as bad as Christmas decorations in June, but I firmly believe that any excuse for a celebration is a good one. Simply because of the ridiculous postponement she endured, Thursday became a whole new "unbirthday" for Juliette, full of candles and special cheer at her destination of choice, Manuel's in Aptos.
Slick, well-worn wooden seating and crowds of diners indicate the popularity of historic precedence here, the few changes, namely a liquor license, only enhancing the loyalty people have to this restaurant and its sister, Jardines de San Juan in San Juan Bautista. Juliette loves it because it is pure comfort food for her, and seeing how densely occupied it was at 6pm, for many others as well. The substantial specials, one for each day of the week, are a main draw, but the heartfelt service, old-fashioned familiarity and dim cantina movie set ambience truly make Manuel's.
The chip bowl was continuously replenished with thin, crisp chips all evening along with thick, zippy blended salsa, almost sweet with concentrated tomato paste flavor. We clinked our goblets of house margaritas ($4.75) with Sauza tequila and lots of puckery lime to acknowledge the occasion and proceeded to select our dinner off the simple menu.
The birthday girl proved to be quite a cheap date with her bean and cheese burrito, a half order at that ($3.50). But for her, creamy refried beans and gooey cheese enrobed in a lightly toasted flour tortilla is a simple pleasure she craves. A side of dark enchilada sauce "dressed up" the medium-size burrito with some savory spice. She also ordered a small house salad ($4.25), uniquely Manuel's with a dressing of guacamole, red wine vinaigrette, a dusting of Parmesan and garbanzo beans.
Maria also ordered off the a la carte section but her chicken flautas ($5.50) were much smaller in portion than expected for a full order. The two, cigar-shaped fried corn tortillas encased seasoned chicken and had a generous amount of guacamole and sour cream on top. The never-ending bowl of chips aided in making this a complete meal for her.
Netta and I, on the other hand, went ahead full force in our dedication to the combination plate experience. Ample in size, the plates arrived hot and steaming with huge scoops of flavorful rice and beans. Netta's ($10.25) tamale was wide and split open to reveal tender pork and a coating of rich, chile-spiked sauce that aided to remedy the dryness of the masa. Her chicken taco was in a crisp shell and bursting with moist, shredded dark meat. Usually one to opt for white meat, she was surprised at how much she enjoyed the taco and felt that the dark meat contributed a more complex level. She also ordered a side of guacamole ($4) that was somewhat bland and thin, without much personality.
I ordered a chile relleno and enchilada combo ($10.50) with some special requests that were quickly affirmed by our sweet server. However, the verde sauce preparation of my cheese enchilada was so sparse it was almost indiscernible except for the specks of pork from the chile verde that must have been spooned over the top. I probably would have gone the traditional route if I had known that this would be the method. My whole beans were slightly overcooked but seasoned well and sprinkled with melted cheese. The chile relleno had a nice ratio of fluffy egg to green chile and cheese, if a bit soggy from the steam of the hot plate, and covered in a stewed sauce of chunky tomato, onions and chiles that perked up all the other items as well.
Slipping away quietly, Netta performed the birthday candle inquiry and soon after a tower of ice cream arrived, along with singing and a wish. No matter how late the actual ceremony, blowing out the candle seals the deal for true birthday honor. The Mexican chocolate ice cream ($2.75) was earthy with cinnamon and packed with bits of chocolate and walnuts. It was a perfect endnote to this long awaited party in a fittingly cheerful locale.
Address: 261 Center Ave., Aptos
Hours: 11:30am-midnight Mon-Sat, 11:30am-11pm Sun
Price Range: $3-$15.
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