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A Relleno in Every Pot

[whitespace] Diego Lopez
Robert Scheer

Manny of the Moment: Executive chef Diego Lopez hoists a merlot to celebrate his 17 years of cooking at Manuel's.

An outing to Aptos starts with a stroll on the beach and ends with margaritas and dinner at the legendary Manuel's

By Christina Waters

THE PORTRAIT OF John Tuck was still hanging exactly where it was the last time I visited Manuel's, exactly where it has been for the 25 years that have rolled by since owner/artist Manuel Santana painted it. Thank God some things endure, I thought, licking the salt from the rim of a refreshing, lime-saturated margarita, also one of the many reliable things about Manny's. A legend from the moment it opened some three decades ago, Manuel's has offered aid, comfort and an undeniably bohemian ambiance to legions of summer visitors, hard-core regulars and neighborhood pop-ins.

The dark, split-level interior still makes its own uncompromising statement. The tiny entrance bar is still packed with boisterous diners waiting for their tables. The service is still swift and friendly, and the aromas wafting from the tiled kitchen are incredible.

I've been coming here for the chile rellenos and refried beans since my good friend Meri Tassano waited tables here during a time longer ago than either of us would care to confess. And the chile rellenos and refried beans still lived up to my memories. Even better, they made a new, true believer of my youthful companion Bianca, who wasn't even born the first time I came to Manny's.

California guacamole, that's what Bianca called the playfully frothy green avocado dip ($3.25) that arrived along with more chips and a sassy, tomatoey salsa. Watching the light travel along the tilework framing a cabinet of Oaxacan artwork, I realized that Manny's has become a legend just by doing what it does with a consistent touch. Nothing varies. Nothing surprises. Nothing--well, almost nothing--disappoints.

Maybe I should have gently steered Bianca in the direction of some of the house specialties when we ordered instead of letting her wander into something rather mundane like a dinner-sized chicken tostada ($6.50). Seemed like a good idea at the time, yet it turned out to be a monument to lettuce, lettuce and more lettuce. "Lettuce-intensive, isn't it?" she murmured politely, as I gave her a bit of my chile relleno ($4.75).

I just beamed motherly as her eyes rolled back in her head. "Whoa, that's great!" she said, stabbing at the molten core of cheese oozing from a tasty poblano chile that had been completely bathed in an ethereal egg batter. Rich, yet light, and moistened by a surrounding pool of broth--topped by onions and tomatoes--this is one of the destination dishes of Santa Cruz County. It also comes with its own little crowning tableau of sour cream, tomato, black olive and shredded iceberg. This is a major meal, a sure-fire triumph of Mexico-meets- California consciousness, and for the price of some fast-food sodium orgy with fries.

Meanwhile, on my other plate--well, actually a platter the size of the Hollywood Bowl--was another of those trademark dishes that Manuel's uses to lure and keep customers. The chile verde--slow-cooked, luscious, moisture-intensive pork laced with green chiles and tomatillo--simply put, is to die for. Bianca agreed, voting with her fork early and often.

I beamed some more, keeping guard so that the Biancan fork didn't make too many visits to this sacred shrine. After all, it was technically my dinner. What the hay, I'm making a convert, I thought, opening the gates of my plate, metaphorically, to Bianca's appreciation. So we worked our way through the succulent pork. Slowly. Sipping a bit of margarita now and then and soaking up the Seacliff beach vibes. Good vibes.

Meanwhile, back at the chile verde, we were also charmed by some of the finest refried beans on the planet--creamy, tasty, a signature dish that pretty much can't be improved upon this side of Zihua. Even the Spanish rice--a dish I once considered downright annoying--receives expert treatment here, its flavor distinctive, nutty.

"Each dish really tastes distinct, not muddy or generic," Bianca observed, getting into the restaurant reviewing swing.

I just beamed. Manny's--a girl's best friend.

Address: 261 Center Ave., Seacliff, Aptos
Phone: 408/688-4848
Entrees: Moderate
Hours: Dinner nightly 5pm-midnight
Cuisine: **1/2 Consistently good flavor and caring execution of straightforward Mexican and Cali-Mex standards
Ambiance: *** One of the most comfy beach/boho scenes in the county
Service: *** Friendly, swift and helpful
Overall: Manuel's is a legend in its own time--good food, yeah, but even more than that, it's a consistent haven of warm attitude.

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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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