Buzz past Manny's Uptown Tex-Mex Restaurante during prime time on a Saturday night, and you'll likely glimpse a chaotic scene. Hungry would-be diners mob the entry waiting for a table. They loiter in clusters on the lawn, bump elbows at the bar and mill about the patio. Sometimes people wait an hour or two just for the chance to order tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, tamales...
You can pick those up virtually anywhere, but even on a Sunday evening we frittered 20 minutes at the service bar before a place opened near a crying baby, which added a constant, annoying falsetto backdrop to an already noisy room. Popularity can be downright aggravating to those participating in the frenzy. In fact, by our second visit, Robert Leckie's classic description of an unexpected firefight on Guadalcanal groaned to life from some dank chamber storing graduate-school memories. "This was no orchestration," he wrote. "Here was dissonance; here was wildness; here was the absence of rhythm...here was booming, sounding, shrieking, wailing, hissing, crashing, shaking, gibbering noise."
Let's reemphasize this: two-hour waits for regional comfort food.
A person can accomplish quite a bit in a couple of hours. Sit through the first half of an Oliver Stone film, perhaps. Or commute downtown from Lewisville. It's even possible to hop back in the car and drive a few minutes up Central Expressway to Chuy's, eat and return to join friends for a drink. So why invest a good portion of your waking hours standing around in a deafening space watching others fork down combo plates?
The extensive menu includes dishes familiar to fans of Mia's, prepared by former Mia's chef Javier Hernandez, so it's reasonable to expect flawless execution. Our visits revealed a kitchen capable of broaching the upper limits of Tex-Mex but one that stumbles badly at times, perhaps under duress from the crush of popularity.
Carne asada was the highlight the first evening. Beautiful slices of marinated rib eye, charred to a near-black crust on the outside with a still-pink center, sit on a plate of rice alongside superb guacamole and a modest pico de gallo reeking of cilantro. The dish contrasts the satisfying burst of salt and flavors transferred from the grill with rich and tender beef, everything else serving as a backdrop. Our third trip featured a standout from the short "chef's specialties" list. Paul's Chef Special is a pale yellow tar pit of Monterey Jack and a fez of mild Spanish rice. Don't be put off by the odd presentation. Under the goo sits a grilled chicken breast topped by sour cream. The almost sweet combination of tangy cream and buttery cheese provides a point of reference for the smoky edge of the meat, a contraposition that enhances the bolder flavors. An appetizer of melted Monterey Jack with mushrooms, onions and poblano peppers known as hongos con queso got the second visit off to a welcome start. It's a mellow sauce cooked down to the consistency of pancake batter which coats, but does not obscure, the other elements. Very filling and probably harmful to long-term health if taken in Morgan Spurlock doses.
You know, the guy from Super Size Me.
An important piece of advice, though: Leave the lid on the tortilla container. Although tortillas are fundamental to Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking, Manny's undercuts its efforts by wrapping things in inferior breads resembling the stuff sitting in plastic bags on grocery shelves. Their corn tortillas, when steamed, leave an unpleasant sensation in the mouth, comparable to the flavor of boiled dishrag. Corn tortillas fouled the spicy cowboy tacos. Sunset beef fajitas were overcooked but salvaged by caramelized vegetables and cilantro-laden sunset sauce--until covered by flour tortillas. The wrenching, industrial taste permeates everything it touches. Flour tortillas don't improve things by conveying a dry and salty essence. They offset an otherwise thin and light spinach quesadilla appetizer. From notes on the experience: "Geez, the salt."
Other dishes showed signs of a kitchen under tremendous strain. Brisket enchiladas should be intense and tender. On our second visit, as lines built up outside and people knotted at the bar called out increasingly anxious inquiries to waitstaff, the meat was overcooked and dry. Tamales that same night featured a dense and slightly sweet masa. Good start. Again, however, the meat filling was parched, and a heavy hand on the chili powder shaker was evident in the layer of chili con carne covering the dish.
Generally, service matters more than food. To cope with the crowds, Manny's hired additional waitstaff and, for the moment, the inexperience shows. During our second visit, two waiters vied for our attention and interrupted six or seven times regarding drinks and appetizers before we ever ordered entrees. Neither bothered to clear our appetizer plates before main courses arrived. By the time waiter No. 2 arrived with the entrees, dirty plates, empty beer bottles and laminated menus littered our table. You know guys, though. Bachelors tend to leave dishes piled in the sink for days before flicking on the hot water and grabbing some soap, so the sight probably didn't bother him. He simply pushed the detritus out of the way--with the entrees, mind you--and hurried away. Earlier in the evening, we asked one about the beer selection. His response: "Bud Light, Coors Light, everything." We ordered Heineken. He stepped over to the bar, and we overheard "no Heineken." Guess they don't carry everything. The first time we stopped in, a companion returned a glass of funky wine. A quick check of the bar tab, however, revealed a double charge for the replacement drink. After some discussion they settled the issue and we asked that another glass be brought out with the entrees. Instead of heeding our request, the waiter returned immediately with the next round. In a champagne flute. Service problems, ranging from a failure to refill tea glasses to a 15-minute wait for the receipt, spoiled the experience for a companion on a third visit.
She vowed never to return.
All the confusion, the noise and inconsistent meals happens in a tidy cottage that formerly housed Rooster and Guthrie's. No need to change the infrastructure, just a dab of paint--earth tones brought to life by bright decorations--a bit of landscaping and some restoration work on the hardwood floors. Minus the crowds it's an inviting space.
No reason to tweak classic recipes much, either. They've been in the family since proprietor Manny Rios' father first stepped behind a frying pan and the restaurant strives for nothing more than authentic Tex-Mex comfort fare. It's a forgiving cuisine, when you think about it. Mediocre Tex-Mex places thrive because it's difficult to expand much beyond a common comfort level without dressing up recipes considerably and veering away from the expected. Most Tex-Mex is mediocre and therefore welcoming. There are a few nice surprises here, such as chile rellenos on Wednesday, and a few off-menu selections. But Manny's owes its noisy popularity to a committed, family-based team and a menu of familiar items.
Once new hires adjust to the frenzied environment and learn the system, some of these service problems will disappear. When things settle down the kitchen may find some consistency.
Then Manny's can take a place amongst all the other familiar Tex-Mex outlets in this city. 3521 Oak Grove Ave., 214-252-1616. Open 10 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.