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Taco Town

On the Trail of Austin's Best Tacos

Article by Deborah Hamilton-Lynne

Photography by Weston Carls

Originally published in East Austin Lifestyle

There cannot be a town more taco obsessed than Austin.  We start our day with breakfast tacos and end it with chocolate tacos for dessert.  When we are away we dream of the tacos we are missing.  An entire evening’s conversation and sometimes heated debate among family and friends can center on tacos - how to make them, what spices and ingredients to include, what “fixings” are a must, where to find the best and what makes them the best.

While you can spend your life on the “Taco Trail” in a quest to find Austin’s best tacos, ATX LIfestyle wanted to give readers a head start by introducing our favorite tacos for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert.

For 37 years Manuel’s has been serving Austin’s freshest, healthiest and best tacos. Jennifer McNevin and Greg Koury tell us what keeps Austin’s most loyal clientele coming back for more.

On the platter are shrimp grilled to perfection along with all of the fixings for a perfect taco - pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, queso blanco, guacamole, salsa fresca and warm, freshly made tortillas. Served with rice and black beans, slow cooked and delicious, Manuel’s Tacos De Camarones is one of the “Manuellians’s” (as the regulars refer to themselves) favorite dishes.  Add Mario’s Maraca Margarita and you have a meal that memories are made of. 

Back in grad school at the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas, Greg Koury had a vision of creating a restaurant that would serve authentic Mexican cuisine inspired by Mexico’s interior and coastal regions.  In 1984 his vision became reality with the opening of Manuel’s on Congress Avenue and he has been true to that vision ever since. Koury and his wife, Jennifer McNevin, partner to design and run Manuel’s as well as create the menus and oversee all aspects of the business. McNevin with a background in interior design has complemented Khoury’s vision adding sophistication to the aesthetics of the restaurants. 

The nurturing, healthy quality of the Mexican cuisine is reflected in Manuel's menu featuring dishes that come “from the soil and the sea.” Dishes are influenced by the cuisine of the Mexican highlands as well as the Pacific coastal regions. Koury took his inspiration from visits to the Pacific coast where he enjoyed as many as 20 kinds of freshly caught fish grilled and served simply with fresh limes and citrus. In the interior highlands he experienced the tastes of homemade dishes - freshly made - and was determined to bring those tastes to Austin.

Manuel’s recipes begin with traditional touches. Using a base recipe, the owners, chef and the staff are encouraged to “riff” off the base until it becomes a Manuel signature dish. Just the mole recipe alone went through 15 to 20 incarnations before it became what it is today. The result is cuisine that is authentic with a distinctive, signature taste that sets Manuel’s apart from familiar Tex-Mex restaurants.  

For McNevin, the secret that sets Manuel’s apart is a commitment to quality on every level.  “We only use high-quality, fresh ingredients - locally sourced as often as possible.  We don’t take shortcuts or cut corners. For example, our shrimp is wild caught and fresh from the Gulf.  We are not only supporting the Texas shrimpers and the Texas economy, but we are also serving shrimp and fish that are caught using sustainable practices. Yes, it costs more but it is important to us to serve only the freshest and healthiest ingredients. It is a choice we make to honor our commitment not only to our customer but also to our community. Ask the source of your fish or shrimp next time you order and I doubt that it will be wild caught or from the Gulf.”

Koury emphasizes the consistency of the food and the quality of the preparation with everything absolutely being homemade. Food that is made from scratch daily is only one of the ways Manuel’s keeps its loyal customer base coming back. 

“Our customers trust us,” says Koury.  “They know they will get a fresh, healthy meal at a reasonable price. When they order their favorite dishes they know they can expect consistency in taste and quality. The food touches everything, but it is so much more than the food. Manuel’s is a gathering place and has been a safe harbor where people can meet and relax, especially these days. We established safety protocols early on and have observed them to keep our staff and our customers safe.”

Loyalty extends to the staff as well as clientele. Following the pandemic no one at Manuel’s makes less than $15 an hour. Staff is very important to Koury and McNevin and the commitment to a respectful work environment shows. Many servers, bartenders and kitchen staff have been with the restaurant for five years or more. The feeling that they are “family” is the reason many servers and staff have returned, but hiring and keeping a full cadre remains a challenge especially as Manuel’s ramps up to reopen the Congress Avenue location. 

Friendly service and happy servers and staff are all elements of what keeps the “Manuellians” coming back. Customers often ask for their favorite servers. The clientele is multi-generational with family groups often consisting of three generations - grandparents, parents who grew up dining at Manuel's and their children who are all enjoying their favorite dishes while making memories.

To stay afloat during the pandemic, Koury and McNevin merged their teams while deciding to keep the Great Hills location open.  They pivoted with take-out cuisine and drink kits at the height of the shut-down.  They also relied on government grants and were recently named a Legacy business by the city which enabled them to receive funding designated for businesses that were over 20 years old and were considered essential to the “culture” of Austin. To add to their challenges the Congress Avenue location also experienced severe freeze damage during the February "snowpocalypse". Fortunately there is good news of renewal.  The Great Hills location has just been remodeled and updated with a fresh color palette and more sophisticated decor.  Repairs and renovation are in progress at the Congress Avenue location with an anticipated opening date in late fall. 

The menu has also been revamped while retaining familiar favorites. On the Taco Trail hunt for Austin's best tacos, in addition to Tacos de Camarones, Manuel’s offers Tacos De Pescado with grilled fresh fish, and Signature Tacos with a choice of all-natural chicken, pork, beef or mushrooms.

But what would a taco be without a Margarita by its side? Manuellians swear by Mario’s Maraca (Corazon Blanco, Cointreau, limes and olives) and the El Amado (Don Julio Reposado, St. Germain, Contrieu, lime, Chile Pequin &Arbol, simple syrup) as well as the Mexican Martinis.  If a shot is more your style the bartender’s offerings consist of seventeen premium and seven super premium tequilas - everything from Patron to Casa Dragones.

Whether it is date night in a cozy corner booth, a gathering of old friends on the patio or a family celebration, Manuel’s continues to be an iconic Austin restaurant serving authentic Mexican cuisine with an eye on quality. When out of town guests want to hit the Austin Taco Trail there is no better place to begin.

“We are just happy to have weathered the storm and to be able to serve and reconnect with the best customers in Austin. It’s been a lot of work and a challenge like nothing we have ever faced but we’re coming back fresh and better than ever.” 

So what’s the secret behind Austin’s best dinner taco?  Fresh high-quality ingredients consistently prepared to perfection proudly served in a familiar gathering spot that feels like coming home. 

In Austin Any Time is Taco Time 

1. Dessert Taco

Tacos for dessert? Why not when it’s the Chocotaco from Suerte.

With a fried, milk-chocolate dipped shell filled with cinnamon mouse, Suerte's Chocotaco is a pastry built for the sweet tooth that craves a sweet yet crunchy taco,'' said Suerte pastry chef Derrick Flynn. "Chef Fermín and I had a lot of fun developing this over last year and it's quickly become a local favorite."  suerteatx.com

2. Breakfast Taco 

Austin is well-known for breakfast tacos and the king of them all is Valentina’s Real Deal Holyfield Taco.  Created by pitmaster and owner Miguel Vidal with a nod to his father’s favorite breakfast, huevos rancheros, this extravaganza includes refried beans, potatoes and bacon wrapped in a tortilla topped with a slice of bacon and a fried egg.  Bring your appetite and order ahead for pick-up. Valentinastexmexbbq.com

3. Lunch

Matt’s El Rancho bills itself as “The Original Austin-style Tex-Mex”.  Founded by Matt Martinez who in 1923 at the age of 6 was selling tamales from a wooden pushcart in front of the Texas Capitol, Matt’s El Rancho has been an Austin favorite since 1952. For authentic tacos served on fresh homemade tortillas you can’t beat Matt’s lunch specials - a bargain at $10.99.  We recommend the Tacos Al Pastor - marinated pork shoulder tacos in corn tortillas grilled with pineapple or the Asadero Tacos - beef tenderloin with grilled Asadero cheese, onions and rajas in corn tortillas.  Mattselrancho.com

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