The sense of being transported to a small pastry shop in Buenos Aires is unexpected and welcome as you stand in front of the mesmerizing pastry case at Manena's Pastry Shop and Deli.
Delicate horns filled with rich dulce de leche and dusted with confectioner's sugar; airy, palm-sized cream puffs drizzled with chocolate; glistening palmitas sprinkled liberally with large crystals of sugar; cups of dark, creamy tiramisu; lacquered alfajores shining brightly up at you — it's a case filled with cookies and pastries and puddings from your fondest dreams.
Suddenly, you're no longer in a dingy strip center off Westheimer, but in a sunny store surrounded by the happy chatter of Argentineans and the smell of freshly baked bread. By the time you've taken a seat, relaxed with a cup of coffee and enjoyed your flaky milhojas, it's as if you don't need that expensive vacation to South America after all.
Although Houston's Argentinean population is relatively small at less than 5,000 people, Manena's is one of several Argentinean restaurants in town. Just a block away is its equally popular neighbor, Leña Verde. Both occupy a section of Houston that is saturated with small, quality ethnic food stores and restaurants. The west side of town has long been a destination for expatriates, thanks in large part to the Energy Corridor that grew along Interstate 10 as oil companies transferred their Russian, French, Indian, English, Vietnamese, Polish, Scottish, Colombian, Peruvian, Spanish, German and — of course — Argentinean employees to Houston, where they settled in the quiet communities off Wilcrest, Dairy Ashford and Kirkwood.
Along this stretch of Westheimer in particular, one can find food from Eastern Europe at Café Pita or Balkan Market, Middle Eastern food and groceries at Phoenicia, French food at Bistro Le Cep, British food at The Bull & Bear, Vietnamese food at Pho One or Le Viet, Spanish food at Rioja and many more along the way.
A meal at Manena's is more than just a bite to eat. It's impossible to enter the restaurant without a chipper "Hola! ¿Qué tal?" from behind the counter and the sumptuous smell of hot empanadas lacing the air. The bright, sunflower-yellow walls, old-style lace curtains and plain wooden furniture give the interior a charming, well-worn ambience that belies both its dreary exterior and the fact that it's only been open for five years. It's a comfortable, easy place to be; no pretension, no fuss. Just the faint sounds of Shakira over the speakers among the chatter of Argentinean families.
Because it closes each night at 8 p.m., it's easier to enjoy Manena's over breakfast or lunch. The strong, dark coffee and espresso pairs brilliantly with a vigilante relleno — a sweet, flaky croissant that's been drizzled lightly with frosting and filled with quince jam. Its cousin, the factura, is also popular at breakfast. Similar to a kolache, facturas are eaten with coffee (Manena's offers a special: buy two facturas and your coffee is free) or, more traditionally, with mate. The bitter infusion is brewed with the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant and isn't for the faint of heart. You can try mate for yourself at Manena's or buy a box of mate cocido to take home with you from their small grocery section.
Manena's is proudest of its empanadas, and with good reason. Whether you eat them for breakfast or lunch, they're easily the best dish served here. At a ridiculously low price of $1.90 apiece, it's difficult to choose just one from the half-dozen options. For breakfast, a jamon y queso empanada is a welcome respite from the traditional sausage kolache. Filled with toothsome chunks of Serrano ham and white cheese, they need at least five minutes to cool down after coming straight out of the oven. Pass the time sipping your coffee and reading Buena Suerte or Rumbo Houston, and you'll feel as if you've left the city entirely.
Lunchtime brings a different feel to Manena's. It's far busier, with the steady stream of traffic piled up around the counter placing orders with the lone harried but sharp waitress. She takes down orders for sandwiches, empanadas and pastries quickly, keeping the line moving in an amazingly efficient manner. When your order is ready, she'll hand it to you over the counter (or bring it to you, if it's a bit slower). In keeping with the low prices and simple aesthetic, the plates are Styrofoam and the utensils plastic.
Milanesa, one of the national dishes of Argentina, is Manena's most popular lunch item. The thinly pounded, breaded beef is similar to the Austrian wienerschnitzel, which is not surprising, as it was originally a European import to the South American country, where the cuisine has been heavily influenced by Spanish, Italian and German settlers. While in Argentina it's traditionally served alongside a heap of mashed potatoes, here it comes with a side of thick, crispy french fries. You can also have your Milanesa on freshly baked French bread, laden with tomatoes, lettuce, white onions, mustard and homemade mayonnaise.
The Milanesa at Manena's tastes like nothing so much as battered, pan-fried, thick-cut bacon — which is to say, it's incredible. What's even more amazing is that it's nearly devoid of grease. On a crusty piece of French bread, with the sharp bite of crispy onions and tart mayonnaise keeping it company, it's easily the best sandwich in Houston.
Other sandwiches battle the Milanesa for popularity at Manena's, chief among them the assortment of sándwiches de migas. Another Argentinean specialty, sándwiches de migas are strongly reminiscent of the finger sandwiches from church potlucks and family picnics past. Made with thin, crustless slices of white bread, the sandwiches are topped with an assortment of meats and cheeses. The prosciutto and provolone combination is a personal favorite, for sheer subtlety and simplicity of flavors. More exciting varieties abound, though, like the Roquefort with walnuts and celery or the pimiento, with red peppers, ham and eggs. A tray of sándwiches de migas costs $8 at most and could feed four people, especially with empanadas as an appetizer.
The empanadas de carne and de humita are among the best on the menu, and better enjoyed at lunchtime. The empanadas de humita bring to mind corn casseroles with their slightly creamed corn and red peppers, while the empanadas de carne are filled with luscious ground beef mixed with green peppers, onions and chili powder. While you let them cool, the juices will slowly soak into the empanada's shell, infusing the dough with the sweet, savory flavors of the ground beef. And therein lies one of the magical properties of Manena's empanadas: They're just thin enough not to be too tough or crusty, but just thick enough to stand up to the fillings without falling apart.
Since no meal is complete without dessert, and no trip to a bakery complete without a pastry, you can't escape Manena's without indulging your sweet tooth. While the fanciful cañoncitos topped with a thick swirl of caramel cream and the dulce de leche-filled colaciones are beautiful to look at, you won't want to leave without a bite of tiramisu or flan. The flan is incredibly thick, with a creamy denseness that only comes from a good amount of egg yolks. And the decadent tiramisu, with its delicate balance of chocolate and espresso enveloping soft ladyfingers, should be the envy of every pastry chef in town.