Welcome, dear reader, to a new column of culinary adventures. Luckily for us, you don’t have to travel far to take a gastronomic globetrot in Amarillo. Our culinary options have evolved since the chuckwagon days, with the addition of thousands of modern pioneers seeking a better life in our sparse landscape. They have shared their stories, traditions and family recipes—mapping adventures on tablecloths—for those curious enough to make the drive across town.
A melting pot of cultures, Amarillo Boulevard offers food from dozens of countries, often prepared by several generations of the same family. Those small businesses open every day with an eager hospitality, just waiting to welcome diners to their home away from home, which is often far away from where home once was. The truth is, we all speak the same language around the table—the language of community, the language of food.
As we endure the unbearably hot dog days of summer, many will be looking for an oasis of sorts—a wellspring of refreshment and relaxation. Humbly, I suggest one you will want to visit either with enough people to share plates from every section of the menu, or plan to go at least twice on your own. El Manantial will take you to the edge of town and take your tastebuds on a tour of our neighboring nation to the south.
Meals at El Manantial start with a tradition many Mexican restaurant diners have come to expect—crispy tortilla chips and a mild but flavorful tomato-based salsa as the requisite starters. But El Manantial spins tradition, taking a side dish often served as a plate filler and bringing it to its guests front-and-center. Pinto beans slow-simmered in a salty and lightly spiced broth are also presented as an unctuous preview of good things to come.
El Manantial’s homemade Michelada is a must on a hot day (or any day, for that matter). The recipe offers a uniquely meaty finish, perfectly salted with just the right mix of tomato acidity and bright herbs. It can be personalized with your favorite cerveza. Choose a neutral or complimentary brew, such as Dos Equis, to truly enjoy the mix. El Manantial offers an elevated version of its standout beverage, the Michelada con cameroes y carne seca, which acts as both an Instagram-worthy and thirst-quenching beverage and a delicious appetizer. Cocktail shrimp, assorted veggies, and beef jerky adorn the salted rim. If you don’t want to imbibe but still want a special drink, try any of the many aguas frescas, including unique flavors like crisp melon, Jamaica water, or the creamy and cinnamon-y horchata.
A classic appetizer like white cheese-based queso is sure to please even the pickiest of eaters. Theirs is a very mild-flavored and palate-pleasing dip, universally adored by diners of all ages, especially when enjoyed with a few of El Manantial’s hot and freshly made flour or corn tortillas. A standout for fish fans, the ceviche is the best this diner has had in Amarillo. Bits of carrot and jalapeño add a crunchy and earthy bite to the white fish cooked fresh in lime juice. Served with neutral crackers, it has a pleasant enough texture and flavor to eat with just a spoon. You don’t have to drench it in the hot sauce it is served with, but this diner highly recommends it.
On colder days, any of El Manantial’s caldo hit all the right notes: comforting, warming, luscious with varied texture. It’s served with breads and tortillas aplenty. But for the summer season, a sandwich like a torta wins my recommendation. The torta ahogada is a recipe rooted in Jalisco, where a baguette slathered in refried beans acts as a base for slow-roasted and perfectly crisp but tender pork. The sandwich holds its texture even after being smothered in a homemade tomato sauce, dunked in a treacherously spicy but tantalizingly delicious chile de arbol, and topped with lightly pickled and herbaceous red onions for crunch. It’s all served with a fried potato taco—perfect for helping to soothe singed taste buds if you underestimate the chile de arbol.
One more tip: Don’t underestimate the chile de arbol.
Many places offer tacos, but none offer tacos de birra con queso like El Manantial does. These will become the measuring rod for every other taco you consume in the future. Tender beef is slowly simmered until imbued with house specialty red sauce, spices and seasonings, then gently fried to lock in all the flavors. Nothing could make that taco better—except to add cheese, which they did. The melty white cheese helps bridge the taco and the dunk-able side of beef bouillon with the house-made, fire-roasted spicy red sauce that accompanies the tacos. Add onions, cilantro, radishes, or pickled red onions for a bright bite that cuts through all the other savory elements of the dish. These craveable tacos are one of the reasons to return with a crowd—you will always want to order and share them as a part of your meal.
El Manantial Restaurant
3823 E. Amarillo Blvd.