By Gaige Davila
After 38 years, Jose “Manuel” Barroso is ending his namesake.
Manuel’s Restaurant, at 313 E Maxan St in Port Isabel, abruptly closed on Easter Sunday, to the shock of locals and customers from all over the country.
Barroso said the decision was hard but necessary, with the restaurant affecting his health,
“I’ve been spending a lot of time at the doctor’s office,” Barroso told the PRESS inside the now-closed restaurant. “My stress has been too stressful and not having employees,” Jose said.
In January, Manuel’s closed, after Jose’s doctor requested he rest. Barroso’s son, Frank, who waited tables, cashiered and managed Manuel’s, started a GoFundMe page to crowdsource funds to offset the restaurant’s bills. Manuel’s had reopened their dining room only two months prior, last November, serving food only to-go since March last year.
After raising over $13,000, Manuel’s reopened to droves of anxious customers on Tuesday, Jan. 26, worried they had lost the restaurant for good. People tipped generously, and the restaurant remained open and busy up until Easter Sunday.
“We used to come in and we were all ready to go, and the last month or so we’ve just been here,” Jose said, noting the exhaustion had caught up to all of the employees.
After they reopened, Barroso and his wife, Lorena, were cooking, while his son Frank and another server, Maria Olvera, were in the dining room, waiting tables, expediting food and answering phones. Isaac, Frank’s son, would be doing prep work.
Some weekends, it was just Jose, Lorena and Frank, three employees during their busiest days.
“My doctor kept telling me, ‘you’re working too much, you need to stay back’” Barroso said. “But if I stay back, it would just be Frank and my wife. It was really getting to me.”
Jose plans to continue making Manuel’s coveted hot sauce, which they’re selling up to a hundred jars a week of. Just before sitting down to interview with the PRESS, a car pulled up to Manuel’s and asked Jose for hot sauce. A large group arrived to eat right after, only to be turned away, not knowing the longtime restaurant had closed.
In the meantime, local restaurateurs are offering to buy Manuel’s and or offer Jose and Frank jobs, bringing their loyal clientele with them. Jose said he would only sell the business if everything, including the name and menu, stayed the same.
He’d help transition the business initially then step away for good. “Other than that, I’m done,” Jose said.
After 38 years, Manuel’s built a three generations of clientele, who became a part of the restaurant’s home-like atmosphere.
“Like I’ve always said, like Frank always said, they’re our friends, our customers, family, grandma and grandpa,” Jose said. “It’s a hard decision for me to make, but it’s something that I had to make.”
He continued, “I’m 69, I’ve never felt (the years) like I feel them now.”
Jose estimated he would work a few more years before stepping away from Manuel’s. He is still adjusting to the earlier-than-expected departure.
“For the first two weeks, this month, it’s going to be hard,” Jose said.
With that adjustment and grief comes guit, too.
“My mom, I feel like I’m letting her down,” Jose said of his late mother, Francisca Sanchez, who died three years ago.
Sanchez and Jose started Manuel’s in 1986, at the Padre South Hotel. The owners asked Barroso to take over the hotel’s restaurant if he brought his mom with him, who was a cook at Isabel’s Cafe, another long-time Port Isabel locale along Highway 100. The two were the lone operators of the restaurant.
“She was my backbone, she was the main force in the kitchen, and because of her they gave me the chance to open the restaurant,” Jose said. “The owner said ‘if she doesn’t come with you, there’s no deal.’ My mom wasn’t going to leave me by myself.”
In 1999, Manuel’s moved to its Port Isabel location, collecting dollar bills, university flags, customer signatures and other sports memorabilia on the wall for nearly 22 years. Only the tables will be left inside, Jose said.
“I was surprised, just like everyone else,” Frank Barroso said outside of Manuel’s this past Wednesday. “(My dad) called my brothers, and I thought ‘we’re all here together, let’s get a picture,’ I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know he called them. Then he pulled us over to the side and he just started crying. That’s when I knew.”
Frank believes the restaurant should remain open, however that can happen.
“This was my life, I don’t know anything else but this,” Frank said. “I do enjoy it, but I knew we weren’t always going to be here.”
In response to his plans now that Manuel’s has closed, Frank said he will do “whatever the hell I can.”
Inside the restaurant, a longtime customer, named Mike, enters through the back of the restaurant and places his hand on Jose’s arm, and says “I’m sorry to see you go.”
Jose responds, “It’s a hard decision, Mike.”
Though hard, Jose is still appreciative of the life he created with Manuel’s and the people he met along the way.
“Thank you to all my customers, Valley-wide, Winter Texans, from the bottom of my heart man,” Jose said. “I appreciate all of the support they gave us. They made us what we are.”
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