In some ways, it couldn’t be more fitting that a certain Santa Ynez Valley institution reopened in a new incarnation this past 4th of July weekend. “That’s what America has been to us. You launch yourself full force because you can go for it; you can’t fear failure,” said Fernando Tovalin, one of the owners of Manny’s of Solvang, a longtime favorite for Durango-style Mexican cuisine. “We’re doing something that people are afraid to do now with this economy. You can put out an excellent product and take a chance. We trust people will enjoy a nice place to come to and enjoy the same camaraderie [from the old Manny’s], and they have.”
Fernando’s father, Manuel Tovalin Sr., opened the original Manny’s in 1989 on Atterdag Road. That establishment, after years of memories, mirth, and family management, was sold in 2003. “Carl Peterson, owner of this property, asked us to reopen Manny’s,” explained Fernando. “We were enjoying our other endeavors, but this was too good an opportunity, so we decided to give it a shot.” The new Manny’s is still a family-run affair—Manny Sr. and Jr. work the kitchen with brother Jessie, while Fernando covers the business end. While all the children had worked in the first restaurant, most went in different directions in the intervening years: Jessie left the food industry for real estate, while Fernando founded VoiceCast Interpreting Network, originally just a small company that grew to be statewide.
So it’s a good thing growing businesses isn’t anything new for Tovalin. “We were hoping for a soft opening, but every night since we’ve opened we’ve had a waiting line,” Fernando said. “We expect to grow much more over the year as far as service …, as far as items on the menu, as far as catering. This is the last hurrah, and we want to see how far we can go. We’re enjoying it because we’re finalizing our time in the restaurant business. We hope it will last for 10 to 20 years, but after that, no more openings …” Pausing to laugh, Tovalin quickly added, “Maybe the next generation will take over though.”
Right now, it’s all about the current generation of Tovalins getting the kitchen into shape. “To do our type of slow cooking, it’ll take this month to get everything fine-tuned,” Fernando informed. “We still have a very young kitchen, so to be able to serve every night—it’s a testament to their organization.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that they get to learn from Manny Sr. and his years of preparing dish after homey dish of Mexican comfort food, replete with those warming details like a slight trace of cinnamon in the beans.
Manny is also preparing his famous “Green Machine.” “It’s a sauce by necessity,” Fernando explained. “The locals wanted a hot sauce that was our own sometime in ’90, ’91, not just Tabasco. Our food isn’t really hot; that’s not how we do it. So Dad put together a jalapeño-flavored sauce. He wanted it to actually taste like something and not just be hot. People loved it and nicknamed it the ‘Green Machine.’” It does make for a lovely, anything-but-mechanical addition to their very tenderly cooked chile verde, for instance. “Stuff like that, my dad is amazing,” Fernando said. “He can make a sauce like that and not destroy the taste of the food.”
That food has kept the restaurant “packed since opening.” The Tovalins had hoped to be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to start, but trying to do so “was overwhelming our kitchen,” Fernando said. After some more construction, they hope to get to serving three meals a day, as planned.
“The reason why we enjoy it is we’re welcomed by the community,” Fernando insisted. “It’s a wonderful joy to have. I looked out on the [opening] Friday night and Jessie and I could recognize every table. It’s our old clients and their children, but now they’re grown. It’s astonishing to us, and we’re thankful for that.” The Tovalins’ goal, without a doubt, is not just to feed the community but to build it, too. Said Fernando, “We’re hoping this is where you meet your friends, this is where you enjoy your time.”
For family-style Mexican food, make your way to Manny’s of Solvang (1693 Mission Dr., Solvang). Call 691-9137.