Manny’s Tortas dishes up distinctive Mexican fare

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Manny’s Tortas, which has been a part of the South Minneapolis scene since its first restaurant opened in 1999, attracts customers from every corner of the Twin Cities for their Mexican sandwiches. While working behind the counter at one of three locations, Manny Gonzalez creates sandwiches far removed from the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches of your youth.

Every torta is made to order with an extensive list of fresh ingredients: cheese, tomato, lettuce, onion, avocado, jalapeño peppers, refried beans, and chipotle pepper mayo (Manny’s invention).

There are 11 different varieties of tortas on the menu, including pollo (chicken), Cubana (Cuban), and huevos con chorizo (eggs and Mexican sausage). Manny estimates that they go through 140 avocados and 130 pounds of meat per week at the shop in the Midtown Global Market.

The branch at 2700 E. Lake Street location is brightly lit. A Spanish radio station plays over the loudspeakers, mingling with the sound of customers and employees speaking in English and Spanish. The décor is modern, with gray banquettes, brightly painted walls, sleek chrome stools, and white molded chairs. Floor-to-ceiling windows give customers the chance to look out at the goings-on of Lake Street.

Manuel Gonzalez, who owns Manny’s Tortas, moved to Minnesota from Mexico City more than 20 years ago. He studied at a culinary school in Mexico but needed to learn English to cook in the better restaurants. His first job in Minnesota was as a dishwasher, and he worked his way up the ranks before opening his own restaurant in the Mercado Central with his sister Victoria Gonzalez.

Manny was inspired to start his own business after he saw an article in the newspaper about a Latino mall, which was looking for restaurants. Manny drew up a business plan and was chosen to open a restaurant in the Mercado Central.

“I said to myself, ‘how about tortas?’ I always made tortas for myself,” said Manny of his decision to open a non-traditional Mexican restaurant.

Becky George, of the Lake Street Council, said that Manny and Vicky were pioneers in the Mercado Central, which has “been one of the catalysts in the revitalization of Lake Street.”

“He has a gift for marketing and is always promoting the places he has his businesses, the newest being in the Midtown Global Market. He has worked with the marketing and publicity committees of both Mercado Central and the Global Market,” said George.

Manny had to convince Vicky, who still lived in Mexico City at the time, to come join him in Minneapolis and open the first restaurant. Manny was to be in charge of the food and needed Vicky, who has a degree in business administration, to run the business side of things.

Tortas, which Manny and Vicky ate growing up in Mexico City, are something of an exotic concept to Minnesotans, though it appears that they have fully embraced the idea. Manny said that tortas are different in every state, and the ones he sells are most closely related to those served in Mexico City.

In fact, tortas have become so popular that after opening the first Manny’s in July 1999, a second location was opened on Lake Street near Minnehaha Av. and a third location was recently opened in the Midtown Global Market.

At the Manny’s near Minnehaha, two adjoining walls ask diners, “What’s on your mind?/¿En que piensas?” Manny said that his nephew came up with the slogan. “He was always asking me, ‘What’s on your mind, Uncle?’” said Manny. He decided it created a good icebreaker for customers and had it painted it on the walls.

A bright orange menu with a picture of a lime framing one end and an avocado at the other hangs above the counter. The menu consists of tortas, soups, salads, desserts, coffees, drinks, and extras. Prices for the sandwiches range from $5.60 for the vegetarian to $7.95 for Manny’s Special.

Manny’s strikes a chord with visitors, from regulars to first-timers, whether they’re looking for something different (the aforementioned eggs and sausage torta) or a regular chicken torta.

Most customers would be surprised that Manny and Vicky often work behind the counter, manning the cash register or making sandwiches. Manny says he loves to cook and wants to be a model for employees on how to serve customers.

“I like what I’m doing, and I like to interact with customers,” said Manny.

Bottles line the counters, showing the range of Mexican and American beers and Mexican sodas for sale. This location has a beer license, and is open until 10 p.m. on weeknights, and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, making it a good place to grab some food after a night at the bars.

“[We] put together the best of American culture and Latin culture,” said Vicky.