PORT ISABEL, Texas (KVEO) – After standing strong for 21 years, Manuel’s Restaurant on Port Isabel is no longer open.
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You will not find any people eating at Manuel’s Restaurant today, but the building is far from empty.
Owner, Jose Manuel Barroso, 69, has spent the last two days taking down countless memories from the walls of his now-closed Tex-Mex restaurant.
The restaurant that can be found on the street just behind the Port Isabel lighthouse, opened its doors for the last time Sunday. Barroso says he wanted to stay open for the Easter holiday and break the news to his family and employees after.
Sunday was a day of mixed emotions, Barroso said. Seeing his restaurant full of customers that had become family over the years and knowing that it would be his last day open.
“I was going to do it on the 31st of March, but I said, ‘no I’m going to take advantage of Easter weekend.’ I’m glad I did because we were busy. And I got to see some of my customers that I hadn’t seen prior to this week,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell them… It was a weird day. Good business day, weird personal.”
Barroso worked in various jobs before finding out he had a knack for the restaurant business.
He was offered his first job at a restaurant in 1986 on South Padre Island at the Padre South Hotel. The owners eventually asked Barroso to take over the restaurant under one condition: he bring his mother, Francisca Sanchez, who was working at a different restaurant, to cook.
“One of the owners knew about my mother’s cooking because she used to cook at Isabel’s. So he says, come take over the restaurant but you have to bring your mom with you,” recalled Barroso.
Barroso’s mother decided to take the chance with him, and he began leaving flyers at T-shirt shops and winter Texas spots to promote. Business picked up there, but it wasn’t his final destination.
Barroso moved the business to Port Isabel 16 years later and called it Manuel’s. Their tortillas and the hot sauce became well known in the community.
Manuel’s soon became a go-to breakfast and lunch spot for locals, spring breakers, winter Texans, and international travelers. The walls and ceiling have accumulated 21 years worth of memories left behind by happy customers.
College banners and dollar bills with messages hang from the ceiling. There is even writing on the walls, something Barroso says was started by a group of spring breakers. He later began charging $5 to write on a brick and donated the thousands he would collect to Saint Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
The restaurant was a family effort. Three years ago, when Barroso’s mother could no longer work and later passed away, his wife, Lorena, took over in the kitchen, adding her personal touches to the passed-along recipes. “She was the backbone here,” said Barroso.
Barroso’s three sons worked there as well and even his grandson got involved at age 9.
The news about his father closing the restaurant difficult for Frank Barroso, who continued working at the restaurant until its closure.
“Working with family can be tough, but at the end of the day, it was always worth it,” said F. Barroso. “I never met a stranger there. Every new face is a new friend.”
The relationships developed after years of working there were deep. Both father and son felt people were more than customers; they were family.
“I’ve known them since I was 12 years old,” said F. Barroso. “When I get x-mas cards and birthday cards from them… that’s family to me.”
The decision to close was a difficult one for Barroso. Feelings of letting his family down surfaced, and even though he felt he could continue working, his doctor advised against it.
After health complications and suffering a heart attack, the stress accumulated from running a restaurant short-staffed was putting him at risk for more.
Since the start of the pandemic, Barroso began having trouble keeping staff. Some would stay for two weeks then quit. He says many were opting for unemployment or chose to stay safe at home.
One of his most reliable employees was 80-year-old, Maria Olvera, who had been working with him for 33 years. He says they both cried together on Sunday when he let her know they were closing.
Barroso says he’s not ready to quit. He plans on continuing to work but has not made plans yet.
He and his son have talked about continuing selling their hot, saying that they could make a living off it. F. Barros says they’d sell an average of 100 jars a week.
“It’s been good,” said Barroso of the 21 years running the restaurant. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do but it’s got to be in the restaurant [business]. I don’t know what else to do,” he laughed.
The community has left thoughtful words on the announcement of their closing on Facebook.
His word to the community: “Thank you, Valley. My winter Texas, we love you. Sorry, but I had to do it. I’m not going away, I don’t know what I’m going to do, you might see me out on the street again, but I’ll be back. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. My family thanks you”