Food adventurers hit a hidden café

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by Eric Ginsburg

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I’ve been waiting to see this many people in Manny’s Universal Café for a good five years. But they’ve probably been waiting since 2006.

The vibe there last week during an event by international restaurant champions Ethnosh paralleled a long-awaited, extended-family reunion. Boisterous, swinging jazz music radiated from speakers as an assortment of somewhat adventurous eaters packed the back patio of the small café, hidden a few blocks from Greensboro’s main drag.

Margarita Delgado, the culinary force behind the Southside neighborhood restaurant, scooped spoonfuls of chicken salad onto fresh greens and served spritely lemon squares to round out the meal. Extra hands — a luxury too expensive for a normal day of the week — helped dish out the rest of the fare, including pupusas and unbeatable chicken tamales.

I first encountered Manny’s Café in 2009 when I started working a block away, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the food I was more drawn to the people. Manny, the restaurant’s namesake, is as affable as his mother, Margarita. Everyone who meets her appears to be immediately struck by how genuine and humble she is, emitting rare depth and sincerity.

Manny initially moved to Greensboro from New York to attend NC A&T University, later opening the café in 2006. Margarita, who worked in New York for a company that managed cafeterias for 27 years, came down later to join him. Now he’s refocused on school and the restaurant is her operation.

“It was a dream that I had back then to be my own boss at one time,” she said.

Margarita’s interest in food long predates her time in New York, stemming from her experience baking out of her home in San Salvador, the capital of the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador.

The civil war between a brutal US-backed military government and a leftist guerrilla army in the 1980s spurred a huge exodus of Salvadorans, particularly to the United States. Margarita, then 26, was among them, alongside her husband and 6-year-old Manny.

In New York she started working in a kitchen, moving up to sous chef before attending college. Afterwards she worked in managerial positions, including serving as a plant supervisor at a food manufacturing company on Long Island and as the foodservice director at a hospital that contracted with the company.

In Greensboro, Manny and Margarita converted a garage into a kitchen, living and working in close quarters near the City View apartments. I’ve been a lackluster champion of their cause despite wanting to share the breadth of their culinary offerings with friends, so it’s nice to see Margarita and Manny finally get their due.

With a modest entry fee, Ethnosh event attendees experienced a spread of the café’s cuisine, which oscillates between more typical American meals and Salvadoran specialties. And they loved the Key lime squares and hibiscus tea in particular.

“This is so delicious!” I overheard one woman exclaiming. “Oh my god! I had no idea.”

Like her, most of the event goers had never been to Manny’s before but saw wisdom in the measured adventurism of Ethnosh, which guides people to periodic events highlighting locally owned international restaurants.

It was hardly surprising that these foodies and localists were all about Manny’s, as they sat at courtyard tables mere feet from where Margarita grows everything from basil to strawberries.

“It’s very good and it’s also good for you,” Margarita says of her cooking, which also includes stellar homemade granola, croissants and chicken quesadillas.

It’s a common refrain anyone who’s heard Margarita talk about her approach has heard before, but several attendees said the quality and execution of the food would bring them back. And though there didn’t appear to be any complaints about the dinner, plenty of people were even more excited to talk to Margarita and soak up her presence.

Manny’s Universal Café is located at 321 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Greensboro. Call 336-638-7788 or visit mannysuniversalcafe.com. The next Ethnosh event is on June 25 at the Railyard downtown and will feature homecooking. 

Photos in the first slideshow are from the Ethnosh event last week. The audio slideshow piece with this article and the photos are also by Eric Ginsburg.