If humility is an indicator of true success, Chef Manuel “Manny” Carr, purveyor of LeLa’s Restaurant, is a successful man. He opened LeLa’s three years ago, after working at Fresno Heart Hospital and Veni Vidi Vici’s, among others. My friend Nicole and I spent some time getting to know Chef Manny while we tasted a few of his dishes. In our time together, he highlighted the great chefs in Fresno and around the world more than he talked about himself. He mentioned Campagnia, Trelio, Parma, Max’s, Veni Vidi Vici’s, and Cracked Pepper, praising the efforts of each chef. And when we talked about how well his restaurant is doing, he immediately pointed out the attributes of his staff.
His staff was so friendly, to us and each other, even in the back where customers were out of sight. It was refreshing. It was also fun when our waiter excitedly placed a plate of pan-seared pork belly before us. It was delicious, by the way.
“In order to understand how restaurants work, you have to work at every level,” he said.
Like many young people trying to figure out their place in the world, Chef Manny worked in restaurants as he put himself through college. He started as a dishwasher while he lived in Iowa for a short time on a scholarship. He moved up to pantry chef doing salads and desserts, then became a server, prep cook and bartender.
Nicole and I happily ate LeLa’s chips (made with flour tortillas) and hummus while Chef told us about his journey back to Fresno, working at KFSR (Fresno State’s radio station) and later, Harland’s restaurant. From there he went to Veni Vidi Vici’s, then LaRocca’s. As he spoke, he talked about how grateful he was and is to have not just made contacts in the local restaurant industry, but true friends. Plus, he received his degree in mass communication and journalism at Fresno State while making these friends. Fortunately for Fresnans, he chose to pursue a career in cooking over a career in music PR.
Fortunately for Nicole and I, we got to try one of LeLa’s signature dishes of the spring season: a grilled 10oz flat iron steak served over basmati rice (with essence of red bell pepper, jalapeños, and cumin), tomatillo sauce, pico de gallo, corn and avocado sauce, and queso fresco.
Chef Manny will tell you that the focus of his food is the flavor, more than the look. “The moment you dig into it is the moment the art is destroyed,” he says. “I want it to look nice, but have the flavors pop so it’s great until the very last bite.”
As the lights of the restaurants dimmed, he pointed to a couple eating at a nearby table and said, “See them? They are taking their time, enjoying the food, enjoying each other. They’ll probably be here all night, and that’s what this is all about.”
Nicole took a spoon to the flan on the table and fell in love herself. She said it was the best flan she’d ever had. It was creamy, the flavor was rich but not over-pouring, and the texture was just right. As she swooned over the flan, Chef Manny said, “when I see people smile over my food, that’s the best compliment I can ever receive.”
LeLa’s is located in the NW corner of Marks and Herndon (formally Parma’s location). All food is made fresh daily, and many ingredients are sourced locally (Chef Manny is a huge fan of TUFF Farms and Quant Farms). The food is fresh and relatively healthy. Most regulars go for the pork chop, served with a mix of bacon, leeks and black bean brown rice and baby carrots with a maple chipotle glaze. If you have food allergies or special food needs, just call in advance and the staff will be happy to make something just for you.
Special thanks to Nicole Cross, my eating buddy and guest photographer for this post. See some of her own recipes and photos at PinchMySalt.com.