The Best Under-the-Radar Food Destination in the U.S.
By Mike Sutter
Oct. 19, 2018
AT CLOSE to 1.5 million people, San Antonio is bigger than Austin, bigger than San Francisco or Seattle, bigger than New Orleans. Yet it’s forever overshadowed by those celebrated food cities. Move along. Nothing to see here but endless enchiladas and the Alamo.
That postcard stereotype of the city is changing at Mixtli, where two of the country’s best young chefs are creating 10-course travelogues of Mexico’s culinary history. It’s changing at Cured, where a brass-trimmed curing cabinet harbors trussed-up sausages, ham and mystery bits to dress charcuterie plates.
And it’s a picture that began to change for me in 2011, with an anniversary trip from Austin that included chef Andrew Weissman’s Italian showcase Il Sogno and chef Steve McHugh’s New Orleans cooking at Lüke on the River Walk, the city’s winding concourse of restaurants and hotels. Il Sogno and Lüke are gone now, lost in the churn of a restaurant scene in full surge, a scene that brought me here two years ago as the new restaurant critic for the San Antonio Express-News. I’m still a tourist in a sense, commuting from Austin five days a week.
What I’ve seen at more than 600 trattorias, bistros, steakhouses, sushi bars and craft-driven cafes in that time is a city taking a seat at the chef’s table without losing respect for the Tex-Mex, tacos and barbecue that got it here in the first place. In the past year alone, I’ve seen the San Antonio that UNESCO designated as a world-wide Creative City of Gastronomy for upholding its culinary heritage as well as the progressive city that supported the openings of new Jamaican, Indian, Japanese ramen and American Southern restaurants.
Creative new energy shaped by a strong sense of the past makes San Antonio one of the most compelling under-the-radar food destinations in the country, even if you won’t see it on those hyperventilating lists of America’s best food cities. Not yet. But that’s about to change. “For a long time, we were playing catch-up with Austin, Portland and San Francisco,” said Brooke Smith, executive chef at San Antonio’s Esquire Tavern, citing those cities’ focus on craft and quality. San Antonio is “slowly turning” in that direction, she said.
That turn is a long time coming, but not without remaining grounded in tradition. “We’re this confluence of cultures. We’re Native American, we’re Spanish, we’re Mexican, we’re German, we’re Czech, we’re Polish. A lot of San Antonians are falling in love again with our own backyard,” said Elizabeth Johnson, the chef behind the vegetable-centric downtown cafe Pharm Table. It might help that the backyard is more affordable than many others: “It’s still a place where a person with humble means can open a restaurant for under a million dollars,” said Ms. Johnson. (She opened Pharm Table with just $510, starting out as a meal delivery service.)
Ms. Johnson credits a good part of the food scene’s modern energy to the restored Pearl Brewing Co. compound just north of downtown. The Pearl, as it’s called, is home to more than 20 places to eat, drink and get coffee, along with some of the city’s most expensive rental property, the retro-swanky Hotel Emma and—here comes the boom—a Culinary Institute of America campus.
If you’ve ever had Pearl beer, I apologize. It’s not good. But the brand was built on solid bones in the late 1800s, and after Pearl brewed its last San Antonio beer, billionaire investor Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury swooped in with a vision in 2002 to resuscitate the stately industrial buildings. It’s part steampunk amusement park and part culinary mecca. One of the best restaurants at the Pearl is Cured, which Mr. McHugh opened in 2013 as a testament to the hearty food of his Midwest upbringing. He’s been a James Beard Award finalist three times with dishes like pig-cheek poutine and a Red Wattle pork chop with spoonbread. But he’s not too fancy to work Pabst Blue Ribbon into a cheeseburger.
Across the complex at the original brewhouse, Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery brought beer back to the Pearl when it opened in 2014, with as many as 14 styles. The beer complements the Gulf Coast cooking of chef Jeff Balfour, whose fried snapper throats could be called chicken of the sea. His fried chicken, meanwhile, takes on a Southern charm with golden biscuits and crab macaroni and cheese.
The Pearl also attracted Venezuelan-born chef Geronimo Lopez and his restaurant Botika, where he cooks the Chinese- and Japanese-influenced food of Peru. It’s a place for sushi, ceviche and a gloriously messy union of steak, fries, gravy and eggs called lomo saltado. “There’s a core of San Antonio taste, whether it’s Tex-Mex style or Mexican style cuisine or more of the Texas meat and potatoes or barbecue,” Mr. Lopez said. “At the same time, there’s a huge taste for new things.”
Those new things sometimes wear a vintage veneer. Chef Michael Sohocki revved up the time machine downtown in 2011 when he opened Restaurant Gwendolyn, where his mission to party like it’s 1849 means holding true to methods and machinery available 150 years ago. Think hand-cranked mixers and a positively medieval arsenal of tools for cutting, pounding and kneading.
And down on the raucous River Walk, the 80-year-old Esquire Tavern, long famous for day drinkers and misdemeanors, didn’t even have a kitchen until 2011, when Ms. Smith came aboard. Seven years later, she and her staff are curing their own charcuterie, making short-rib empanadas and running a stylish cocktail speakeasy called Downstairs.
A few blocks from downtown in the city’s artsy Southtown neighborhood, the Italian restaurant Battalion has transformed a 1920s firehouse into a cross between a modern osteria and a European disco. Co-founder Andrew Goodman preserved the firepoles and painted the wheelchair lift fire engine red, and chef Stefan Bowers curated a menu of 10 pastas for $10 each that’s a city’s best fine-dining values.
In the middle of San Antonio’s culinary tumult, even the city’s traditional foods are getting a second wind. 2M Smokehouse energized and frustrated San Antonio barbecue fans with equal intensity when it opened in 2016. They lined up for juicy brisket with a volcanic bark, handmade sausage with serranos and Oaxaca cheese, and mac-and-cheese spiked with chicharrones. Then they complained about everything else: the long lines, paying $20 a pound for brisket and the chance that everything would be sold out by the time they got to the front.
“Ten years ago, I would agree” with all the gripes, said pitmaster and coowner Esaul Ramos. “But barbecue’s not what it used to be. You can’t use the cheap cuts of meat anymore. You can’t shortchange yourself.”
San Antonio is still one of the country’s best cities for tacos, something I explored in 2017. Reporting on a taco joint a day, I drove 6,000 miles, saw a priest take a parking lot confession, got threatened at a strip club taco trailer, sat through some bad karaoke and ate 1,387 tacos.
The best of those taquerías opened only last year. Carnitas Lonja, named for the love handles you might get from eating there, emerged as a new favorite by keeping it simple: pork boiled in lard until it’s crispy at the edges, then shredded for carnitas tacos on fresh corn tortillas.
With the opening of Mixtli in 2013, Mexican food has evolved from San Antonio’s symbol of its storied past to the food that will help define its future. Working from a converted railcar, chefs Rico Torres and Diego Galicia take deep dives into regional Mexican cooking with multi-course prix fixe menus. A meal might include sweetbreads with coffee mayo from the Sierra Nevada or a beggar’s purse with duck carnitas to represent colonial influences.
With one seating on most nights, Mixtli is changing the way Americans think about Mexican food—and San Antonio’s restaurant landscape—12 people at a time.
MEAT AND GREET / A COOK’S TOUR OF SAN ANTONIO, DISH BY DISH
The chef: Geronimo Lopez, Botika
Local favorites: 2M Smokehouse for barbecue (2731 S WW White Rd., 2msmokehouse.com); Niki’s Tokyo Inn for sushi (819 W Hildebrand Ave.); Outlaw Kitchens for the cooking of former Culinary Institute of America colleague Paul Sartory (2919 N Flores; outlawkitchens.com)
The chef: Esaul Ramos, 2M Smokehouse
Local favorites: Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery for crab mac and cheese (136 E Grayson St., southerleigh.com); Garcia’s Mexican Food for chilaquiles and brisket tacos (842 Fredericksburg Rd.); Maria’s Cafe for Mexican food (1105 Nogalitos St.); Taquitos West Ave. for tripas tacos (2818 West Ave., taquitoswestavenue.com); Pollos Asados Los Norteños for chicken al carbon (4642 Rigsby Ave.)
The chef: Brooke Smith, the Esquire Tavern and Downstairs at the Esquire
Local favorites: Clementine in Castle Hills for updated Southern cooking (2195 NW Military Hwy., clementine-sa.com); Mark Bliss’s contemporary American Bliss (926 S. Presa St., foodisbliss.com)
The chef: Elizabeth Johnson, Pharm Table
Local favorites: Teka Molino for Tex-Mex (7231 San Pedro, tekamolino.com), Ah Dong for Vietnamese (5222 De Zavala Rd.); La Boulangerie for quiche and pastries (207 Broadway St.); Botika for Peruvian-Chinese food (303 Pearl Pkwy., botikapearl.com); Cured for charcuterie (306 Pearl Pkwy., curedatpearl.com); chef Johnny Hernandez’s Fruteria for tostadas: “He grows his own corn.” (1401 S. Flores St.)
FORGET THE ALAMO / Five Other Sites to Take in Between Meals
McNay Art Museum Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Renoir, Warhol—the big names call this patrician, 1920s Spanish Colonial mansion and its modern art collection home. 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave., mcnayart.org
Mission San José The city’s five UNESCO World Heritage missions—built by Spanish Franciscans in the 1700s—sometimes get lost in the glare of their most famous member: San Antonio de Valero, aka the Alamo. Explore the others, starting with Mission San José, a breathtaking stone citadel that still holds Catholic Mass on weekends. 6701 San José DR., nps.gov/saan
San Antonio Museum of Art Housed in the restored Lone Star Brewery, the museum devotes a wing to Latin American art from pre-Columbian to contemporary. Exhibits also span the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian worlds, plus an extensive Asian collection. Celebrity chef Jason Dady operates Tre Trattoria onsite, with a terrace view of the River Walk’s idyllic Museum Reach. 200 W. Jones Ave., samuseum.org
Brackenridge Park Bisected by the San Antonio River, this 343-acre park offers the oldest municipal golf course in Texas, a Japanese Tea Garden carved from a former stone quarry and easy access to the Witte Museum and its natural history exhibits. Most important? The San Antonio Zoo, for when the kids need to see a baby hippo more than they need a culture fix. 3700 N. St Mary’s St., brackenridgepark.org
Hotel Emma At the heart of the lively Pearl Brewing Co. complex is the 146- room Hotel Emma. New York design studio Roman and Williams imaginatively preserved the turn-of-the-century industrial accents—like the mottled network of pipes and valves in the lobby. Even if you’re not a guest of the hotel, take in the cinematic space with a drink at the Sternewirth, the hotel bar, or an upscale dinner at the Supper American Eatery on the ground floor. Rooms from $357 a night, 136 E. Grayson St., thehotelemma.com