To understand the motley glories of Tex-Mex cooking, order The Deluxe Mexican Dinner plate at Garcia’s in San Antonio. Crammed onto an oval platter: two cheese enchiladas and a pork tamale buried in chili con carne and melty webs of yellow cheese; a freshly fried crispy taco stuffed with ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, and diced tomato; fluffy rice tinted auburn-blond by tomato paste; and a magma pool of refried beans creamy with lard and bacon fat. I’ve had dozens of combination plates like this one over the years, but few have nailed each element of the plate with such finesse — a word, I know, not often associated with a cuisine too often considered cheap and inauthentic. But Tex-Mex is way more nuanced than a blanket stereotype, and eating at Garcia’s is one insightful, gratifying introduction to eating in San Antonio.
A different sort of combo platter served four miles away at Cured makes an equally brilliant first impression for the city: Chef-owner Steve McHugh lays out a spread of nine masterfully crafted charcuterie selections. He ages pork and duck hams and salumi like cotechino in a glassed-in locker prominent at the restaurant's entrance, and his kitchen assembles beauties such as lamb and citrus terrine and jars of apple-jalapeño-pork rillettes dolloped with apple-ginger jam. Every preparation has a finely tuned texture that, as much as the individual flavors, keeps the whole from blurring into a muddle of cold prepared meats. In step with national trends, the on-point charcuterie program also speaks to the sophistication and energy in San Antonio's accelerating dining culture.
Beyond pâtés and sausages, Cured's menu runs eclectic. Lunch includes New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp with a calibrated Worcestershire twang and a righteous burger with bacon ground into the beef and a halo of house-made beer cheese. Dinner brings fall pleasures like fennel and persimmon salad and local quail over creamed grits with slivers of fermented apple. With a sharp service staff and a dining room evocative with old brick and reclaimed woods, McHugh's modern American restaurant (which opened in 2013) is a place that I could envision succeeding in most any city around the country.
I had my favorite meals in San Antonio at Garcia's and Cured, and together they represent the extremes of a city that, in terms of food, struck me as having two unusually distinct — and divided — personalities. There is Tex-Mex, the entrenched regional cuisine that is as emblematic to San Antonio as the Alamo. And then there are the city's accomplished chefs and ambitious restaurateurs, taking cues from coast-to-coast trends (while sometimes following their own muses). The two ends of the spectrum are only beginning to meet in the middle; dining furiously through town for four days felt like a constant leap between parallel worlds.
In can be surprising to learn that San Antonio is the second largest city in Texas and the seventh largest in the country. (The city has comparatively sprawling borders, but still: It counts 1.4 million among its population.) For an urban area of its size, it has long maintained a relatively low profile, particularly when compared to the more attention-grabbing cities within the "Texas Triangle" mega-region: Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and Houston. In the last decade, the city began touting its strengths: economic stability, a growing tech sector, a revitalization of downtown and surrounding communities. San Antonio's national profile is on the rise.
San Antonio is on the cusp of breakout status, but from my vantage the food scene doesn't quite yet have its defining direction
In the dining community, I could feel the competitive spirit rippling through the new restaurants. San Antonio faces intense interstate competition from higher-profile cities with cutthroat dining scenes: Houston has the astounding diversity, Dallas has the money and moxie, and Austin has the limitless cool factor. San Antonio is on the cusp of breakout status, but from my vantage the burgeoning food scene doesn't quite yet have its defining direction or its meteoric chef, a la Sean Brock in Charleston, with an entirely fresh perspective that uplifts the entire community.
San Antonio's most visible restaurant project is the Pearl district, a booming 16-block development built up around the former Pearl Brewery. The area has become the city's nerve center of fashionable dining and is, if anything, under-hyped. Among shops and offices and a yoga studio, its twenty acres is also home to nearly a dozen food-minded businesses, including a bakery and a third-wave coffee shop, a year-round Saturday farmers market, and the Culinary Institute of America's third campus (after New York and northern California), which last year began offering a 15-week Latin Cuisines concentration as part of its curriculum. The complex has received well-deserved praise, but if it were in, say, national media darling Austin, it would be spotlit in one magazine after another.
For standup meals, consider breakfast or dinner at Osteria Il Sogno, run by lauded veteran chef Andrew Weismann; a crunchy chicken-fried steak alongside an IPA or Belgian wheat brewed onsite at sprawling Southerleigh, which just launched in April; or perhaps a lunchtime chopped beef barbecue sandwich at The Granary, which serves more elaborate plates like beef clod with tomato caramel and pickled celery at dinner. (The mention of chopped beef makes this a good place to note that barbecue is not generally San Antonio's forte. Happily, the legendary barbecue towns of Luling and Lockhart are both only an hour's drive away.)
The revival of the city's central core extends far beyond the Pearl. Goan pickled shrimp and pastrami-style brisket over beer-braised cabbage and rye bread impressed at Feast in the buzzy Southtown community less than a mile from downtown. Appetizers like gumbo and fried boudin balls stood out most at Louisiana-minded Cookhouse, one of the town's hottest draws.
The highest profile restaurant in this mix is Hot Joy, a new-wave Asian trendsetter that pulled in national praise when it opened last year. My experience, however, was lukewarm. I could tell I dropped in on an off night. Some of the bar staff had just transferred from another restaurant that the owners were closing and seemed nervous to even hand us menus. The crab fat caramel wings reminded me happily of Pok Pok's sticky wonders; a mashup of gumbo and tsukemen (a sort of deconstructed ramen presentation where broth and noodles are served separately) sounded intriguing but came off muddy and flat. Loved the Hong-Kong-out-of-midcentury-cinema atmosphere, all crimson lighting and Chinese tchotchkes.
A place like Hot Joy certainly elevates San Antonio's hipness quotient, and chef Quealy Watson hints at Texan influences in dishes like lumpia (thin Filipino spring rolls) filled with barbacoa. In general, though, I worry that San Antonio's greatest assets as a food scene gets overlooked or taken for granted. What the Alamo City has, divorced from the hustle for attention and the search for a modern culinary identity, is one of the oldest regional cuisines in America. San Antonio pioneered the eccentric, humble, and soul-stirring cooking that became known as Tex-Mex.
The icons of Tex-Mex solidified by the mid-twentieth century: cheese enchiladas with chili con carne, crisp-shelled tacos (and its open-faced cousin, the chalupa), nachos, queso dip. Processed yellow cheese became the glue that held the genre together. When I moved from California to be the Dallas Morning News's dining critic, I was, frankly, a little repulsed at first by all the orange-ish gooeyness: I've never even particularly enjoyed American cheese on a burger. But, man, in its molten state the processed stuff does meld poetically with chili spices and a rolled tortilla's chewiness. I became a devoted convert, like so many other Texas transplants. (The natives tend to love it from birth.)
Restaurants in every corner of the state have contributed, but the origins of Tex-Mex trace back to San Antonio
Restaurants in every corner of the state have contributed to the lexicon: Houston claims credit for fajitas; the frozen margarita machine was invented in Dallas. But the origins of Tex-Mex trace back directly to San Antonio. Texas food writer and historian Robb Walsh lays out the roots in his opus on the subject, The Tex-Mex Cookbook. Built on the Tejano culture forged by indigenous peoples and Spanish colonization, the amalgamated cuisine began in the late 1800s by the San Antonio chile stands that were set up daily on plazas and in markets by women known as the "chile queens." Later, a man named Otis Farnsworth from Chicago opened the Original Mexican restaurant in what would become San Antonio's touristy Riverwalk area in 1900, marketing his business to Anglos: He served a "regular supper" that included tamales, enchiladas, and chili con carne that sounds mighty similar to the ever-popular combination plate. The prominence of cumin in Tex-Mex recipes, the world's first chili powder factory, and the widespread practice of using dehydrated corn flour to make masa harina (rather than fresh masa that quickly spoiled) all came out of San Antonio.
Walsh points out that "Tex-Mex" wasn't even ascribed with a separate moniker until around 1972, when Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy (a native of England who moved to the country in the 1950) published her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico. In it she pointedly lambasted the border cooking of Texas, which had spread across the country and was accepted by Americans as representative of all Mexican fare, which of course it wasn't.
Kennedy had a point: The regional foods of Mexico deserve documentation and acknowledgment. But that does not have to come at the expense of Tex-Mex. When it's done right, when the polarities of spiciness and blandness and ooze and crunch converge onto heaping plates, it's irresistible comfort. The emphasis on processed cheese is also overblown. John Garcia, whose father Julio opened Garcia's in 1962, told me the kitchen uses cheddar-like Longhorn Colby in the cheese enchiladas, which might account for the extra umami nip that made them so satisfying.
Garcia's dining room — decorated with trippy gold wallpaper and old-timey portraits of cowboys — was packed. I went because three Texas food writers separately mentioned it to me, and they all told me to order the barbecued brisket taco. Its construct is ingenious and straightforward, and it smartly unites the current barbecue and taco obsessions blazing across the country. John Garcia's brother Andrew smokes 20 or so hunks of spice-rubbed beef nightly over oak. Then the kitchen lays an oblong slice or two of brisket, the fat rendered and the pink smoke ring prominent, over a plush homemade flour tortilla with a smear of mashed avocado and a side of pico de gallo.
A handy general rule about Tex-Mex restaurants: find the one dish each place does exceptionally well
In Dallas I picked up a handy general rule about Tex-Mex restaurants: Very few of them excel at every dish, so find the one thing each place does exceptionally well. The choice is obvious at Ray's Drive Inn, which bills itself as the "home of the original puffy taco" — a specialty of the Lopez family, who started the restaurant in 1956, in which tortillas freshly made from corn flour dough are fried until they gently balloon. (Members of the same family also run Henry's Puffy Tacos, another San Antonio favorite.) The vibe at Ray's leans honky-tonk retro and the puffy tacos — filled with seasoned ground beef or avocado or pulled chicken and the usual tomato-lettuce-grated-cheese garnish — crackle and deflate as you fold them and stuff them in your face. Everyone should experience their novelty at least once.
And given their popularity, it's no surprise that other restaurants emulate them. A shapely version of the puffy taco was the standout dish at the original Los Barrios in central San Antonio, which offers a sprawling list of nachos and combo plates as well as "Continental" Mexican dishes like cabrito (roasted goat), a favored dish in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, 330 miles south of San Antonio.
Places like Los Barrios, a family-run restaurant since 1976, label themselves simply as "Mexican restaurants." Few longstanding businesses go out of their way to specifically adopt a "Tex-Mex" tag, particularly when their kitchens dabble in various types of Mexican recipes. Expanding the repetiore of Mexican cooking is all part of the cuisine's — and the city's — evolution. As much as I champion the excellence of San Antonio's Tex-Mex cooking, I also don't believe that its culinary culture should stay mired in the past.
Perhaps a crucial component of San Antonio's future dining scene is not a pan-global panoply or the replication of old-fashioned Tex-Mex but a modern look at the city's deep Mexican roots. Over the last few decades new generations of Mexican immigrants have began introducing the dining public to the recipes; San Antonio and the country at large are moving into an era when a greater variety of Mexican dishes are being embraced more and more in every level of restaurant culture. Several of my more noteworthy meals in the city suggested such a direction.
Mom-and-pop charmer Cascabel Mexican Patio serves easygoing dishes inspired from interior Mexican cooking: quesadillas stuffed with huitlacoche (corn fungus), Oaxacan mole verde, the roast pork dish scented with orange and sweet spices from the Yucatan Peninsula called cochinita pibil. Cascabel's mix-and-match approach to serving different regional specialties leans to American tastes, but the food is decidedly not Tex-Mex.
At La Gloria in the Pearl district, San Antonio native Johnny Hernandez pushes modern Mexican further, offering his versions of street foods he encountered during travels in Mexico: shrimp agua chile, tortas filled with breaded beef cutlets, tacos, and (the don't-miss order) tlayudas, the pizza-like Oaxacan specialty in which pureed beans, string cheese and meats like shredded beef or chicken cover a massive corn tortilla.
And chefs Diego Galicia and Rico Torres beam Mexico's cuisines into heady modernist dimensions at Mixtli, San Antonio's most avant-garde restaurant. Every three months or so the duo comes up with an interpretive theme around which to build elaborate tasting menus: Currently they're serving La Conquista, in which they imagine the journey that the Spanish conquistadors took from their homeland to Mexico in the 1500s. The first course, for instance, conjures Spain with a sculptural plate of pata negra (or "black hoof," one of the most prized of Ibérico hams), grapes filled with smoked tuna morphed into white pearls, and dots of aged sherry vinegar.
If Galicia and Torres's engrossing conceptual meals haven't earned more notice beyond San Antonio, it's probably because so few people experience them: The restaurant, housed in a refurbished railroad box car, seats twelve and serves one dinner nightly. (And spots fill quickly.) In May Diego Galicia opened the more casual and accessible Mezcaleria Mixtli in a shopping center next door to their tiny flagship. It serves traditional Mexican snacks like chicharrones and cebollitas and small plates of meats such as tinga de pollo — chicken simmered in chipotle sauce with mint. To drink: cocktails concocted from agave spirits and over 50 mezcals served in gorgeous ceramic cups with sides of citrus and chile.
I was particularly smitten with the mezcaleria, which illuminates regional Mexican flavors in a way that's literally easy to ingest. Savoring a not-too-smoky Vago Tobalá with notes of pineapple and allspice could not be more different than downing a slushy margarita.
Given the recent, nascent evolution in tastes and interests, could San Antonio be the vanguard for a unified new landscape of Mexican cuisine, one that honors the region's Tex-Mex past while also heralding an enlightened age of south-of-the-border gastronomy? Too early to tell. But my visit left me daydreaming about a San Antonio chef who might take all this history and breadth and transform it at the stoves in ways that reflects the city's heritage and its future. That, I imagine, is something the nation is hungry for.
Garcia's Mexican Restaurant: 842 Fredericksburg Road, (210) 735-5686
Cured: 306 Pearl Parkway, San Antonio, (210) 314-3929, curedatpearl.com
Osteria Il Sogno: 200 East Grayson Street, San Antonio, (210) 223-3900
Southerleigh: 136 East Grayson Street, San Antonio, (210) 455-5702, southerleigh.com
The Granary 'Cue & Brew: 602 Avenue A, San Antonio, (210) 228-0124, thegranarysa.com
Feast: 1024 South Alamo Street, San Antonio, (210) 354-1024, feastsa.com
The Cookhouse: 720 East Mistletoe Ave, San Antonio, (210) 320-8211, cookhouserestaurant.com
Hot Joy: 1014 South Alamo Street, San Antonio, (210) 368-9324, hotjoysa.com
Ray's Drive Inn: 822 Southwest 19th Street, San Antonio, (210) 432-7171, raysdriveinn.net
Los Barrios: 4223 Blanco Road, San Antonio, (210) 732-6017, losbarrios1.com
Cascabel Mexican Patio: 1000 South St. Mary's Street, San Antonio, (210) 212-6456
La Gloria: 100 East Grayson Street, San Antonio, (210) 267-9040, chefjohnnyhernandez.com/lagloria
Mixtli: 5251 McCullough Avenue, San Antonio, (210) 338-0746, restaurantmixtli.com
Mezcaleria Mixtli: 5313 McCullough Avenue, San Antonio, (856) 630-5142, mezcaleriamixtli.com