From Tex-Mex capital to eclectic dining destination
Since the long-ago days when San Antonio’s famous Chili Queens served chile con carne and other Mexican-American dishes in the plazas downtown, the Alamo City has held court as the world capital of Tex-Mex. Today, venerable institutions like Mi Tierra, which draws crowds to El Mercado as it has since 1941, and La Fonda on Main, which celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2012, still carry on the Tex-Mex tradition. Yet, about a decade ago, a group of adventurous chefs set out to expose residents and visitors alike to global influences and ingredients. High-end mixology is on the rise, too, as evidenced by the popular steakhouse Bohanan’s recent focus on the “golden age” of New York cocktails, and the refurbishing of The Esquire, which dates to 1933 and now boasts a menu of “boutique” libations and tavern-style bar fare.
“San Antonio is now ready for a variety of concepts,” says Andrew Weissman, whose seafood restaurant, Sandbar Fish House & Market, and Italian trattoria, Il Sogno Osteria, have helped revitalize the Pearl Brewery complex. His latest project is The Luxury, a restaurant built from cargo containers that will open soon across the river from the San Antonio Museum of Art. The menu presents Weissman’s take on truck-stop food, with items such as Kansas City-style brisket sandwiches and fried chicken with waffles.
Then there’s Jason Dady, a multi--talented, adventurous chef who has been at the forefront of San Antonio’s dining scene since his first restaurant, The Lodge, opened in 2001 and quickly became a fine dining favorite. Since then, he has opened a handful of successful eateries in partnership with his wife, Crystal, and his brother Jake, including Bin 555, Tre Trattoria, and Two Bros. BBQ. Earlier this year, Dady announced he will soon close The Lodge to focus on his other properties, including Tre, where he serves Italian comfort food like wood-fired pizzas and handmade pasta; and Bin 555, where he offers a changing menu of dishes like sweet-bread taquitos with serrano-pepper crema, Indian naan with roasted-garlic butter, and seared diver scallops with Spanish chorizo. Keeping up with the latest trend, Dady serves global fare like duck confit tacos and blue crab green curry from a mobile “food truck” eatery called the DUK (Dady’s Underground Kitchen) Truck, of-ten found at the Boardwalk on Bulverde, San Antonio’s main spot for food trailers.
About a decade ago, chefs here set out to expose diners to global influences and ingredients.
A new culinary wave is also taking place in Southtown, where a “New American” restaurant called The Monterey is turning heads with its locally sourced and organic fare. “Because of our name, people think we are a Mexican restaurant,” says owner Chad Carey. “Boy, are they surprised when they come in.” And so was I, as I enjoyed a superlative appetizer of corned beef tongue with an Asian-style sweet chili glaze crowned with a tiny salad of jicama matchsticks. With its diner ambiance and plant-filled patio, The Monterey is now on my San Antonio “must visit” list.
Impressed with the support San Antonio’s restaurateurs showed their New Orleans peers in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans chef John Besh chose the River Walk as the site for his brasserie Lüke, his first restaurant outside of Louisiana. A blend of New Orleans classics like oysters on the half-shell and a pressed cochon de lait (suckling pig) po-boy share the menu with steaks, Gulf Coast seafood, Hill Country cabrito, and a smattering of German dishes like jaegerschnitzel and bratwurst. Don’t miss the “shrimp in a cup” appetizer, a pile of piping hot, juicy fried shrimp tossed in a spicy mayonnaise. And Lüke serves the best bloody mary I’ve had outside of the Bayou City, a 32-ounce libation garnished with pickled vegetables, a pickled quail egg, two large cocktail shrimp, and a shot of local beer on the side.
Across the street at Citrus, inside the Hotel Valencia, Chef Jeff Balfour tells me that San Antonio diners are growing more adventuresome. “Thanks to the development at Pearl, people are willing to try new things,” he says. Balfour, a native of Galveston, combines his affinity for Gulf seafood (the crab cakes with toasted pumpkin seeds and avocado are a local legend) with a preference for local and regional ingredients. The result is dishes such as his pan-roasted South Texas antelope served with honey-chipotle potato purée and mustard greens. Make sure to try the paella; Balfour took first place this year at the Pearl’s Cocina de las Americas Paella Cook-Off.
My husband and I joined Balfour and his family for lunch at Mariscos El Bucanero, a no-frills, very affordable restaurant in southeast San Antonio that Balfour described as having “the best Mexican seafood in town.” The owners, the Cervantes family, hail from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, where seafood is abundant. We enjoyed a platter brimming with raw oysters, boiled shrimp, tangy ceviches of shrimp, fish, and octopus, and shredded crab salad, alongside the best aguachile of shrimp I have had outside of Mexico. It goes to show that even San Antonio’s Mexican cuisine is getting a revitalizing shot in the arm dur-ing the city’s culinary revolution.