Taco Bell™ and El Paso™ tacos with ground beef and shredded processed cheese or, if I kicked up a notch, maybe fish tacos and fajitas, were pretty much my points of reference for Tex-Mex food. But a couple of days spent noshing around San Antonio, Texas, empties my head of such erroneous notions. The real McCoy Tex-Mex features dishes layered with smoky and subtle–and sometimes not so subtle—spices. This style of cooking carries the legacy of cowboy cooking over an open fire combined with the Mexican penchant for char and chili. Now that’s the real Tex-Mex deal.
It’s early morning when Edmund Tijerina, food and dining writer for The San Antonio Express News, steers me through an unassuming San Antonio neighborhood toward El Milagrito, a down-to-earth Tex-Mex cafe packed with suited-, booted- and blue collared types. Squeeze bottles of mild-ish red and searingly hot green sauces adorn very table.
We dive into over-easy eggs and slivers of sautéed tender nopal (cactus) napped with smoky and earthy tomatillo salsa. “In Mexico, you might just get shredded beef in a tortilla,” Tierra says. “But here in San Antonio, we tend to give more depth to texture and taste.”
Tierra’s barbacoa taco of braised beef brisket that collapses with a mere touch of the fork is delicious proof. He offers me a bit of the taco scattered with a little diced red onion and a dash of lime. It’s so delicious, there’s no need for the squeeze bottle.
In mid-afternoon at the Alamo Brewery, a beer, one of the better American pilsners I’ve had, refreshes my palate.
Mi Tierra is a 75-year-old, family-owned San Antonio “institution” with cheery, festively lit dining rooms and an enormous mural festooned with famous Latinos, including musician Carlos Santana (who, I’m told, pops by for take-out when he’s in town).
Here, fire and smoke come together in a meaty medley of roasted jalapeno-spiked chunks of slow roasted goat, pork chop flecked with orange and spices, and slow cooked beef tongue accompanied by warm, puffy flour or biscuit-like corn tortillas. A margarita muddled with fresh limes cuts a tangy swath through the rich trio.
Pearl: A Gem of a District
San Antonio’s Pearl District is a chic mix of boutiques, bookshops, coffee bars, eateries, and the stunning Hotel Emma. Every Saturday, the empty blacktop just inside Pearl’s entrance is transformed into a buzzing farmers’ market that’s packed with residents and visitors alike.
The Pearl is also home to the newest campus of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and, due to the city’s strong Mexican culture, offers an intensive Latino culinary program. The students, many Latino and ex-military, must be able to take the “heat” of this teaching kitchen. They man hell-fire stoves or wait tables during lunch.
Chef-Instructor Justin Ward looks to countries like Brazil, Peru, Chile, and Argentina for his contemporary twists on fire and smoke. He treats grilled octopus, baby arugula and tiny purple potatoes to splendid smoked lemon vinaigrette. In a riff on Mexico’s snack–sized street food, Ward mixes charred corn kernels with mayonnaise, lime, pequin chilies and cilantro and tops it with crunchy, mesquite-grilled shrimp.
I saddle up to the bar and watch the goings on in the open kitchen. Across from me and my “Latin Mary” (sokol tequila and tomato juice zapped with smoked sea salt, habanero and cilantro), a hulk of a fellow deftly blisters chilies and fire-roasts tomatoes for salsa redolent with sweet, spice and smoke.
Chef Ward tells me, “Depending on the ingredients, we use a number of sources to bring out bold flavours and smoky notes—wood-fired ovens, open flame, cast iron pans, grills or a make-shift stovetop smoker.” Whatever the source(s), the results are damn fine.
In the same space (but not belonging to)as the Hotel Emma, Southerleigh Gastro-bar is where Saturday market tour guide Julia Rosenthal (aka Julia Celeste), owner of Food Chick Tours, and I settle our weary feet. She suggests we skip Tex-Mex and go for fried snapper throats, a Southerleigh signature dish. It’s no wonder. The fish collars, with fin intact, are perfectly seasoned, and offer a crunch that gives way to the sweetest, most tender fish I have ever tasted. Dipped into house-made remoulade sauce, they are fabulously messy and particularly tasty when we wash them down with a house- made citrusy, hoppy IPA.
Later, after a stroll and a coffee, we head to Cured, nattily named not for just house made and cured sausages and charcuterie that hang from hooks throughout the rustic, chic space, but also for owner Steve McHugh who was cured of cancer. It’s Happy Hour, but I’m still pretty darned full. Yet I can’t resist a cup of smoked pork shoulder gumbo, a thick stew with a delicious taste of New Orleans. When paired with a surprisingly good glass of Texas Viognier, it hits all the right flavor notes.
Many tourists hear about and limit their visit to San Antonio’s unique Riverwalk. I did on my first day and night there. A stroll along the winding stone pathways with their tiny, Venice style bridges is a wonderful way to while away a balmy evening over a snack and a drink. (I suggest trying corn-based cocktails at the Esquire Tavern downstairs’ bar and worming your way into Boudros, if you can manage it.) However, if you want a real taste of San Antonio and its authentic Tex-Mex and more, venture away from the touristy places. Eat where the locals eat. That’s where you’ll find the real taste of San Antonio. — Story by Julie Pegg, RFT Senior Wine & Spirits Editor