Puffy tacos. Breakfast tacos. Fish tacos. This threesome comprises only a small part of San Antonio's gastronomy. In a city where Tex-Mex and regional Mexican restaurants are as plentiful as churches in Charlotte, how does one choose?
Having had my share of bad food at home has made me think twice before I open just any door in someone else's town. A recent conference in San Antonio prompted an Internet scan for information about that city's local eateries. Rather than rely on anonymous bloggers or site commentators, I opted to communicate with someone who has been eating his way around his city block -- both literally and professionally.
This is how I found Edmund Tijerina, a food writer for the San Antonio Express-News. I read a blog he had written in response to the New York Times "parachuting" Southern food writer John T. Edge into Austin to write abut the origins of the breakfast taco (evidently, breakfast tacos originated in San Antonio). In his blog, Tijerina offered to take any out-of-state food writers "to any number of taquerias and Tex-Mex joints around this city; that way they can expand their understanding and their waistlines."
I took Tijerina at his word and sent an e-mail. I wrote he didn't need to take me around, but I would like some pointers. I asked for three eateries which would give me a well-rounded view of San Antonio's local foods.
Tijerina sent me a three-page e-mail detailing choices.
Those pages became magical. Tijerina's list, now folded and stained with chipotle salsa, is broken into recommendations for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Places varied from Chela's Taco, a "cherry red" taco truck, and Ray's Drive In, home of the puffy taco, to Biga on the Banks, an eatery owned by Bruce Auden, a James Beard Award-nominated chef.
My first stop turned out to be my favorite. Ácenar: HotMex CoolBar is located on the city's renowned Riverwalk, near hotels and tourists to be sure, but charming nevertheless, with a patio built above the sidewalk allowing an unhampered view of the waterway. The inventive tinga (a kind of stew) duck chalupa was a singular sensation: a tangle of shredded duck on a crisp red corn chalupa shell (like a tostada, but three-dimensional) with a layer of thinly sliced cabbage slaw spiked with bits of house-made Mexican-styled chorizo. Fabulous.
Also on Tijerina's list is Ácenar's sibling restaurant, Rosario's, a rocking place in a nearby suburb of King William District, a historic area like Dilworth before total renovation. (Rosario's owners also have a place in the San Antonio airport.) The menu here is also trendy TexMex, but the margaritas are what most people come for -- at least that's how it appeared from my corner table. While Ácenar's clients are primarily tourists, Rosario's clearly has a loyal local following.
"You must have the fish tacos," my server insists. "Texas Monthly said they are the second best taco in the state." I considered this for a moment: Why would a server boast about having second best? Then I had them. The key to tacos is not the filling -- here, grilled tilapia -- it's the tortilla. In all the places I ate in San Antonio, tortillas were made in-house and griddled immediately before serving. Food, even the basics, is taken seriously here.
An eating binge in San Antonio is not complete without a visit to Mi Tierra, a kitschy 24/7 landmark restaurant which seats 500 and is packed. Local families, some celebrating a quinceañera, filled the long tables seating two dozen while smaller tables accommodate camera-toting tourists. All are entertained by tableside musicians. I sat under the larger-than-life portrait of Selena, the Tejano singer.
In addition to their larger-than-life dining areas and the side Mariachi bar, Mi Tierra is known for their extensive bakery with cookies; sweet breads; Mexican candies such as the banderilla de coco, a coconut bar, with the colors of the Mexican flag; pecan pralines; empanadas (including a rustic one filled with spicy sweet potato), candied oranges and pumpkin slices; ojos; gingerbread; and pineapple scones.
San Antonio restaurants range from regional Mexican to chef-driven, the latter offering such unique regional dishes as crepas de huitlacoche (corn fungus crepes). With such culinary diversity and time constraints, I was thankful to have the skinny from an insider. So thanks, Edmund, and by the way, I agree with your wife: The margaritas at Rosario's are spot on.
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