Dear San Antonio,
I asked you to show me the Tex-Mex, and you did. And then some. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first. I mean, I was down for some good ol’ Tex-Mex. Yet no two people there could point me in the same direction. I was nervous. Only time (and puffy tacos) was to tell.
My first afternoon I headed over to Mi Tierra Restaurant, an over-decorated, tourist-loaded, ginormous restaurant of sorts. But wait… there were ALSO plenty of locals here. I was confused. I ordered two tacos, a Carnitas Michoacan and a Carne Asada.
The Carne Asada was your typical grilled beef in a flour tortilla. The Carnitas Michoacan, on the other hand, was something special. Carnitas literally means “little meats” and refers to meat that has been braised or roasted and usually pulled. This specific carnitas was described as pork tips marinated in orange and spices. It arrived on a flour tortilla as chunks of tender and delicious braised pork that melted in my mouth. Chalk one up for Mi Tierra.
Mi Tierra Café & Bakery, 218 Produce Row, San Antonio, TX, 210-225-1262, www.mitierracafe.com
After my taco sampler at Mi Tierra, I headed over to Taco Taco. Taco Taco is only open during the day and was recently voted the best taco in San Antonio. Upon entering, I was greeted by the Greek owner, Helen, who, immediately upon seeing my interest in her food, insisted that I eat everything that she eats.
And I mean everything. I started with what Helen eats for breakfast in the morning: the Chilaquiles Taco, a mixture of scrambled eggs and crushed tortilla strips with tomato and onion, all scrambled and served in a homemade tortilla. Next was Helen’s healthier lunch, a Taco Salad filled to the brim in a homemade taco shell with meat, guacamole, cheese, tomato and shredded lettuce.
For the hat trick she went with the dish that made her famous: the El Norteño, a gigantic homemade tortilla stuffed with your choice of chicken or meat, along with cheese, onions and more.
Not to be outdone, I insisted on trying a Taco al Pastor, because I rarely meet one I don’t like. It was spiced up and served in a homemade corn tortilla. Finally, I knew that I couldn’t leave Taco Taco without trying a puffy taco. A puffy taco is a soft corn tortilla that is deep-fried into the shape of a taco shell. It is then filled with your choice of taco filling. The texture of the puffed shell a little crispy on the outside, with a slight chew once you get in there – if you let it sit for too long, it will sog out on you. As my cab driver had said, “If you haven’t had a Puffy Taco, you’re not livin’.” So I did. (picture at top of page)
Taco Taco Café, 145 E Hildebrand Ave, San Antonio, TX, 210-822-9533, www.tacotacosa.com
Dinner that evening was at famed New Orleans chef John Besh’s Luke restaurant. His restaurants in New Orleans have been on my list, so I was happy to have the opportunity for a first taste of his cuisine while in San Antonio. I sat at the bar of this casual restaurant on the Riverwalk and dabbled in a bunch of appetizers. Luckily, my new neighbor friends were there to help. I started with the Fried Texas Quail with buttermilk ranch and blue sage honey.
Arriving next was the Mesquite Smoked Pork Ribs with pepper jelly glaze, preceded by their presentation under a mouthwatering smoking dome wafting in my face – followed by fantastic ribs at that. Along with the ribs I ordered the shrimp in a cup: batter-fried shrimp tossed in a spicy sauce that were, as the name suggests, served in a cup. The char flavor of the handcrafted bratwurst that I added was complemented by the warm kraut-like mixture served with it. For dessert was the famous Bread Pudding with vanilla bean ice cream and hot buttered pecan sauce. Need I say more?
Luke San Antonio, 175 East Houston Street, San Antonio, TX, 210-227-5853, www.lukesanantonio.com
The next evening I followed a tweet from Chef Rick Bayless, who was also in San Antonio, and headed over to Sandbar Fish House & Market. I sat at the raw bar and grabbed a quick appetizer and a side- the Scallop Sashimi with yuzu and hot sesame oil, as well as the Asian Slaw.
The sashimi was fresh, light, delicious and bursting with that quintessential Japanese citrus yuzu flavor. I was sorry I was not eating a whole meal there.
Sandbar Fish House & Market, 200 E. Grayson St # 117, San Antonio, TX, 210-222-2426
I took a break for a few hours before heading over to the famed Bruce Auden’s Biga on the Banks for dinner. I had heard about Bruce for many years from a former colleague who used to work for him. I sat at the bar next to a few locals and let the bartender and the locals guide me, as Bruce tends to change his menu on a daily basis. My meal started off strong with a fine example of the chef’s signature artistic presentation, the Bibb and Radicchio Game Packets.
A blend of ground quail, bison, elk and ostrich all resting in a lettuce and radicchio cup, they were served with a duo of hot and sweet Asian chili sauces. Next was the Habanero Jerk Scallops with cheesy grits and pineapple rum chutney, along with a side of Israeli Couscous with creamy bacon sauce
and truffle oil, plus homemade Pork Pot Stickers with orange chili oil and spicy red currant sauce. A gentleman sitting next to me who claimed that he ate there three times a week was savoring the Chicken-fried Oysters with squid ink linguini and sent a bite my way. Inspired, the three ladies at the end of the bar who had the Sizzling Smoky Mushrooms passed down a bite! For dessert, I was not going to miss the opportunity to try the famed Sticky Toffee Pudding, and I didn’t.
Biga, 203 South St Marys Street, San Antonio, TX, 210-225-0722, www.biga.com
At dinner the night before, a local at the bar next to me tipped me off about Taco Port for some quintessential Tex-Mex. As the name suggests, Taco Port is located near the airport, although it is now named El Taco y La Tequila. It sits back in an industrial park area and is currently open during the week for breakfast and lunch. I later learned that the owner had some health problems and brought in Jaime, the gentleman I met, to take over for the time being. Jaime fixed up the place a bit and brought his chef skills from his six restaurants in Mexico on up to San Antonio. While San Antonio locals are all about Tex-Mex and not too much Mexican, Jaime will see how it plays out.
I went up to the counter and started chatting for a bit, only to see Jaime break out a jar of what looked like dark brown mud.
This was his mole and he insisted that I must try it because he imports each ingredient through customs from Mexico. Basically, I let Jaime do the ordering for me. He even served me my food, with instruction like, “Only take one bite,” and, “Just eat half of that.” He understood me and I loved it. He threw down Green Chile Enchiladas
and a Catfish Taco, the special of the day, followed by a Taco al Pastor.
When I told him that I would be happy to try anything, he added a Cochinita Tostada with beans. The key here was that the tostada shell was baked and not fried, and indeed, I didn’t miss the fried shell one bit.
Everything was accompanied by Jamie’s special sauces, which he brought to the table in plastic bottles. Finally, the show-stealer arrived: the Enchilada Mole. THE ENCHILADA MOLE.
The brown mole that glazed the enchilada with a slightly spicy yet sweet heat that literally made me want to lick the plate clean. This place was the real deal.
El Taco y La Taquila, 427 East Ramsey Road, San Antonio, TX, 210-342-7381
San Antonio, you may have started off on a slow foot for me, but you ended with a huge stomp. All the talk may be about your puffy tacos and Tex-Mex food, but there’s a cowboy of culinary talent under that hat.
Andrew “Kappy” Kaplan loves food. A professionally trained chef, these days you’ll find him on the road talking up kids and cooking as Director of Yum-o! and keeping special projects running smoothly for Rach, all the while taking a bite here and a bite there as he samples and shares local flavor from across the country, from taco trucks to fancier finds. Follow Kappy on Twitter to see what’s On Kappy’s Plate!