Last weekend I was able to fulfill a long-standing dream of mine: visiting San Antonio, Texas. Why San Antonio, you ask? Well, there’s the historic Alamo, the touristy River Walk, and many other cultural and historic sights. But this city has also been the mecca of Tex-Mex food in my eyes (and also a stop on my “BBQ of the U.S.” tour) for longer than I can remember.
I had been planning this culinary pilgrimage for almost two months, as soon as I found out I was going (courtesy of wonderful boyfriend and free airline tickets), and did extensive research on just about every Tex-Mex/barbecue/Mexican restaurant in town. My main goal was to stay away from eating on the River Walk as much as possible, since it contained mostly overpriced tourist traps with bland interpretations of the authentic Tex-Mex food I sought. This weekend getaway made me feel like Giada on one of her “Weekend Getaways” (minus the camera in my face).
To give you a little background information first, Tex-Mex is cuisine influenced by Mexican-Americans who came to settle in Texas. Many dishes that we here in the States consider Mexican food are actually originated in Texas, such as burritos, fajitas, nachos, chili con queso, and the combination plate, to name a few. It’s like Mexican food that’s been, as I like to call it, “gringo-fied” to our American palates by smothering just about everything with cheese, meat, and beans. And Texas barbecue is best known for using mainly beef (brisket) and dry rub instead of sauce during the cooking process.
Our first stop in San Antonio was Rosario’s in the Southtown district, for lunch. I read pretty good reviews about the place and knew that it was a favorite with the locals (good sign). They served traditional Tex-Mex staples in a kitschy, diner-like atmosphere that reminded me of “Back to the Future, Part 2” (the ’50s meets the ’80s’ futuristic vision of “retro”) and it looked to be a popular spot for the local business crowd. Their house made salsa was flavorful and just the right amount of spicy — which means too spicy for most gringo palates. We ordered Micheladas to drink, which is a Mexican beer of your choice with fresh lime juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire, pepper, and a salted chili-lime rim. It was like the Mexican version of a Bloody Mary without the tomato juice and it could have used it to tone down the heavy taste of lime.
I had the “puffy tacos”- white corn tortillas that are deep fried until light and crispy, then immediately folded and filled with ground beef, lettuce, cheese, etc. Since I also wanted to try their house mole (MOH-lay) sauce, I convinced my boyfriend to get the pork enchiladas with mole sauce. The mole was sweet, dark, and rich, with a good dose of spice and very cinnamon forward. I also have to give the place kudos on the refried beans, which usually I am not a fan of, because they were made from scratch and very flavorful. For dessert, we decided to head down a few blocks to the Blue Star Brewing Company for a lovely flight of their six current beers on tap. Their King William Ale and IPA were my favorites. Bonus tourist points for the brewery: They rent out bikes!
After searching far and wide for a barbecue joint for dinner, using local guides and our last bartender, we succumbed to the River Walk, seeing as downtown San Antonio didn’t have an abundance of traditional Texas barbecue places. Having its second strike against it with it being a chain, The County Line BBQ surprised me. With their huge hunks of tender ribs, tasty smoked brisket and turkey, tangy sauce served on the side and flavorful garlic mashed potatoes that rival mine (and mine are damn good), they definitely redeemed themselves.
Breakfast the next morning was also on the River Walk, only because I had seen what a great deal Zuni Grill was (and it beat paying fifteen bucks for continental breakfast at our hotel). The portions were huge for the price ($8 per meal) and they even kept with the Mexican theme, which I liked because I am a sucker for salsa on my eggs and peppers in everything.
Being so full from the last 24 hours of eating, lunch consisted of a tall cold one at Dick’s Last Resort on the River Walk. Okay, originally I said I wouldn’t dine at these places but I never said I wouldn’t drink at them. Yes, this was a tourist trap kind of place, but it was actually a lot of fun — where else can you go where the wait staff shamelessly makes fun you? One of their trademarks is to make large paper hats for guests that say inappropriate things, like, “I pee standing up” on some young woman, and “The carpet matches the oh, um…never mind” on some blond lady. As for food, it was pretty basic burgers, fries, etc.
Mi Tierra Cafe over at the Market Square was our destination for dinner. We had heard from people over here that this was a not-to-miss spot for authentic Mexican food. We had also heard of there being a two hour wait for a table BUT that this was a huge hit with the locals. The place was a zoo and our wait was a little less than two hours in total (almost 30 minutes in line just to get to the host stand), but it gave us a chance to walk around the Market Square which was filled with little shops and food stands. I felt like I was transported to Mexico, with the authentic street food stalls preparing made-to-order tacos, taquitos, and even agua frescas. And if you’re in the market for an authentic-looking luchador wrestler mask or cheap Mexican trinkets and hats, then this is your place. Across the street is the Farmer’s Market, which is a huge long stall that has been converted into an enclosed building, where farmers and vendors still sell their wares, just like they did over two hundred years ago.
Okay, back to dinner: Mi Tierra has been serving up traditional Tex-Mex dishes 24 hours a day with the Cortez’s family recipes since they opened their doors in 1943. To get a sample of their best dishes, we both got combination plates. Mine came with a cheese enchilada, a tamale stuffed with shredded pork, and a crispy taco, not to mention the standard refried beans and rice. The food here is standard Mexican but it’s the ambiance that really makes the place: multi-colored lights and traditional decorations adorning every ceiling and wall, creating a fun and inviting atmosphere. Bonus: They have a bakery on site and you can buy one of the many freshly baked treats they offer on your way out.
To end the night, we headed to Swig on the River Walk, a martini and cigar bar. Apparently, this is where the young, twentysomething locals head to mingle on weekend nights. They offered a large wine and martini menu, with drinks like the Vesper (any James Bond fans?), the Red Slipper and the Flirtini (made popular by “Sex and the City”). Plus side of the place, I could smoke a cigar whilst enjoying my wine without getting dirty looks, the wine selection was great and they had a live DJ; down side: standing shoulder to shoulder with everyone around me. I then remembered why I don’t go to places like this on Thursday through Saturday nights.
We had almost another whole day scheduled which unfortunately got cut short by having to hop on an earlier flight home (the down side of having free standby tickets). Oh well, at least I know of even more places to venture to the next time I get out to San Antonio, thanks to the suggestions of locals I had chatted with. And I have to say that the River Walk dining exceeded my expectations. There are a good number of diverse restaurants and some are even Zagat-rated. I definitely would recommend doing at least a weekend in this diverse city — there is so much to see, do, and eat! This ‘Tour de Gastronomy’ would be one to remember. And repeat.
Other places to check out:
Boudro’s Texas Bistro– Tex-Mex/Southwestern Gulf Coast cuisine
Biga on the Banks– the highest Zagat-rated restaurant on the River Walk, offering fresh, seasonal Texas/Southern/Southwestern-inspired gourmet cuisine
Tito’s Mexican Restaurant– traditional Mexican that comes highly recommended by locals
Taco Cabana– Yeah, it’s fast food, but the place originated in San Antonio! Plus, they make their tortillas from scratch and they’re open 24 hours a day.