“Where am I?” I chuckled to myself as I sipped my nearly-overflowing pomegranate margarita and took in the scene around me. There was literally so much tinsel and confetti hanging from the ceiling and walls that I felt like I was the drunk uncle who’d just crashed his niece’s Quinceanera. And let me tell you: I was loving that vibe.
Food as a celebratory experience? I’m always here for it. And there’s a lot of that in San Antonio.
It’s always been a dream of mine to take a road trip through Texas and, though that dream is still on the horizon, when I had the opportunity to visit San Antonio recently I jumped headfirst at the chance. Why? San Antonio may not be the first city you think of when someone says “Texas,” but it’s got plenty going for it. It’s the seventh-largest city in the US and the second-largest in Texas; it’s also the formal birthplace of Tex Mex food, boasting a long history of Spanish, Mexican, and Indigenous influences; and it’s got beautiful options for working all those calories off, with the famed Riverwalk making it one of the best big cities for outdoor lovers in the nation.
Hence my delight while sitting in Mi Tierra Cafe at Market Square, accomplishing the sole purpose of my trip — eating my way through San Antonio with a margarita always nearby. And though the tinsel and confetti peaked at this first stop, as I explored the city via food I found plenty more restaurants worth celebrating. Entries in the local culinary conversation that are helping grow the city’s nascent reputation as a food-centric destination.
Here are my five favorites.
THE CLASSIC — TEX MEX
I’m going to kick things off with Mi Tierra because it’s iconic in the San Antonio Tex Mex scene. This ever-expanding family-owned restaurant has been a staple in the local food community for over 75 years. Decorated in hundreds of lights, piñatas, and the aforementioned tinsel, it’s a nice balance of kitsch and serious culinary cred.
Open 24-7 Mi Tierra is widely-known as one of the best late-night food spots in the city, with margaritas served in glasses the size of your head. There’s a bakery attached to the restaurant, so save some room for dessert and pan dulces. I recommend their Caramel Cajeta Cheesecake with a side of chocolate stuffed churros.
THE HYBRID — TEX MIX
Burgerteca is not your average burger joint. As a matter of fact, take what you think you know about America’s mostly widely beloved food item, throw it out the window, and let Chef Johnny Hernandez surprise you with his Mexican twist on the genre. Burgerteca is San Antonio-born Chef Johnny Hernandez fourth restaurant and in these parts he’s considered a bit of a local celebrity. Walking in, the restaurant is bright, colorful, spacious, and decked out in playful “Day Of The Dead” inspired art.
The dining experience itself is super laid back and casual, a perfect pit stop for a quick and delicious nibble between exploring nearby neighborhoods. Items like the “Al Pastor burger” (inspired by the iconic taco) and Chicken Chipotle are two of the most popular items on their menu, but I implore you not to skip out on trying the Queso Fundido Fries with poblanos and chorizo or their house-made chips (they grow their own corn just for them). They are a joy to behold.
THE UPSCALE ENTRY — TEX COMPLEX
Hands down my favorite meal during my time in San Antonio came at Chef Geronimo Lopez’s Peruvian, Chinese, and Japanese fusion restaurant Botika. Located in the Historic Pearl District the restaurant was busy with people eating, drinking and enjoying their Friday nights. Considering you don’t often see this mix of cuisine, choosing dishes was difficult at first, but between my friends and I, we were able to order practically everything on the menu.
Although the evening’s special — a squid ink risotto with seared scallops, ahi amarillo aioli, and calamari — was originally ordered for the table I definitely took the lion’s share. With each morsel I consumed, both my admiration for Chef Geronimo Lopez and my belly grew.
Everything we ended up eating here was exquisite, so believe me when I say — as cliche as it is — that at Botika there are no wrong choices.
THE MODERN EATERY — TEX NEXT
Tucked into a maze of shops known as ‘The Alley on Bitters’ sits a new contender and a rising star in San Antonio’s food scene — Meadow Neighborhood Eatery and Bar. Husband and wife duo PJ and Lindsey Edwards have deep ties to San Antonio and work with local ranchers and farmers to create seasonal dishes best described as “elevated Texas Southern.”
Much like the food itself, the restaurant interior is modern yet comforting. From the dairy-free fried chicken (the most popular dish on the menu) to the steak tartare and beet salad (chef’s favorite and mine too), everything the Edwards’ served up was mouthwatering and delicious. Needless to say what was supposed to be a quick meal willingly became drawn out thanks to some crazy good food and some good ol’ fashioned southern hospitality.
THE NEW AGE SPOT — TEX… VEG?
As a devout carnivore, I’m always hesitant about trying vegan/vegetarian restaurants because… well, honestly I’m never wowed by them. To me, no meal is complete without some kind of animal product or protein and there’s just no way you’re going to convince me vegan cheese is a good substitute for real cheese. But none of that means I can’t appreciate a delicious, plant-based, vegan or vegetarian dish when I taste one. Some food is so good, it’s undeniable.
Enter Pharm Table, a simple, yet cozy restaurant that gives you the best of both worlds. Chef Elizabeth Johnson builds dishes around locally sourced seasonal vegetable and elements of Ayurvedic diets while still giving you the options of adding on cage-free, grass-fed and hormone-free proteins such as chicken, beef and pork — a choice I much appreciated. Everything on their menu is gluten-free, dairy-free and contains no processed sugar, meaning you can feel good about overindulging. After three days of gluttonous binge eating my way through San Antonio a Pharm Table ‘Green Smoothie Bowl’ was just what my body needed to get back on track.
I can’t claim to know San Antonio food after a few days in town. I can only reflect on what I tasted — some seriously good flavors with a commitment to freshness, heritage, and tradition. Taken together, they were a testament to the city’s booming food scene and the flavors of South Texas. Tex yes.
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