When it comes to eating, San Antonio is an opinionated town. Ask any local where to get a good enchilada, for instance, and he'll wax poetic about a favorite hole-in-the-wall. "Try Casbeer's," one fellow advised me on a visit last fall. "It's got the best in South Texas." A woman at his side objected: "What about Blanco Cafe?" she asked. "OK, but only for tacos," he conceded. I developed a taste for menudo (tripe soup) and was directed to Mi Tierra and Panchito's. For tortilla soup, a fan recommended Tekamolino. It's plenty funky, she added by way of endorsement.
I feel at home in San Antonio. This is a city as food obsessed as I am, with scores of wonderful little taquerías as well as some superb white-tablecloth restaurants. For years, San Antonio, in the heart of South Texas, has been an important stepping-stone for the flavors of Mexico: here they take on American style before moving west, east and north. Chili con carne was invented in San Antonio, town historians say, and was first served to customers near the Alamo, the Spanish mission where in 1836 a band of Texans held out for 13 days against Mexican forces. Chili powder was first manufactured here, in 1894, by a German immigrant who had come to relish hot spices. (Germans flocked to the city by the thousands in the last century.) A local café gave the world Fritos in the Thirties; a small firm here, Pace Foods, catalyzed America's love affair with salsa a decade ago. But the Tex-Mex influence goes well beyond chips and salsa. "Everyone began looking to San Antonio for inspiration in the Eighties," says Bruce Auden of Restaurant Biga (206 E. Locust St.; 210-225-0722). Like chefs across America, Auden enjoys creating plays on Tex-Mex favorites, such as osso buco in chipotle sauce.
Tex-Mex food permeates the local culture. The mascot for the city's AA baseball team, the San Antonio Missions, is a huge taco that children chase and tackle on the field at each game. An AM station that bills itself as Radio Jalapeño was aggressively promoting a menudo contest when I was in town: "You, the public, will judge!" I heard over and over in English, Spanish or saucy South Texas Spanglish (more than half of all San Antonians are of Mexican descent). On the station's top 10 list that week: "Barbacoa Blues," in which bluesman Randy Garibay, a native San Antonian, wails of terrific longing not only for barbacoa (succulent beef barbecue) but also for chili and gorditas (thick stuffed corn tortillas).