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).
Garibay, interestingly, is of Mexican descent; that he performs so successfully in an African-American style does not strike people in this multicultural city as odd. San Antonians are even crazier about tejano, energizing dance music sung in Spanish to a German polka beat. Tejano is the ideal accompaniment to Tex-Mex cooking. Rolando's Super Tacos (919 W. Hildebrand; 210-732-6713), for years a popular postperformance hangout, is papered with photos of tejano stars. At Tejano Texas (8759 Grissom Rd.; 210-647-4695), a dance hall on the edge of town, revelers clad in norteño (northern Mexican) cowboy party wear snack at a buffet laden with chili con carne, refried beans, tortilla chips and fresh pico de gallo (a relish made with tomatoes, onions, cilantro and serrano peppers).
A Day in San Antonio
To eat as residents do, begin the day with a breakfast taco stuffed with one or more typical fillings: refried beans, fried potato, guacamole, egg and bacon or something more challenging like chorizo (zingy pork sausage), chicharrónes (pork cracklings) or even carne guisada (spicy stewed beef or pork). "We can eat these behind the wheel on the way to work," explained Dee Dee Poteete, who works at the city's visitors' bureau. I needed two hands and full concentration to keep my meal off my lap. I could have started my day with a sit-down breakfast at Taquería No Qué No? (623 W. Hildebrand; 210-734-4647). A popular choice there is carne machacado (dried beef fried with eggs, tomatoes, onions and peppers)--hardly food for fussy stomachs. The proprietor at Taquería No Qué No? has thoughtfully placed a Pepcid AC vending machine just to the left of the exit.
For help with lunch, I turned to Cynthia Guido, a local food authority, and Ron Bechtol, a San Antonio restaurant reviewer. They led me to El Chilaquil (1821 W. Commerce St.; 210-226-5410). This humble taquería on the city's heavily Mexican west side serves what Guido calls peasant food. We had to squeeze our way in, so densely packed were the Formica-topped tables with large families and their sleep-ing infants. A vendor of homemade pan de polvo (traditional sugar cookies flavored with anise or cinnamon) trolled the little dining room for customers. We ordered sizzling platters of carnitas (pork cooked in lard with milk, oranges and aromatic herbs) and tender morcón (steamed and grilled pig's stomach), which came with corn and flour tortillas, two salsas--one raw, one roasted--guacamole, pico de gallo and beans stewed with bacon. "Wrap your meat in a tortilla and anoint it with whatever looks good to you," Bechtol suggested. He has written several glowing endorsements of El Chilaquil, none of them posted by the owners. "They're indifferent," he shrugged.
To compare these dishes to finer, more purely Mexican fare, I had dinner at the Liberty Bar (328 E. Josephine St.; 210-227-1187), where the eclectic menu reflects the owner's admiration for Diana Kennedy, an authority on Mexican cooking, and California restaurant luminary Alice Waters. I sampled swordfish wrapped and grilled in a plate-size leaf of hoja santa (an herb that tastes like anise) and chiles rellenos en nogada (poblanos stuffed with cinnamon-spiced ground pork, currants, nuts and garlic and covered with a sauce of ground walnuts and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds). I managed to save room for dessert at Aldaco's (1141 E. Commerce St.; 210-222-0561), where I hooked up with Pat Mozersky, another restaurant reviewer. Chef-owner Blanca Aldaco served us her delicate version of the classic Mexican pastel tres leches (a simple white cake soaked with three kinds of milk--sweetened condensed, evaporated and whole--and topped with finely ground Texas pecans).
But for me, the soul of San Antonio is the crowded counter at Blanco Cafe (1720 Blanco Rd.; 210-732-6480), where I went for breakfast the next morning and where nothing's remotely delicate or fine. There you can order tacos from a menu scrawled on a board and listen to Mexican balladeer Luis Miguel on the jukebox. Panza llena, corazón contento, as they say in these parts: "Belly full, heart easy."
Laura Stanley, a writer based in Hoboken, New Jersey, returned from San Antonio with her stomach intact. No Pepcid AC was required.