This is a story about Texas restaurants and the dishes they’re famous for. You find yourself daydreaming about these specialties when lunch or dinner rolls around: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have that great chile relleno tonight?” Or: “I sure could use some of that chocolate cake about now.” Some of these restaurants are temples of high cuisine; others are holes in the wall. Some have been around forever; others are newly minted. The one thing they have in common is a dish that customers crave—and come back for again and again.
Every Saturday morning, folks from all over San Antonio fill the entryway of this tiny Mexican cafe. They have come for a religious experience: the offering of sopa azteca to the faithful. Starting with basic chicken broth, the kitchen adds chicken chunks, fresh spinach, strips of corn tortilla, chiles, sliced avocado, lush dollops of melted cheese, crisp zucchini, carrots, and potatoes. Seasonings give a dusky, fascinating quality to what in other hands would be plain old chicken-vegetable soup. Served Saturdays only from 11 to 3. $4.25. 722 S. St. Mary’s (225-9444).
Forget that shrimp Paesano is hardly Italian (the restaurant invented the dish in San Antonio ages ago). Forget that it’s so absurdly rich that your arteries will be secretly phoning 911. Just keep on eating those chubby sautéed shrimp and sopping up that unbelievable lemon-butter sauce. Co-owner Joe Cosniac says he uses one hundred pounds of butter a day. Believe him. $13.50. 1715 McCullough Avenue, at Locust (226-9541).
Eight fat crescent-shaped Japanese dumplings ( gyoza) come arranged just so on a square white serving plate with a blue bamboo pattern. Dip one in the scallion-spiked soy-and-vinegar sauce and lean over the plate when you bite into it so the juice doesn’t run down your chin. Finely minced pork and sweet cabbage are the dominant flavors; the fried wonton-type wrapper is still light and delicate. The pristine presentation and Japanese music help you ignore Niki’s down-at-the-heel decor and seedy neighborhood, in a sea of body shops and asphalt. $5. 819 W. Hildebrand Avenue (736-5471).</p>
You can hardly see the romaine lettuce for the drifts of toasted pine nuts and crumbly blue-veined Gorgonzola on this king of salads. Balsamic vinaigrette dressing unifies the disparate parts, and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan adds a final touch of class. Have it with a glass of red wine such as Barbera and bask in La Buca’s romantic lighting and stylish cavelike rooms. $4.75. 7720 Jones-Maltsberger Road (826-2397).
What could be less pretentious than a flour tortilla rolled around melted whit Oaxacan cheese studded with morsels of chorizo? Yet this supremely simple dish is high cuisine. The tortilla has more layers than French pastry, the cheese is silken, and the fried chorizo adds salt and savor. As for calories, don’t ask. Now that October is here, diners happily eat alfresco amid La Fogata’s quirky profusion of fountains and awnings. $2.99. 2427 Vance Jackson Road (340-1337).
The Italian peninsula is merely a jumping-off point for Luna Notte’s up-to-the-nanosecond recipes, such as pork in Madeira sauce. The meaty pork tenderloin is lightly smoked, the sauce smoothly rich, with mingled hot-sweet flavors of cracked red chiles, Madeira, molasses, roasted garlic, and sun-dried cherries. The restaurant’s subdued high-tech setting, with acres of galvanized steel and commercial carpeting, provides a spare contrast to the rich dish. $9.95. Sunset Ridge Shopping Center, 6402 N. New Braunfels Avenue (822-4242).
From the Yucatán comes this homey little restaurant’s signature dish: cochinita pibil—pit-roasted pork. It’s exotic enough to titillate but not so strange that it alarms. Shredded pork is first marinated in a homemade sauce that includes lime, lemon, and orange juices and achiote powder (based on the red, faintly herbal-tasting seeds of the Mexican annatto tree). Then the meat is baked in a clay pot until it falls apart. Tangy marinated purple onions are heaped on top, and to eat it, you roll everything together in a steamy hot tortilla. $6.25. 2103 E. Hildebrand Avenue (822-4475).
Onion Rings With Habanero Ketchup
These onion rings are to ordinary onion rings as a Lamborghini is to a tank. They are cut from sweet 10/15 or 11/05 onions, then dipped in a batter of flour, beer, ancho powder, and secret ingredients, and fried to a crackly turn. A precarious mountain of the rings is served with bits of pickled serrano and onions and a cup of homemade habanero ketchup, which leaves a velvet afterburn and a profound desire for ice water. The restaurant’s rather stuffy columned rooms have been brightened with splashes of fresh paint. $5. 206 E. Locust, at McCullough Avenue (225-0722).
Scallops and Shrimp Hunan Style
Nothing about the perfectly ordinary name of the dish prepares you for how delicious it is. The marinated, touch-fried scallops are like clouds, the shrimp crisp as a fall day, the peppercorn sauce that covers them a miraculous balance of sweet and hot. Carrot strips and snow peas look pretty and add crunch. The restaurant’s suburban shopping-center location, though not particularly Chinese, is still attractive and comfortable. $9.95. 7959 Fredericksburg Road, at Medical Drive (615-1288).
Quail and Spinach Salad
People flock to the Fairmount specifically to feast on this cosmopolitan salad, with its morsels of grilled quail, oyster mushrooms, black grapes, cherry tomatoes, radicchio, and a mysterious smoked sesame-seed dressing. With the accompanying fried Muenster cheese cakes, you won’t need another thing to make a light meal—and the hotel’s elegant, hushed dining room makes you feel like visiting royalty. $9. 401 S. Alamo (224-8800).
Bo Nuong Xa
Otherwise known as Number One, the zesty Vietnamese dish consists of sliced charcoal-broiled flank steak marinated in lemongrass. Sprinkled with peanuts and white radishes and served with bits of pineapple, plantains, mint, cilantro, cucumber, bean sprouts, and slivered carrots, the grilled meat is wrapped with all the above in lettuce and rice-paper crêpes and dipped in vinegary fish sauce.