Joy of Mex: San Antonio
San Antonio has always had its share of taquerías and Mexican cafes and longtime favorite restaurants like La Fonda and Los Barrios, but places serving more authentic fare are finally making inroads. Adelante has interesting hybrid Tex-Mex health food.
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100 Hoefgen, Sunset Station; from downtown, go east on Market Street under I-37, north on the service road, right on Commerce, and right on Hoefgen; 210-222-0561.
Last year twelve tables, this year fifty: Tiny Aldaco’s has moved into a cavernous but spiffily remodeled railroad terminal practically next door to the Alamodome. For a tourist operation, it’s pretty good. Tlalpeño soup, chunks of chicken breast, avocado, and tomato in a light chicken broth, could use more depth. Shrimp quesadillas are composed of nicely coarse, homemade corn tortillas, melted white cheese, pico de gallo—and popcorn shrimp (I guess you can’t really expect big ones for $3.95).
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 3.5 (served hot, a rarity in San Antonio). Salsa: 4.
El Jarro de Arturo
San Pedro Square, 13421 San Pedro at Bitters, 210-494-5084.
This place is so far north you expect to pass an Austin city limits sign, but hang in there, because the food can be quite good. The chef’s heart is in the evening specials, which are a cross between cutting-edge Mexican and Southwestern cuisine—for instance, salmon with black-olive orzo in a pool of chipotle-mushroom sauce. Other offerings, such as enchiladas in a chile ancho sauce, are okay but not outstanding. “Double refried beans,” however, are a dieter’s downfall and completely delicious. Prices are higher than at most Mexican restaurants.
Guacamole: 5 (wonderfully fresh and flavorful). Chips: 3. Salsa: 3.5.
722 S. St. Mary’s, 210-225-9444.
What a difference some paint makes: Buttercup yellow and terra-cotta pink now perk up the dining rooms of this little stucco cave. The evening menu seems almost Southwestern, with fat sautéed shrimp served with a creamy sauce of pumpkin seeds and cilantro. It’s delicious. But there are also owner Mary Treviño’s famous lunchtime soups, like chicken-lime and caldo azteca (chicken broth with avocado), not to mention typical Mexican dishes, like miraculously unfatty grilled and sautéed cabrito served with a lively tequila-guajillo salsa.
Guacamole: 2. Chips: 3.5. Salsa: 4.
2103 E. Hildebrand Avenue, 210-822-4475.
Little La Calesa has been an outpost of authentic Mexican food since 1983. A short list of specialties, like cochinita pibil—the pork dish of the Yucatán, seasoned with achiote powder made from the austere-tasting seeds of the annatto tree—have led legions of San Antonians to declare this their favorite Mexican restaurant. Underscoring their judgment is the unusual, tart soup of corn and poblano strips and the more ordinary but still quite good pozole (pork-and-hominy stew). Best of all is the creamy, pristinely fresh guacamole, with just the right amounts of white onion and tomato.
Guacamole: 5. Chips: 4. Salsas: 4.
2018 San Pedro, 210-732-5366.
There’s a word for a place that has a morita chile table salsa: “authentic.” Purists can find tongue, stuffed tripas (intestines), and beef barbacoa here. More mainstream diners will revel in the green enchiladas, carne guisada (beef stew), and fantastic, tender camarones a la diabla (garlicky fried shrimp with a chile de árbol sauce), not to mention the huge variety of breakfast tacos and more. Excellent place—cute too, with tiled tables and a toy train running around on tracks near the ceiling.
Guacamole: 2 (mashed avocado with shredded cheese). Chips: 3.5. Salsa: 5 (smoky and smooth, fairly bitter).
4841 Fredericksburg Road, 210-349-0188.
Mexican resort hotels in the fifties had dining rooms that looked like this—sprawling spaces with expanses of windows and glass bricks. Here the brother and nephew of former restaurateur Mario Cantú (founder of the original Mario’s) have started their own ambitious enterprise. The menu has some hits (lightly grilled asparagus with nuggets of chorizo, fresh spinach enchiladas in a sour-cream-and-cheese sauce) and some misses (an overstuffed beef chile relleno in a boring creole-style sauce).
Guacamole: 2.5 (chunky, but has an off taste). Chips: 3.5. Salsa: 3.
218 Produce Row, 210-225-1262.
The locals are always griping about this place, which has been here forever—oh, it’s so tacky; the service is lousy; it’s crawling with tourists. Well, yes. But I’m lounging on the patio with the rest of the tourists, and I don’t care. I love the strings of chile lights and the bright faux-folkloric colors. And the food is darned good for mass-produced, middle-of-the-road Mexican. Breakfast is particularly nice—get there early. This completely contradicts everything I said about preferring authentic, indigenous food. So sue me. (La Margarita, a few steps away—120 Produce Row, 210-227-7140—has the same owners and a similar menu; it’s a little less frantic. The same restaurant group also includes Pico de Gallo—111 S. Leona, 210-225-6060—with much the same food.)
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 2. Salsa: 2.
3810 Broadway at Pershing, 210-822-3797.
Flip to the Old Mexico section of the menu for treasures like chile en nogada (a stuffed poblano with a lovely walnut-cream sauce). Even more exotic is chicken in an excellent pipián (another word for sauce) of pumpkin seeds and red chile. Classic red snapper veracruzana in a tomato-and-green-olive sauce will return you to more familiar territory. A tasty and reassuring selection of the usual tacos and enchiladas brings the menu full circle at this agreeably informal cafe.
Guacamole: 4.5. Chips: 3. Salsa: 4.5.
910 S. Alamo at S. St. Mary’s, 210-223-1806.
If you could eat decor, this would be the best place in town, with its tall, loftlike space, acres of window glass, jazzy colors (grape, passion fruit, saffron), and fun art (a portrait in the style of Botero, Mexico’s champion of pudgy people). As it is, the atmosphere gets a 5, the food a 3.5. But give the kitchen points for dishes like enchiladas of queso fresco in a dark, intense sauce of guajillo and pasilla chiles, a briny nopalitos salad, and seldom-seen-in-this-country chicken enchiladas enfrijoladas (in a mild, light bean sauce).
Guacamole: 2.5. Chips: 3.5. Salsa: 4.5 (rustic texture but complex flavor).
2702 Roosevelt Avenue, 210-532-5500, and one other location.
Passing up San Antonio’s most confidently named dish, the pollo fantástico (“fantastic chicken,” which is griddle-cooked with cheese on top), I tried the equally fantastic gorditas (masa cakes), fragrantly grilled and tasting of fresh corn, swathed with refried beans, and layered with shredded pork and beef. Tuck a smidge of guacamole inside for a little bit of heaven. The crowd of Hispanic families seemed intent on the combo plates. Decor consists of fast-food booths and some exceedingly strange fake-brick wallpaper.
Guacamole: 3. Chips: 4. Salsa: 2.5.
Taquería No Que No
623 W. Hildebrand Avenue, 210-734-4647.
You’d never expect to get such good food in such unpromising digs. At this neighborhood joint, your chicken soup comes in a pretty Mexican bowl brimming with breast meat, a drumstick, carrots, cabbage, rice, onion, and a section of corn on the cob. The guacamole—rife with cilantro—is tops. If you’re not in the mood for chicken soup, try home-folks specials like gorditas, menudo (tripe soup), and sopes (masa tarts), plus the usual tacos and enchiladas.
Guacamole: 5 (fabulous flavor). Chips: 3.5. Red salsa: 3. Brownish-red salsa: 4 (hot!). Green salsa: 1.5.
Torres Taco Haven
1032 S. Presa, at Claudia and Vance, 210-533-2171, and one other location; personal checks accepted, no credit cards.
Great eavesdropping: You might hear Trinity University students nattering about Nietzsche or Spanish-speaking friends catching up on the latest gossip. Tacos of amazing variety, including morcilla (blood sausage) and Country Plain (grilled Polish sausage), emerge from the short-order kitchen. Although sometimes they’re not perfect—deflated scrambled eggs with stringy machacado (dried beef)—they all respond well to applications of hot sauce. Best bet: Make your own with the homemade corn tortillas and guacamole. (Entrées like chiles rellenos and chilaquiles available too.)
Guacamole: 3 (no tomato or onion). Chips: 2. Salsa: 3.