San Antonio’s best-known signature tacos have devoted fans. Love for the puffy taco runs so deep that residents argue over their favorite one. What’s more, one of the mascots of the minor league San Antonio Missions baseball team is a puffy taco. The breakfast taco might as well be emblazoned on the city flag. Even the most delicate of perceived slights is cause for a declaration of war, as we learned in 2016.
But the city also has a little-known, tortilla-based delicacy that San Antonians should proudly tout: the bone-in pork chop taco. It’s exactly what it sounds like and is simultaneously dramatic and minimalist. Its two ingredients—a tortilla and a slab of meat—are evidence that there is excellence in simplicity. But ask a San Antonian about the pork chop taco, and you might get a confused look. Although the taco is prevalent, it is often lost among the myriad other tortilla-wrapped options on taqueria menus. Sometimes the taco isn’t listed at all but is served only upon request. Being in the know is a badge of honor. To those who haven’t tasted one yet, I promise it’s a culinary delight well worth your time and effort. And it does take a little effort. There are two ways to eat this admittedly daunting taco: employ the steak knife that is presented with the taco to cut away the bone before consuming it, or reposition the chop to eat around the bone. I crisscrossed the city, visiting thirty restaurants to find the finest of examples. Eight of them are below.
Tucked away in southeast San Antonio, this joint resembles a Western saloon more than it does a Mexican restaurant. Its exterior is covered in worn wood and silhouettes of cowboys kneeling in prayer, but the first clues that great food awaits are the words “menudo” and “barbacoa” spelled out along the side of the building. The interior has a wall of mismatched crosses, wagon wheels aplenty, and a framed picture of John Wayne. This Western kitsch gives Cowgirls Cafe character, but the pork chop tacos give it life. Thin and large, with lightly flaky flour tortillas, the tacos are served in two ways: plain and a la Mexicana (with pico de gallo). The latter is presented sliced unless requested otherwise. Request otherwise and spread the garnish across the top of the chop for spicy bite after glorious spicy bite. 2818 S. WW White Road, 210-384-4122
El Itacate Tacos To Go
The name of this neighborhood spot translates to the English “provisions” or “satchel,” but you wouldn’t be blamed for assuming “itacate” means “hokey.” Aside from the ordering counter in front of the tiny kitchen, where one elderly woman is dedicated to rolling out and cooking flour tortillas, everything screams cheesy. There are novelty bar stools depicting the bottom half of tattooed saloon girls, painted wings on walls that are ideal for Instagram selfies—yes, I took one—and a corner that is part altar, part stereotypical knickknacks. There is a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, religious candles, flowers, an open Bible, another novelty stool, and, in the center of it all, a large guitar-playing, mustachioed, sombrero-wearing red chile pepper statue. Take your order to one of the tables under the covered patio, which is cheerfully strung with lights, and munch away at a black pepper–speckled pork chop in a hearty, cushioned flour tortilla. 2501 Nogalitos, 210-922-7191
The pork chop taco isn’t listed on Oasis Cafe’s menu. “Only a few regulars order it,” our server at the downtown location told us. But the substantial bone-in chop on a hefty flour tortilla should be known across the state. It’s a hidden gem of a taco, soft to chew and well seasoned with salt and pepper. The chop, half of which spills out of the flour tortilla, is held in place by a generous smear of rich refried beans. Make sure to ask for the salsa fresca. The chunky mix of tomatoes and chiles in a thin dark liquid adds zip and softer textures to the mighty pork chop. 323 N. Main Avenue, 210-223-7077
Garcia’s Mexican Food
It’s no coincidence that my first review as Texas Monthly’s taco editor featured San Antonio institution Garcia’s Mexican Food (established 1962) and the restaurant’s pork chop taco. It is one of my favorite examples of the San Antonio specialty, served at one of my favorite Mexican diners. Co-owner John Garcia will tell you he can’t say the San Antonio pork chop taco was first served at his family’s restaurant, but he will say the taco proliferated across the city after it was put on the menu about fourteen years ago. “Every restaurant and taqueria sells pork chop tacos now,” he told me. That’s hyperbole, but Garcia’s chop remains the gold standard. It’s soft and juicy, with a peppy flavor imparted by the lemon pepper–based rub that’s applied to the pork before grilling. 842 Fredericksburg Road, 210-735-4525
Rocky’s Taco House No. 2
The Rocky’s Taco House location on San Antonio’s South Side is a Tex-Mex museum packed with tchotchkes, handwritten signs, and a gorgeous artifact of a menu: it’s bright yellow, with an illustration of a charro on horseback wooing a young lady. Practical information fills the rest of the front cover. The joint is open 24 hours a day, and the tortillas are handmade. It’s been that way since 1999. You’ll find the “pork chop taco w/ bone” listed near the bottom of the regular tacos category on the menu. It’s a behemoth. Served open-faced on a thick, bouncy flour tortilla lightly spotted brown from its time on the plancha, the large pork chop comes with a steak knife and nothing else. The utensil gives diners the option to remove the bone prior to chowing down on the taco. I suggest you position the chop so that the bone rests at the bottom of the folded tortilla, then chomp around the bone until the only option left is to gnaw the remaining meat, caveman-style. rockystacohouse.com, 1938 Dollarhide Avenue, 210-333-0442
Taco Amanda’s Mexican Restaurant
Before taking a seat at Taco Amanda’s, a southwest San Antonio Mexican cafe with a dull orange exterior and cracking windows, I asked the older woman working the aguas frescas counter if the restaurant sold pork chop tacos. She huffed and nodded at the ignorance of the question. That question annoyed her, as did my inquiry as to whether the chops were served whole and bone-in. “Obviously! Where do you think you are?” she responded in Spanish. I thanked her and asked if my small party could sit at the unoccupied table. The pork chop taco at Taco Amanda’s had a bone through the middle of the chop, and at first it appeared dry. But its look was deceiving. The taco was an addictive nosh in a still-inflated flour tortilla. 1759 Palo Alto Road, 210-924-1555
Tacos El Rey
In the deep West Side, the large beige building fronted by a packed parking lot is a fortress hiding a bone-studded, sweetly caramelized pork chop. Although the kitchen makes excellent corn and flour tortillas, opt for the latter. After all, you’re in the heart of flour tortilla country. facebook.com/TacosElReySA, 1821 Castroville Road, 210-432-3663
The Haven Southtown
Opened as Taco Haven in 1969 with only four tables, this Southtown spot is now a sprawling corner restaurant run by the third generation of the Torres family. It has also changed its name to a succinct the Haven, which it is—for tacos. The impressive, bisected pork chop taco comes in what might as well be a mattress of a flour tortilla, and it’s a staple. It’s the first taco I order whenever I visit. It shines with juices releasing from the interior onto the grill-marked pork and the hefty tortilla. Chewy nodes of fat cap each side of the chop. Save them for last—they’re a perfect finish. havensouthtown.com, 1032 S. Presa, 210-533-2171