When you think of San Antonio, you may think of The Alamo, The Riverwalk, or Six Flags. What you may not think about is food. San Antonio is home to world-class chefs and award-winning restaurants. As one of only two UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy in the United States, San Antonio’s food scene is next-level. I think I gained at least 5 pounds on my visit. And it’s no wonder. Hungry we were never because we found unbelievable food at every turn.
You know you’re onto something when a chef in Tucson – the only other UNESCO Creative City of Cuisine in the United States – asks you if you’ve been to a particular bakery in San Antonio. Such was the case when I was in Tucson recently at Seis Kitchen when the manager asked if I’d visited LaPanaderia while in San Antonio. Did I visit? Oh yes! This was the scene for one of the best breakfasts of our trip. Here, as I feasted on my breakfast sandwich while trying not to slurp the vanilla latte set before me, my eyes kept resting on the decadent baked goods at the counter. My oh my, how would I ever choose just one? I wouldn’t. I chose a couple of pastries to devour later.
Mi Tierra Cafe was the scene for a decadent lunch of my favorite Mexican specialty, Chicken Mole Enchiladas. I can see why this cafe has been a San Antonio favorite since the 1940s. The rich dark brown mole sauce with hints of chocolatey goodness was fantastic. After this way-too-big lunch, I felt like an enchilada and could’ve been rolled out the door. It was worth every bite. Of course, I considered stopping at the glorious panaderia inside Mi Tierra on my way out, but somehow I restrained myself.
You can’t truly experience San Antonio without going to one of Johnny Hernandez’s restaurants. On our way from the airport to the hotel, our uber driver told us to go to LaGloria. As we checked into the hotel, the bellman echoed our uber driver with the same recommendation. And they both raved about Johnny personally, telling us how much he’s done for San Antonio. Hernandez, a CIA graduate, and San Antonio native is an integral part of the San Antonio food scene. His La Gloria at Pearl, one of the two original restaurants in the Pearl District, specializes in Mexican street food – the menu shaped by Johnny’s Mexican heritage and his travels through Mexico. We demolished the sopes – with marinated pork, refried black beans, pickled red onions, and another with shredded chicken, Mexican mole sauce, salsa arbol, onions, cilantro, crema, queso fresco are incredible.
Another day we spent lunch at a different Pearl restaurant, this time Cured At Pearl, run by Chef Steve McHugh. The focus here is on cured meats and other foods, all made with regional ingredients. Six-time James Beard Award finalist McHugh likes to know who they’re getting their ingredients from. They refer to their sourcing philosophy as the 60-minute plate. Most all the ingredients here can be traced back to a 60-mile radius. The charcuterie boards are filled with all sorts of fresh, local meats, cheeses, bread, jams, spreads, and even edible flowers. As stunning as they are to look at, they taste even better.
For pure fun, dinner at Clementine gets the win. It turns out a gourmet meal can be a blast. Mix a couple of friends with delicious, surprising food, a few glasses of wine, along with decadent desserts and you have the recipe for a great night out. That’s what chef-owners John and Elise Russ have done at Clementine. Order the Feed Me menu at Clementine, and you’ll get chef-selected, expertly prepared, seasonal favorites along with perfect wine pairings. You won’t exactly know what you’re eating until the food is presented to you. Chef John, a 2022 James Beard award semi-finalist, creates things I’d never thought I’d like: think octopus, okra, and fresh mushroom salad – in ways that make these dishes unbelievably good. The clementine crunch bar, with chocolate mousse, toasted hazelnuts, and Clementine sherbet, created by pastry Chef Elise is simply a work of art.
I love a good food tour, and I usually schedule one whenever I visit a new city. The Uniquely Texas Mexican Food Tour by Julia Celeste Rosenfeld is one of the best tours I’ve been on. This is a small tour that not only showcases authentic foods native to San Antonio but also digs into the heritage and the history of the foods. We experienced the essence of San Antonio food and ventured into places where locals go to enjoy the culinary delights of the city. We loved touring the artisanal tortilla factory, a local fruteria, a small diner where they specialize in making gorditas by hand, and a trip to the San Antonio Missions. And because Juia is a former food critic and CIA instructor with a deep love for San Antonio and its food, she’s uniquely in the know about the culinary happenings in town.
Next time you’re looking for a foodie experience, look no further than San Antonio. You’ll find expertly prepared foods rooted in Mexican-American heritage. Whether made by exquisite chefs de cuisine, James Beard Award nominees, or cooks at the local taco spot, everything we tasted we loved.