A Gastronomical Honor

Designated in 2017 as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, San Antonio is now officially an international culinary treasure. But the honor did more than just acknowledge the city’s world-class restaurants and its many food education programs, including the program at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. It also paid tribute to the city’s role as a culinary crossroads, a gateway to Mexico positioned between the coastal plains and fertile hill country of south Texas. The region’s waterways, especially the San Antonio River, gave rise to indigenous settlements dating back some 13,000 years. In the 1700s the Spanish and Canary Islanders arrived, many of whom established vast cattle ranches, and they were followed by other waves of European immigrants, including the Germans. The Texas Mexican, or Tex-Mex, cuisine that resulted was heralded by the UNESCO committee as the product of the confluence of local game, beef, fish, produce, herbs, and spices with ingredients, recipes, and cooking techniques imported from a wide array of cultures. 

While the award celebrated humble Tex-Mex as the original fusion cuisine of the Southwest, it also recognized sophisticated attempts to rediscover its roots in what has been dubbed Tex-Next cuisine. A prime example of a restaurant embodying this ethos is tiny Mixtli, 5251 McCullough Ave. (www.restaurantmixtli.com; tel. 210/338-0746), where nationally acclaimed chefs Rico Torres and Diego Galicia turn to indigenous ingredients and pre-Hispanic techniques for their innovative fare. 

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Future developments include a plan to meld history with gastronomy at a new restaurant complex in La Villita. The city of San Antonio will collaborate in this project with three top chefs: Stephen McHugh of Cured, Elizabeth Johnson of Pharm Table, and Johnny Hernandez of . . . many things, including La Gloria, all covered below. In addition, the city will also develop a series of culinary trails connecting the four historic missions. It will take several years to accomplish these goals, but there’s no question that the days of automatically dismissing San Antonio’s home-grown cuisine are in the rearview mirror.

It's Always Chili in San Antonio

It ranks up there with apple pie in the American culinary pantheon, but nobody’s mom invented chili. The iconic stew of meat, chiles, onions, and a variety of spices was likely conceived around the 1840s by Texas cowboys who needed to make tough meat palatable while covering up the taste as it began to go bad. The name is a Texas corruption of the Spanish chile (chee-leh), after the peppers—which are not really peppers at all, but that’s another story—most conventionally used in the stew.

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The appellation chili con carne is really redundant in Texas, where chili without meat isn’t considered chili at all. Indeed, most Texans think that adding beans is only for wimps. Beef is the most common base, but everything from armadillo to venison is acceptable.

While no one really knows exactly where chili originated, San Antonio is the prime candidate for the distinction. Written accounts from the mid–19th century describe the town’s “chili queens,” women who ladled steaming bowls of the concoction in open-air markets and on street corners. They were dishing out chili in front of the Alamo as late as the 1940s.

William Gebhardt helped strengthen San Antonio’s claim to chili fame when he began producing chili powder in the city in 1896. His Original Mexican Dinner package, which came out around 20 years later, included a can each of chili con carne, beans, and tamales, among other things, and fed five for $1. This precursor of the TV dinner proved so popular that it earned San Antonio the nickname “Tamaleville.”

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Oddly enough, chili isn’t generally found on San Antonio restaurant menus. But modern-day chili queens come out in force for special events at Market Square, as well as for the Chili Queens Cook-off at the Bonham Exchange, one of the most popular bashes of the city’s huge Fiesta celebration. And there’s not a weekend that goes by without a chili cook-off somewhere in the city. 

Where to Queue for ‘Cue in San Antonio

Although its barbecue scene is not as well-known as those in Austin and other Texas cities, San Antonio is no slouch when it comes to slow-cooked meat. Here are a few of the town’s top spots. 

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A no-frills joint just north of downtown, Augie’s Alamo City BBQ, 909 Broadway (www.augiesbbq.com; tel. 210/314-3596), is known for its brisket, jalapeño sausage, and creamed corn. There’s also a second location, in Brackenridge Park next to the Sunken Gardens and the San Antonio Zoo—look for the large pink pig out front.

The Granary, 602 Avenue A in the Pearl complex (www.thegranarysa.com; tel. 210/228-0124), was heralded by Texas Monthly as one of the “50 best bbq joints . . . in the world!” It’s too upscale for some—at dinner time you’ll find the likes of Moroccan lamb—but at lunch the pulled pork and ribs taste like they come straight from a country pit. 

Part of the charm of the original Rudy’s Country Store, 24152 I-10 West at the Leon Springs/Boerne Stage exit (www.rudysbbq.com; tel. 210/698-2141), is its location next to a combination gas station, garage, and grocery store that dates back decades. The other part is the fall-off-the-bone tender meat and tangy sauces, which have been replicated at numerous Rudy’s branches all around Texas and, lately, other parts of the Southwest. 

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For a fun experience for the entire family, you can’t beat the Smoke Shack food truck, parked up by I-410 near the airport at 2347 Nacogdoches Rd. (www.smokeshacksa.com; tel. 210/829-8448), and affiliated Pig Pen pub out back. A bar, playground, and brisket mac and cheese . . . what’s not to like? It’s cross-cultural too, including brisket nachos and pulled pork tacos among the hearty offerings. The same menu is available in-town at a Smoke Shack restaurant near the Witte Museum.

More Than a Meat-and-Burritos Kind of Town

San Antonio has long been celebrated for its superb steaks, chimis, and other hearty, artery-clogging fare, but now there are plenty of places to satisfy healthier cravings, some created by top chefs. All of the following cater to the taste-conscious as well as to the budget-conscious:

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In Alamo Heights, Adelante, 21 Brees Blvd. (www.adelanterestaurant.com; tel. 210/822-7681), has been dishing up savory Health Mex fare—no lard, plenty of veggie and vegan options—in a cheerful folk-art-filled room for more than three decades. Cash only. 

Green Vegetarian Cuisine, in the Pearl Brewery, 200 E. Grayson St., Ste. 120 (www.eatatgreen.com; tel. 210/320-5865), features some faux-meat dishes (for example, Chik’N Marsala, or veggie cheeseburgers with fakin’ bacon), but mostly celebrates its plant-based fare. The dairy is kosher certified, and all dishes can be made vegan. There’s another location in the northwest part of town, at the Alon Town Center, 10003 NW Military Hwy.

Known best for his upscale dining rooms, Chef Andrew Weissman applies equal care to Moshe’s Golden Falafel, 3910 McCullough St. (tel. 210/994-9838), his fast-casual Middle Eastern spot in Olmos Park. Everything is spiced to perfection. The falafel are never dry—and neither is the pita. On weekdays, it’s breakfast and lunch only; Friday and Saturday nights it’s also open 5–9pm (closed Sundays).

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Practicing her “culinary medicine” at Pharm Table, 106 Auditorium Circle (www.pharmtable.com; tel. 210/802-1860), nationally acclaimed chef Elizabeth Johnson creates Ayurvedic-inspired fare that’s as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate. Practically on the steps of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in the north end of downtown, it would be perfect for a pre- or post-performance bite, but it’s only open from 11am–3pm. 

Using local, organic ingredients for its soul food-oriented eatery on downtown’s east side, Sweet Yams, 218 N. Cherry St. (www.facebook.com/sweetyamsorganic; tel. 210/229-9267), serves brown rice with its gumbo, features all-natural turkey in its chili, and bakes gluten-free sweet potato cupcakes. 

San Antonio’s Sweet Spot(s)

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From locally made Mexican ice pops to Paris-worthy pastries, San Antonio has plenty of ways to satisfy a sweet tooth. Here are five favorites, ranging all over the map. 

After the first branch of Bakery Lorraine, 306 Pearl Pkwy, #110 (www.bakerylorraine.com, tel. 210/862-5582), opened in the Pearl, the clamor for its French-inspired desserts and breads grew so loud that branches soon opened in several spots around town, including in the DoSeum. Come for a light breakfast or lunch, but don’t even think of leaving without trying a melt-in-your-mouth macaron. (Bet you’ll buy half a dozen.)

The only ice cream parlor in town where you might get carded, Boozy’s Creamery and Craft, 711 S. St. Mary’s St. (www.facebook.com/boozyscreameryandcraft; tel. 210/919-3552), in Southtown, adds alcohol to its cold confections, made in house. The booze-infused flavors change every day—for example, Groom’s Cake with Kahlua, On the Rocks featuring tequila—and you can add a shot for an extra kick. Not all the varieties include alcohol, so it’s a fun place for the whole family.

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At Brindles Awesome Ice Cream, 11255 Huebner Rd. (www.brindlesicecream.com; tel. 210/641-5222), an espresso and ice cream emporium in the northwest, you’ve got more than 200 flavors to choose from (about 45 on any given day)—anything from white chocolate Frangelico to spiced apple brandy. Gelato (candied ginger, say) and sorbets (perhaps champagne or cranberry) are offered too. Many of San Antonio’s most popular restaurants serve this brand.  

The delicious Mexican ice-and-fruit pops known as paletas, usually tucked away in the freezer cases of Hispanic convenience shops and supermarkets, are now available fresh in Southtown at La Paleteria, 510 S. Alamo St., Ste. 104 (www.paleteriasanantonio.com; tel. 210/954-8753). They come in water- and milk-based varieties, with flavors depending on what produce is in season; the goodness is year round.

Artisan breads and pan dulce (Mexican pastries) are the main draws at La Panaderia, 301 E. Houston St. (www.lapanaderia.com; tel. 210/592-6264), a Mexican cafe downtown. Come in for a sweet roll and cafe con leche in the morning or for a glass of wine and an open-faced torta (sandwich) in the evening—though by dinnertime, the sweets are likely to be sold out. There’s a second location in Alamo Heights at 8305 Broadway.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.