Best Restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio
Veronica Stoddart

The Best Restaurants in San Antonio to Eat Its Best Local Dishes

San Antonio is home to some of the best Mexican food in Texas, ranging from authentic dishes to the beloved regional hybrid known as Tex-Mex. The city’s gustatory heritage is so unique that the city earned the distinction being named of A UNESCO-designated Creative City of Gastronomy (one of only two in the United States—the other is Tucson, Arizona). 

More than 300 years of history have shaped San Antonio cuisine: ingredients from Indigenous cooking, cattle from Spanish settlers, cumin from Canary Islanders, and meat-smoking and sausage-making from German and Polish immigrants. The arrival of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (one of only three campuses) in 2008 further solidified San Antonio’s status as a serious foodie city.

For a visitor wanting to savor San Antonio’s best things to eat, it can be overwhelming to know exactly what to order, and where. So here’s our guide to 12 essential local dishes—everything from puffy tacos to chilaquiles verdes to Texas quail—that are representative of or unique to this American culinary capital, along with a recommended restaurant to sample each dish. Just be prepared for plenty of cheese—which for us, isn’t a bad thing.

 (Pictured above: bean-and-cheese breakfast tacos, Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia)
Best Restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Tostada Burger: Chris Madrid’s
Veronica Stoddart
Tostada Burger: Chris Madrid’s

One of the stars of San Antonio’s thriving burger scene is Chris Madrid’s. Founded in 1977 by the late Chris Madrid, it’s a city institution “serving hamburgers made with love” in the historic Beacon Hill neighborhood. Line up at the counter to place your order under a hammered-tin ceiling alongside walls lined with sports team shirts. 

This being San Antonio, tostadas and refried beans must make an appearance. Try the popular house specialty, the tostada burger, made with Madrid′s homemade refried beans, tostada chips, onions, crispy flat tostada tortilla, and lots of ooey-gooey melted cheddar cheese. Top it off with freshly made pico de gallo or red salsa. Then dig in on the sunny open-air patio under candy-red umbrellas or in the memorabilia-festooned dining rooms. You can’t go wrong. 

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Crispy Dog: Ray’s Drive Inn
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Crispy Dog: Ray’s Drive Inn

This down-home spot has been a Westside landmark since Raymond “Ray” Lopez opened the door in 1956. Now owned by Ray’s younger brother, Arturo, and his family, Ray’s Drive-Inn claims to be the birthplace of the original puffy taco. A trademark San Antonio creation, it’s made with corn masa that is deep fried for a few seconds until it puffs up into a crispy, crunchy shell that is then filled. 

And try another San Antonio novelty here: the crispy dog. Traditionally made by abuelas, tías, and madres in family kitchens, it’s a deep-fried American cheese–stuffed frankfurter wrapped in a corn tortilla. The contrast between the soft, flavorful inside and crunchy outside make it an addictive winner. A nostalgic throwback, Ray’s is one of the few places that still serves this signature snack of old-time San Antonio.

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Puffy Tacos, Henry’s Puffy Tacos
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Puffy Tacos: Henry’s Puffy Tacos

If puffy tacos were born at Ray’s, they took center stage at Henry’s Puffy Tacos, opened by Arturo’s younger brother, Henry, in 1978. Now served at two locations, this family-owned restaurant’s signature taco made with a crisp-but-pillowy deep-fried shell has been drawing San Antonians looking for their fix ever since. Of the eight varieties, the most popular are picadillo (ground beef) and spicy beef fajita—all topped with lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, and guacamole. 

“My dad put puffy tacos on the map in San Antonio and popularized them here,” says Henry’s daughter Imelda Lopez Sanchez (pictured above), who runs the business with her three brothers. “It’s the unofficial food of the city and represents real Tex-Mex, because we had to use ingredients we could get here, such as cheddar cheese instead of queso fresco [that is used] in border towns closer to Mexico.” No wonder the two outlets serve up to 2,000 of these airy and crunchy favorites each day. 

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Chili: Four Brothers on River Walk
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Chili: Four Brothers

Chili has long roots in San Antonio. It goes back to the 1880s when female vendors called "chili queens" peddled steaming "bowls o' red" in Military Plaza. For many Texans, a bowl o' red (otherwise known as chili, or chili con carne) contains nothing more than meat, peppers, and spices—but no beans, heaven forbid. 

To sample the real deal, head to the upscale Four Brothers restaurant in the Omni La Mansión del Rio hotel, on the city’s landmark River Walk (pictured above). As you watch the tourist boats ply the water from your outdoor riverside roost, tuck into the San Antonio “Chili Queens” Chili, packed with ground American Wagyu beef and topped with scallions, melted cheddar, crema, and sliced radishes. More meaty than spicy, this meal on a plate “is very typical of the area,” says Mark Palmer, the hotel’s Assistant Director of Food and Beverage. “That chili will never leave the menu.”

Be sure to order a side of the signature Bexar cornbread, which is flavored with jalapeño and aged cheddar and served with butter, Texas honey, and pimento cheese in a Texas-shaped cast-iron skillet and topped with a map of the state. 

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Chilaquiles Verdes: Box Street All Day
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Chilaquiles Verdes: Box Street All Day

You can kick-start your day with a plate of zesty chilaquiles verdes (pictured above) at Box Street All Day, one of the city’s buzziest brunch spots, open in two locations. An American-style take on this Mexican classic dating to 1898, it features tostaditas (small tostadas), tomatillo salsa, black beans, sour cream, pickled red onions, avocado, fried egg, sesame dukkah (Middle Eastern spices), cotija cheese, fresh herbs, and salsa macha. It’s a layered flavor explosion of crunchy, tart, smooth, spicy, and aromatic—all at once.

“Our beans set us apart and people love it,” says manager Michael Arredondo. “We make the presentation special. It’s one of our prettiest dishes.” Add hot fried chicken, as many diners do, for added protein. And don’t miss a house-made donut (glazed or churro-style) before you leave.

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Pan Dulce: La Panadería
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Pan Dulce: La Panadería

With such a strong Mexican influence, San Antonio has its share of great pan dulce, which means “sweet bread” and refers to the traditional Mexican baked goods typically eaten for breakfast. At La Panadería, brothers José and David Cáceres, inspired by their family's baking legacy in Mexico City, run one of their three bakery-cafes. Foodies flock to the drool-worthy sweet treats beckoning from gleaming glass cases.

Overwhelmed by more than a dozen enticing choices, you might opt for three top sellers: a classic concha, sweet brioche bread covered with half vanilla and half chocolate sweet hard shell; and two crossover innovations, a tequila-infused almond croissant filled with almond paste and topped with toasted almonds, and a tres leches (“three milks”) croissant filled with whipped mascarpone and fresh strawberries, both dusted with powdered sugar. “The concha is the most traditional one from the streets of Mexico,” say manager Ethan Mireles. Whether traditional or French-inspired, they’re flaky, flavorful and fabulous.

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Barbecue: Two Bros. BBQ Market
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Barbecue: Two Bros. BBQ Market

With San Antonio in the midst of a barbecue renaissance, a restaurant has to dish up some exceptional 'cue if it wants to stand out. Two Bros. BBQ Market fits the bill. To the sounds of Country Western music on the loud speaker, you sit at an outdoor picnic table and feast on BBQ best-sellers at this rough-hewn joint: cherry-glazed baby back ribs; “cheesy chop,” a pint cup filled with half chopped beef and half mac and cheese in a sublime combo; and the Big Bro sandwich, a tower of smoked brisket, sausage link, and pulled pork topped with cole slaw, pickles, and sweet sauce. “I call it the naptime sandwich,” says manager Darion Densley. ‘’When you’re done, you’re ready for a nap.” 

Smoked on Texas oak in custom pits out back, all the meat is succulent, deep-charred, and packed with sweet-smoky deliciousness. The pitmaster, Fernando Hinojosa (pictured above), says the brisket dry rub contains cumin, garlic, brown sugar, smoked paprika, salt, pepper, “and some other things that are secret.” After your meat overload, save room for dessert: a classic banana pudding topped with crumbled vanilla wafers. It’s the perfect creamy counterpoint.

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Breakfast Tacos: Mi Tierra Café y Panadería
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Breakfast Tacos: Mi Tierra Café y Panadería

Judging by the lines at the massive bakery counter groaning with delectable pastries, you can also get great pan dulce at Mi Tierra Café y Panadería. This 500-seat Tex-Mex landmark in Historic Market Square has been run by three generations of the Cortez family since 1941. Order that Tex-Mex favorite, breakfast tacos, with a side of Mexican culture. The most popular ones: bean and cheese, which are soft tortillas wrapped around creamy refried beans and melted cheddar and served with smoky red salsa. Nine other varieties include barbacoa (Mexican-style barbecue), beef tongue, Mexican chorizo and eggs, and carne guisada (beef tips sautéed in tomatoes and peppers). 

Mi Tierra celebrates its south-of-the-border heritage with unabashed gusto. Mexican music wafts through multiple dining rooms, a kitschy riot of hanging piñatas, colorful cutout paper banners, neon tinsel, candy-colored walls, historical photos, and the restaurant’s signature year-round Christmas lights. Traditionally clad waitresses serve meals on hand-painted Mexican pottery while in the evening, strolling mariachis serenade diners sipping handmade margaritas. 

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Esquites: Burgerteca
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Esquites: Burgerteca

If San Antonio had a culinary ambassador, it would be star restaurateur Johnny Hernandez (pictured above), who runs half a dozen places that showcase the intersecting flavors of Mexico and Texas. To sample the Mexican street corn salad known as esquites, or elotes, head to his popular Burgerteca in the artsy Southtown neighborhood, where he added a Margarita Garden to serve handmade cocktails. A vividly colored explosion of whimsical Mexican folk art and bright murals, the setting is perfect for the lively flavors of the esquites: sauteed corn with chile, garlic, chipotle crema, grated queso fresco, cilantro, and lime. It’s a fresh and filling side dish or snack. 

“My menu is inspired by the mercados and plazas in Mexico. You can’t enter a Mexican plaza without finding esquites,” says Hernandez, whose parents hail from Mexico. He also serves this tasty small plate at his juice bar, The Frutería.

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Pozole: Rosario’s
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Pozole: Rosario’s

Authentic Mexican food also stars at a beloved local institution, Rosario’s. Featuring a made-from-scratch menu that would be right at home in Mexico City, 32-year-old Rosario’s sprawls in an airy, minimalist cafeteria-like space big enough for extended gatherings. 

The cuisine is “Mex-Tex, more Mexican than Texan,” according to owner Lisa Wang. “It’s comfort food for locals—the dishes we grew up with.” In other words, it’s the perfect place to sample a longtime favorite, pozole, a hearty chile-spiced broth with diced pork, hominy and cabbage lime slaw; garnished with scallions, oregano, radishes, lemon wedge, and chile de árbol paste. It’s served, authentically, with corn or flour tortillas. “They’re all family recipes… that feed the heart and quench the soul,” says Wang.

Best restaurants in San Antonio for the Best Local Dishes of San Antonio: Guacamole and Texas Quail: Boudro’s
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Guacamole and Texas Quail: Boudro’s

You’ll find great guacamole throughout Alamo City, but the best place to try it is Boudro’s, a popular Texas bistro situated right on the River Walk. Ordered by about 90% of its guests, its guac is prepared table-side (pictured above) with all the flourish of a mariachi band. In goes diced avocado, roasted roma tomatoes, serrano peppers, cilantro, freshly squeezed lime, orange juice, chopped red onion and salt—all served with a flute of crispy tortilla chips. Chunky and chock full of flavor, it’s simply the best guacamole you may ever have. 

Boudro’s is also a great place to try that native specialty, Texas quail, which is abundant in the state. Mesquite-grilled, the delicate moist bird is stuffed with wild mushrooms, roasted corn, dried apricot, apples, and poblanos. That’s bathed in a creamy sauce and served on a nest of root vegetables and roasted potatoes.