Miles and miles of newly developed spaces along the River Walk, an irresistible selection of fine dining experiences, a diverse and vibrant music scene, a sizzling nightlife – all of it colored by that special cultural blend that you’ll only find in America’s most Mexican of cities.
(Photo: San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau)
Original Content by Tracy Barnett for USA TODAY
1. Gwendolyn: Foodies Take Note: This is a restaurant to be reckoned with. Not just because chef Michael Sohocki is a fanatic about authentic, locally sourced ingredients – he uses no electricity in his back-to-the-1800s kitchen, and all fresh ingredients come from within a 100-mile radius; not just because he butchers his own meat and forages strange fruits from the neighbor’s trees to inspire one-of-a-kind creations; and not just because he was named Rising Star Sustainability Chef by starchefs.com. It’s because Sohocki will take the entire evening to serve you a meal you will never, ever forget.
2. Mixtli: Never has a railroad car taken a passenger on a more delicious journey than the little blue one that lies on the tracks at the back of The Yard, an old railroad yard-turned-strip mall in Olmos Park. Here two young Mexican chefs, Diego Galicia and Rico Torres, are toiling away at the self-appointed task of elevating their national cuisine from Tex-Mex mediocrity to the sublime. A maximum of 12 diners per night purchase tickets online for a prix-fixe, farm-to-table menu focused on a particular state of Mexico. A series of exquisite tiny plates is paired with an outstanding selection of wines, cocktails, aguas frescas and whatever else these guys can dream up. Recent menus have traveled from the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas to Jalisco in the west, to delightful effect.
3. The Monterey: Owner Chad Carey has had his hands full with other notable enterprises, but that hasn’t diminished the creative culinary explosion that happens daily at this Southtown hub. Head-turning items abound on the constantly changing and constantly challenging menu – white curry lamb brain foam with apricot soil, for example, or green eggs and venison ham – but don’t let the theatrics put you off. This is all good fun, foodie-style. The beer garden-style setup is delightful, too, with a first-rate craft beer and wine list to match.
4. Las Canarias: Chef John Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and his seafood restaurant across the river, Ostra (formerly Pesca) – and pushed them over the top. Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. Signature menu items at Las Canarias, voted Best Hotel Restaurant by readers and critics alike, include Chateaubriand of beef tenderloin, carved tableside by chef, and smoked Lockhart quail.
5. Farmers’ Markets at the Pearl Brewery and Alamo Quarry Market: It doesn’t get more local than the bustling open-air markets that transform the parking lots of these two establishments on weekends – Saturdays at the Pearl, Sundays at the Quarry. Local growers and producers display the best of their wares, up-and-coming chefs set up improv kitchens, pastry chefs ply the corridors with tempting samples and hungry foodies browse for breakfast and lunch while listening to live local music.
6. Dough: Accolades have ranged from Rachael Ray to Zagat to USA Today for this unpretentious Neapolitan-style neighborhood pizzeria, where the line is always out the door, according to Zagat. The secret is in the wood-burning oven – shipped in from Naples, Italy – and the farm-fresh ingredients, many provided by local growers. Each generously loaded pie gets 90 seconds in the 800-degree oven and emerges crispy, bubbling and irresistible. Their creamy housemade burrata wins rave reviews, as well.
7. Bliss: The appropriately named chef, Mark Bliss, has been called one of the leading gourmet chefs in the Southwest, honing his talents for two decades before opening this eponymous restaurant. He is credited with helping to put San Antonio on the culinary map with a stint at Biga on the Banks with Bruce Auden and then opening the award-winning Silo Elevated Cuisine. The food is American contemporary – everything from his signature oyster sliders to braised rabbit with wild mushrooms. Bliss is his first restaurant venture as owner and he appears to be doing everything right: Bliss was named Best New Restaurant by the San Antonio Express-News and one of the best overall restaurants in the city by Open Table.
8. Cured: Owner/chef Steven McHugh has to be a patient man, given that his charcuterie menu is made of items aged for a minimum of two months. Fresh, local and handmade are the emphasis of this sparkling new addition to the Pearl Brewery complex, where McHugh, former executive chef at John Besh’s Lüke, has been hard at work remodeling the 109-year-old building that now houses his first restaurant. Another Midwest farm boy turned chef, McHugh was inspired to find creative ways to use the whole animal, the old-fashioned way. His curing skills apply to vegetables, as well, with chayote pickles and agrodolce mushrooms appearing on the menu. Cited in “Chefs and Restaurants to Watch in 2014” by Eater.com.
9. Arcade Midtown Kitchen: Executive chef and owner Jesse Perez has created quite the buzz since being named Top Latino Chef in the U.S. in 2009. His celebrated return to San Antonio after stints in Atlanta and Los Angeles put him on Eater National’s “Chefs to Watch” list in 2013, and a year later the magazine followed that with a No. 1 rating on the San Antonio Heat Map. Perez has distance himself a bit from his Latin roots by designating his restaurant “Americana cuisine,” but make no mistake – Americana includes Mexicana, as his signature lobster soft taco with poblano cream sauce will attest.
10. Tuk Tuk Tap Room: This creative take on Southeast Asian street food, paired with one of the city’s most extensive craft beer collections, is what can come of a conversation over good beer. Chef David Gilbert, who documented his travels through Southeast Asia in his book “Kitchen Vagabond,” teamed up with The Friendly Spot Ice House owners Steve and Jody Newman for a venture that took San Antonio Magazine’s 2013 Reader’s Choice Award for best new restaurant. With 60 beers on tap and winners like the lotus root chicken salad and beef pho, set in a fun and engaging atmosphere, this little hot spot has quickly become a local favorite.