The evolution of San Antonio’s food scene

City becoming a culinary competitor with chef-driven restaurants

San Antonio doesn’t receive the national attention of its swaggering neighbor to the north. While the city can’t stake claim to countless trend pieces lauding its every move, San Antonio’s dining scene is surging, led by a brigade of homegrown and transplanted culinary talent.

Most tourists know the town for Tex-Mex and margaritas along the River Walk, but San Antonio has a breadth of culinary options rooted in the work of chefs like Brit Bruce Auden, who first earned national attention with Biga in the early 1990s.

“We’re starting to see the development of more chef-driven restaurants, where chefs are much more comfortable creating menus and creating experiences that are a reflection of their own personalities,” said San Antonio Express-News restaurant critic Edmund Tijerina. He credits that shift in part to the diversity of the growing population in San Antonio.

San Antonio native Andrew Weissman could have made a career anywhere in the world, and his résumé includes stops in France and New York City, but he returned home and helped raise San Antonio’s profile with his award-winning French bistro Le Reve, which he operated on the River Walk from 2001-2009.

When Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury renovated the Pearl Brewery, Weissman moved up the river to launch the dining component of the self-contained entertainment district. He opened the exceptional Italian trattoria Il Sogno and seafood restaurant Sandbar in 2009. Those spots served as culinary cornerstones for the Pearl, which is now home to about a dozen bars and restaurants (and growing). Austin has no corollary for a space so dense with quality dining and drinking options. When the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group opens its hotel on the property early next year, the Pearl, which also features retail shopping and a Culinary Institute of America campus, will serve as a one-stop destination for tourists.

Finding a cure

The latest addition to the Pearl’s slew of dining options is Cured from chef Steve McHugh, who moved to San Antonio about four years ago to open Luke with celebrated chef John Besh.

The proud brick building sits at the head of a postage-stamp lawn in the middle of the Pearl complex. It looks like a former schoolhouse or bank, but the historic structure served as the brewery’s original administrative office.

The bespectacled McHugh, who resembles the mellowed lead singer of a defunct hardcore band, opened the restaurant in December. The name is an acknowledgment of one of the restaurant’s culinary centerpieces and a celebration of the modest chef’s successful fight against cancer.

A decade in New Orleans working with Besh didn’t sap the Wisconsin accent from McHugh, and the restaurant nods to both his farm upbringing and classic food preservation techniques.

Large cuts of meat dangle inside a gleaming humidity-controlled glass case at the entrance to the handsome dining room framed by beautiful wooden floors, brick walls and a refurbished pressed-tin ceiling.

The cured meats constitute a roster of about a dozen charcuterie options that include pork fat whipped to the consistency of butter, smoky duck pastrami, piquant jalapeno sausage and citrusy 30-day bresaola flavored with orange and coriander. Design your own charcuterie board with three ($18), six ($26) or nine selections ($34).

Puzzle pieces of tomato, avocado, citrus and beets fit together atop a refreshing crabmeat ravigote ($14) in a dish that straddled McHugh’s Texas and Louisiana influences. You can see more Southern inspiration in four brilliant red peppers stuffed with shrimp in a bowl of grits studded with ham, tomato and onions.

One dish that had me wishing McHugh would eye an Austin expansion was the Blue Ribbon burger. Tangy onion jam sweetened a stack of savory patties made from an 80/20 blend of beef and bacon, with a creamy mixture of comte, cheddar and smoked gouda (with a splash of Pabst Blue Ribbon) oozing from the top and shrouding the burger. McHugh might not bring San Antonio to Austin, but the Pearl will get a taste of the River City this summer, as farm-to-ice cream favorite Lick will open a store at the complex.

Elegance and authenticity

After Weissman shuttered the award-winning Le Reve to focus on his Pearl restaurants (and now two more spots around town), one of his former cooks stepped in to helm a restaurant in Le Reve’s former space.

Chef Michael Sohocki, who worked for Weissman at Le Reve and Il Sogno, opened Restaurant Gwendolyn in 2010. The name is a tribute to Sohocki’s grandmother, a Depression-era pig farmer in Oklahoma, and the chef honors that era of resourcefulness and honest cooking with an elegant little restaurant driven by sustainability and authenticity.

The menu lists the local farms and ranches sourced for each course in Gwendolyn’s two prix-fixe menus (three courses for $55 and five courses for $75). They offer a $20 discount for those dining by 6:30 p.m. early in the week, but make sure you’re seated promptly for your 6:30 p.m. reservation or you might receive a curt chastisement and no discount, as was the case for us one night.

The early awkwardness passed following a savory amuse bouche of bacon-wrapped quail, and we eased into a very pleasant dinner at the pocket-sized bistro with buttercream-colored walls. Bright vegetal notes elevated a cream of asparagus soup in a first course that also included a kale salad with the woodsy musk of marinated mushrooms.

Entrees exhibited imagination and range: tender smoked and grilled pork loin with the charred snap of grilled zucchini in a salsa rojo represented the chef’s South Texas roots, while braised goat served with sweet coconut rice and a tomato-orange ragout dipped into Caribbean flavors. Also a testament to Sohocki’s diversity, he and partner Jenn Wade opened Japanese izakaya and ramen shop Kimura in the adjacent space last summer.

Dessert at Restaurant Gwendolyn played with two different kinds of classics: a chocolate torte with apricot jam and cocoa sorbet you might find in a European café, and a strawberries and cream funnel cake that graduated with honors from a Texas state fair.

Taste of bliss

California native Mark Bliss originally moved to Texas more than 30 years ago. After helping Auden open Biga, he won acclaim with Silo in Alamo Heights, which he ran for about 12 years. Bliss left San Antonio in 2010 for a personal hiatus but returned in the winter of 2012 to open Bliss, a stunner in the Southtown neighborhood.

Built in an old gas station, the restaurant blends industrial architectural touches from two centuries to achieve comfort and sophistication. The exposed brick walls and high-vaulted ceiling with wooden beams speak to the past, while the sleek metallic extensions to the original building feel very of the moment.

The new restaurant gives Bliss wide berth to express his New American cuisine. Fans of Biga will recognize the crispy chicken-fried Gulf oysters, here sandwiched between flaky homemade buttermilk biscuits and served as sliders ($15). Another appetizer took the deconstructed approach, with hamachi sashimi surrounded by the salt, spice and tang of sea trout roe, jalapeno-cilantro salsa, pickled nori and ponzu ($17).

Bliss cooked one of the best duck dishes I’ve had in recent memory — juicy, pink-centered breast encrusted with a five-spice rub, and confit strands tossed with roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potato hash. He offset those autumnal flavors with lemony spinach and spicy grilled Szechuan peppercorns, and topped the whole affair with a jiggling slab of seared foie gras.

The chef didn’t just deliver comfort with decadence; he also did it with grace, as with a crisp pan-roasted Gulf snapper served in a shrimp risotto bursting with a saltwater-floral bloom. Throw in a rack of lamb with cheese potatoes ($37), a buttery sea bass and friendly and courteous service, and you have the best meal I ate in San Antonio over several days.

Colorful and electric

Bliss was preceded in the Southtown surge by chef Quealy Watson, who’s drawn excellent reviews for his imaginative small plates at Monterey. When he wasn’t courting crowds with his New American comfort, Watson used the restaurant to showcase Hot Joy, a pop-up concept that served pan-Asian food on Sunday and Monday nights.

The occasional meal series grew so popular that it graduated from weekly culinary couch-crasher to a home of its own. Hot Joy opened in early April around the corner from Monterey with a confident aesthetic that blends pop art elements (Samurai cat graffiti in the men’s room, a psychedelic mural and mask lanterns suspended over the bar) in a space dripping in red paint with black accents.

The food is just as colorful and electric as the space, blending whimsy and sophistication. I usually don’t write about a place so soon after opening, but time dictated otherwise and early returns indicated the crowds are warranted. Big knobby pieces of glistening twice-fried chicken wings arrived lacquered with the sweet ocean funk of crab fat caramel ($8.99) that confounded, then enticed.

Tangy preserved vegetables stood up to the gaminess of wok-fried slices of lamb breast ($13.99), and an excellent fried rice dish ($9.99) took two approaches to sweetness with nutty Chinese sausage and bits of juicy pineapple. Hot Joy plays by its own rules: witness a diverse list of about 50 Rieslings, which make for natural pairings with the sweet and spicy food, and the playful take on Indian flavors of tater tot chaat ($8.99), which featured tender cubes of paneer and a miso gravy. The only miss on my visit was Kung Pao shrimp ($14.99) with dill and hot Kewpie mayonnaise that tasted like a picnic basket that had been left out in the sun.

Taco empire

Ramen shops, pan-Asian restaurants, farm-to-table proselytizers and charcuterie … you may be wondering what happened to the San Antonio you’ve always known and loved. It’s still there, and it’s not going anywhere. You want tacos? Head to San Antonio. And if you want a fight, just hint to a San Antonio native that you think we do them better here in Austin. You’d be in trouble, and you’d be wrong.

When I want to get a taste of the soul of old-school San Antonio, I go to Garcia’s Mexican Food on Fredericksburg Road. Brothers Andy and John Garcia run the restaurant their late father, Julio Garcia, opened with his parents in 1962. (Garcia’s relocated to its current location in 1970.)

The only new-fangled cuisine you’ll find here is something the brothers introduced to the menu 10 years ago — a supple and smoky brisket taco ($2.95) that draws me to Fredericksburg Road every trip to San Antonio.

When a server asked if I wanted guacamole on my taco, another customer passed by and whispered “get the guacamole.” I did. Another Garcia’s regular turned me on to the simple salt-and-pepper pleasures of a thin grilled pork chop taco ($2.65). You listen to regulars. One of those regulars is Texas Tornado Augie Meyers, who walked out just as I took my seat last time in. Seems his old running buddy Doug Sahm used to frequent the joint, as well.

Across town the next morning at Taco Haven in Southtown I marveled at one of the best handmade flour tortillas I’d ever tasted. Fluffy, toasty, chewy. “How do you do it?” I asked my cheerful server. Is it the water? The air? Lard? Love? She was happy to bring me another, but she wasn’t giving up her secret.

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