Best of San Antonio > Staff Pick
To be fair, some of the fastest-growing areas of town have had precious little choice except for the Saltgrass Steak Houses and Chili’s that obligingly pop up on every major thoroughfare the moment the asphalt’s laid. But all that’s changing. Best Of repeat winner Jason Dady is based on the northern side of town, and Paesanos 1604 is only the newest of the high-profile outposts planned by the city’s culinary captains of industry. For now, however, many of your hometown favorites are still located inside Loop 410, from La Fogata to Chris Madrid’s to Boardwalk Bistro to the Cove.
Speaking of chains, this year the Current experimented with neutralizing two juggernauts, H-E-B and Starbucks, by giving them their own categories, which provoked flames from some voters — even though we also offered a category for Best Local Coffee Shop (a title nabbed by a homegrown formula restaurant) — and even though, if we understand economics correctly, many of your glove compartments and purses are stuffed with receipts from you-know-who.
Lucky for all of us, we’re still spending at mom-and-pop eateries, too, and as restaurant sales continue to increase (an estimated 6.9 percent in Texas in 2007 according to the National Restaurant Association), they should prosper along with the corporations. This year, keep an eye on City Council, which may field a proposal to create a new commission that would have jurisdiction over an issue that sticks in a lot of people’s craws: chains on the River Walk.
— Elaine Wolff
The creamy scallops almost cool the fire below in Yokonyu’s decadent Toreado Roll.
“Toreado roll?” the Google browser suggested helpfully as I tried to research the surely New-World origins of this Nippon-Azteca love child. And eating Yokonyu’s burn-out-your-nose-hairs version is not unlike dancing with a bull — a gracefully employed napkin all that stands between you and sudden etiquette death by drippy nose and streaming eyes. (The sushi chef warned me, too.) I finally poked out most of the seared serrano peppers with my chopsticks because the creamy scallop sauce was not modulating the burn in the least. Still delicious; still hot enough to stop a conversation in its tracks. Apply cold sake liberally.
— Elaine Wolff
Best Taco-truck Taco
Taquitos el Guero’s Tacos al Pastor
El West Side
Trying to bring order and hierarchy to the elusive world of taco trucks seems counterintuitive (or insane). But it’s an important pursuit, and from my experience, I think the best taco-truck taco is to be had at Taquitos el Guero. Now, try finding it.
It’s not as difficult as one might think. For now, Taquitos el Guero is located in the West Side on Commerce Street, one block west of Murry Street, in front of a house next to a dirt parking lot. The truck is jacked up on cinder blocks and doesn’t appear to be moving anytime soon. Their popularity and success seem to have demanded it.
The al Pastor is Guero’s specialty. The pork is well-marinated with a good amount of spice, but not overpowering. And, the tacos are extremely fresh. The tacos (like all taco-truck tacos) are served minimally dressed on corn tortillas with a trace of chopped onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. I find them to be quite elegant. In fact, after first tasting these I found it difficult to return to the standard restaurant variety.
— Mark Jones
Best Food Festival
Hatch Chile Festival
Central Market, 4821 Broadway, 368-8600, August
It’s a common Texan misconception that “Hatch chiles” are a specific type of pepper, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are hundreds of types of chiles — all with varying shapes, sizes, and degree of kick — but Hatch chiles are labeled as such because they are grown by the Mesilla Valley farmers of Hatch, New Mexico. Having grown up just south of Albuquerque in Belen, New Mexico, I’m quite familiar with Hatch, the self-professed “Chile Capital of the World.” Every Labor Day weekend the town hosts the Hatch Chile Festival, an event that beckons to a steady throng of loyal devotees and new converts alike. My tongue got used to the fiery pepper early on in life, as both the green and red variety are incorporated in almost every New Mexican dish. My family would make an annual trek to local farms for truckloads of fresh produce and enough chiles to last us until the next fall; my grandmother has a separate freezer for chiles alone, a common practice.
Fortunately for those living outside the Land of Enchantment, Hatch has introduced its signature brand of pepper to consumers across the U.S. and around the world, one recipient being our very own Central Market. Sample fantastic dishes flavored with chiles, pick up recipes from Foodies, and stock up with enough peppers to get you through the winter months. Central Market fires up roasters for two weekends in August for on-site roasting. The peppers are purchased by the pound and carried home in plastic sacks after roasting so they can “sweat,” facilitating peeling. Look for the fresh crop’s arrival sometime in August at Centralmarket.com.
— Nicole Chavez
When I say I’m a fan of noodles, I mean it to the utmost degree. I would eat them in a box, I would eat them with a fox … I’ve even got a boyfriend who’s been nicknamed Noodles since childhood, truly. Among the best noodle bowls I’ve found are Taste of Asia’s. The restaurant specializes in both Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine — some dishes named rather intimidatingly — but all you’ve got to remember is P32. The rice vermicelli bowls are stacked with noodles, bean sprouts, cucumber, and shredded lettuce; the P32 tops the aforementioned with wok-fried pork slices, roasted peanuts, and a sliced spring roll. If you’re eating with a buddy, split the bowl and get an extra order of spring rolls for the perfect amount. Or, plan on leftovers, as the dish microwaves well. The rolls are stuffed with vegetables and pork, wrapped in rice paper, and fried lightly to a golden brown. They’re surprisingly light and crispy, perfect when wrapped in lettuce with a sprig of cilantro and dipped in the right balance of fish sauce and chili sauce. And the price? We both leave full for under $10.
— Nicole Chavez
I can’t wholeheartedly recommend that you go in for a $200 full-on dining experience at Fleming’s Prime, the steakhouse chain sprung from the loins of P.F. Chang’s pioneer. But sit at the bar and sip the signature martini while splitting a strip with your knee-knocker of choice? Divine. It’s a real grown-up cocktail, not a frou-frou frock designed to disguise alcohol intake, but it’ll still seduce drinkers who think they don’t like it straight up. The key (and I can’t emphasize this enough) is to say “light on the vermouth,” in which case the bartender will add just enough to give your martini an appealing and mysterious sweetness. After I recommended Fleming’s house cocktail when I first reviewed the restaurant, I’ve made it a point to try martinis plain and dressed hither and yon. The only variation I’ve preferred is the Mott Street, a sake-and-lemon-juice-altered affair available at the Iroquois in New York. But if you’re stuck in town, stick with the Fleming’s. Once you snack on the blue-cheese-stuffed olives that are pickling in your brine, you may never do the twist again.
— Elaine Wolff
Before my editor could get the words “best brew” out, I piped up and volunteered myself. Cold homebrew in hand, the wooden wraparound porch of the Blue Star Brewery is a great evening destination, and I’m working? Can’t beat it. Office-mate-turned-drinking-buddy and I don hoodies, cozy up to the breeze, and start off with the sampler, a generous shot-sized taster of the seven brews currently available, so we can compare notes. I’m no virgin to Blue Star’s brews, having been the second person in all of SA to take home the newly instituted beer pig. The Pale Ale’s always been my Blue Star favorite, but tonight it tastes uncommonly bitter; I pass it along to my cohort and he scowls as well. So the Pale’s ruled out in the elimination process, as is the Golden (It’s like beer-flavored water) and the Amber (Almost like Heineken. I could drink it forever, but it’s nothing exceptional.)
It’s no secret we favor darker beers. Aside from our understandable fondness for the stout, we like the Cask brew and have suddenly developed a strange interest in the King William Ale, a barleywine ale with a sweeter taste that we’re informed is brewed with wine yeast. To clarify a perceived mix-up of two similar looking samples, we order pints of the Cask and the King William and are surprised to discover that the King William is served in a goblet — the higher alcohol content necessitates servings of 12 oz. rather than 16 oz. After a few sips we’re turned off by it, and reaffirm the Cask as our favorite.
Our sociable waitress Morgan brings out a sample of the IPA — it’s only available seasonally — and enlightens us with information about the Cask. It isn’t a brew of its own, it’s just a different style of pumping; instead of carbonating the brew, it sits in an English firkin (a wooden barrel) and is hand-pumped. The brewery switches out the type of brew regularly. Well, this changes everything! Morgan informs us that today’s Cask brew is … the Pale Ale! Maybe I wasn’t far off with my initial pick, but we both agree that the uncarbonated Pale is far superior. Next time you’re in, ask for a taster of the brew in the Cask and take your order from there.
— Nicole Chavez
Green’s vegetarian delights, clockwise from left: Sweet-potato gnocchi, an appetizer sampler, and portabella steak.
The best vegetarian restaurant in San Antonio is also the only vegetarian restaurant in San Antonio. Though it has been open only since January, Green has already become a local landmark, an airy place for inexpensive food that pleases the palate and salves the conscience. No animal is harmed in the making of Green’s entrées, but no carnivore who enters the doorway is likely to go away hungry or angry. The culinary style is American diner, and about half the menu is not just vegetarian but vegan, including such delicacies as portabello steak, sweet-potato gnocchi, and wheat-meat fajitas. Other restaurants in town — especially the Asian ones and Gini’s, Adelante, the Cove, La Fiesta/Patio, and Twin Sisters — offer meatless options, but to a purist wary of hidden lard and broth the only true rival to Green is a moveable feast: an evening with the San Antonio Vegetarian Society. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, restaurants of varying styles and ethnicities alternate in providing the group (SAVS@satx.rr.com) with a prix-fixe vegan repast. For the rest of the month, go Green and wish that its healthy reception will encourage other chefs to bypass butchers.
— Steven G. Kellman
A dash of celery salt puts Nick’s All-American Dog over the top.
Sometime last year, Nick’s Authentic Chicago Style Hot Dogs turned into a conquest of sorts, an elusive, mysterious place that we’d pass by only to be disappointed because it was closed. Either we were operating on some ungodly schedule or the hours changed, because now the hotspot for specialty dogs is open on weekends and until 8 p.m. on weeknights. It’s tucked away behind the Walgreens on the corner of Thousand Oaks and Henderson Pass, but once you drive into the parking lot you’ll see it; look for the green and orange lawn signs heralding the fact that it’s open.
The walls are cheery bright green and yellow, conveying the bustling nature of hot-dog vendors on the streets of Chicago and New York. And the hot dogs? Outstanding. On my first visit I opted for the Chicago Style — yellow mustard, bright-green relish, fresh chopped onions, two tomato wedges, crisp pickle spear, two sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt; and the Coney Island Style, yellow mustard, fresh chopped onions, and chili. My boyfriend chose the same, adding a New York City Style (yellow mustard and sauerkraut) to the order for a total of five hot dogs, one shared bag of jalapeño chips, and grape Crush in a glass bottle — it reminds me of raspas when I was little, served with too much syrup.
If you visit in the evening, you’ll probably be served by Joseph James, the charming and talkative owner of Nick’s Chicago Dogs. Each dog is made to order, so you order at the counter, sit down, wait about five minutes, and James brings everything to you. He asks how many lines of mustard you’d like and squirts it at the table, also adding the dash of celery salt to the Chicago Style dog in front of you. “First bite’s on us” is the motto, and you pay upon leaving. “Thanks. I’ll see you in two weeks,” says James. I can guarantee it’ll be sooner rather than later.
— Nicole Chavez
A Korean national treasure, kim chee’s stink rivals that of a Halliburton DoD contract — no surprise given that it’s a fermented dish from pre-refrigerator times traditionally made with cabbage, garlic, salt, and red pepper. I prefer it basic and traditional, because that’s how I first had it, homemade by a friend’s Korean mother. If we stayed out late enough, when we rolled in she would she would still be in her night-shift hospital scrubs, steaming rice to go with her powerfully tangy and spicy kim chee. We’d eat it quietly together standing in the kitchen.
I used to buy a dead ringer from a quaint Asian store near Fort Sam Houston — when the owner’s wife was well enough to make it — that would make my tongue tingle and funked up the apartment for days. Since that shop disappeared, I haven’t found a good take-home substitute, but two local restaurants serve consistently good batches: Niki’s Tokyo Inn’s is sometimes not fermented as long as I like, but it’s plenty spicy. Go Hyang Jib, the popular Korean barbecue joint, served a kim chee as sharp as it was hot, but the restaurant recently changed hands, and while it’s still on the menu I can’t vouch yet for the new owners. To get the exact stuff, head over to Ilsong Gardens, where former GHJ proprietrix Young Cacy serves it as a side dish. Either version will briefly turn you into a fire-breathing dragon.
— Elaine Wolff
As a past winner of happy-hour awards, Azuca may seem too obvious a choice, but I haven’t yet found anyplace else that offers the same amenities for such a cheap price. Though some happy hours feature a wider beer selection (the Flying Saucer), and others a more regal setting (V Bar), consider what Azuca brings to the (bar) table: excellent, distinctive food and drinks at the low price of $2.50/each.
In my opinion Azuca makes the best mojito in town. They use fresh mint, ground into each glass by hand. I always stick with the traditional but they offer popular alternatives such as the mango mojito, too.
Another factor is the excellent finger food, also priced at $2.50: fresh, abundant guacamole, tostones con mojo (fried plantains), moros y cristianos (black beans and rice, which go well with the tostones), and three varieties of ceviche (shrimp, scallop, and fish.)
Azuca’s convenient Southtown location is a great launching pad into any of the other wonderful bars or restaurants in the neighborhood. What other happy hour can offer all this?
— Mark Jones
Finding the perfect batch of Buffalo wings in San Antonio took some time and several trips to Wings & More, Wings & Things, Buffalo Wild Wings, Blue Star Brewing Company, Wing Stop, and even Hooter’s. Hands down, Wing Stop serves the best Buffalo Wings. Wing Stop’s “#1 Fan, spokesperson, and Hall of Famer” Troy Aikman refers to them as “The Best Wings I’ve Ever Had in My Life!” What he said! Their original hot recipe is the best for those who like it spicy, but tolerable. Can’t take the heat? You can downgrade to a more buttery version (Mild). Want sweat on your upper lip? Then upgrade to the heat-packin’ level (Atomic). What?? You don’t like Buffalo Wings? No worries my friend: Wing Stop offers an array of wussy flavors to please any sensitive tongue: Cajun, Teriyaki, Lemon Pepper, Hawaiian Barbeque, Garlic Parmesan, and Hickory Smoked BBQ. The biggest dilemma you will face is deciding whether 10 is enough or 50 is too many. Order a side of their fresh-cut seasoned fries with Velveeta-like cheddar, bourbon baked beans, your favorite domestic beer, and you’ve got a meal. So ditch your principle utensils of fork, knife, and napkin and let your fingers do the work. Your reward: finger-lickin’ bliss! But do grab some of the complimentary moist towelettes as your fingers will be stained for several hours after winging.
— Kimberly Aubuchon
While many voters happily typed or scribbled in “Central Market” for this year’s Best H-E-B category, others were pissed at the narrowed options. “fuck them all” wrote one. “no … monopoly,” suggested another. Still another simply asked, “what about Whole Foods?” C’mon readers, who’s your pro-organic, pro-local-farmer paper? You might have guessed we were holding out for our favorite lobster-saving, foie-gras-banning outpost … a monopoly of a different color that’s virtually cornered the market on conscience-salving grocery -shopping nationwide. While the grain-fed, free-range meats will set you back a pretty penny (the market rewards vegetarianism at WF), the 365 store brand is an economical way to eat organic, and the yellow arrows helpfully point the way to Texas products. The bakery’s bread selection is not as encyclopedic as CM’s, but in this case it’s quality over quantity when you’re looking for basic batards and sandwich loaves.
— Elaine Wolff
This one’s a close call: Damien Watel serves hands-down the city’s best fries (and when the market permits, death-by-butter escargot nestled in toasted bread) at his Southtown Belgian bistro La Frite — a welcome casual alternative to his pricier Olmos Park cornerstone, Bistro Vatel. Chef Jason Dady has made being a wine snob a reputable, enviable, and fun pursuit with his sipping-friendly tapas at Bin 555.
But who can hold a candle to Le Rêve’s Andrew Weissman, who builds establishments to fill empty niches just as we’re noticing the gap? Consequently, despite a nearby Starbucks, his downtown Sip café, nestled at the corner of the Valencia, bustles with business folk and tourists; following a rave review by the late New York Times critic R.W. Apple it’s hard to get a date at “the dream”; and please don’t expect peace and quiet at the family’s Northside burger emporium and playground, Big’z. Sandbar sadly no longer serves lunch, but if you’re looking for briny oysters and succulent, tastes-like-summer shrimp rolls, there is no comparable restaurant in town. Which is true of each of Weissman’s ventures.
— Elaine Wolff
Prove me wrong, please, but I tend to think that best-of lists are a crock. Wine lists are an especially good example: is the best the biggest, the most varied, the most advantageously priced? Do I have to factor in a wine-savvy sommelier or servers that know a petit syrah from a pinot noir?
So you won’t be surprised if I’m slightly perverse in my obligatory selection — passing over such obvious choices as Grey Moss Inn, The Little Rhein and Fig Tree … and wine bars such as Drink, 20nine, and Copa — in favor of a list that has only 55 selections.
Jason Dady’s Bin 555 has become a hangout for wine-trade pros and wonkish wannabes alike, and there are two basic reasons: The food is designed to be wine-friendly, and the two-part wine list encourages experimentation. There is a primary list that is better than workaday, but the most action is on the selection of 55 wines for 55 bucks —and, yes, I rarely spend that much on a bottle of restaurant wine. But this is a list that does two things: it removes the problem of nit-picking by price, and it creates a challenge — which are the real bargains? And these are wines you really want to try.
The selection ranges from a Campanian greco di tufo to Duckhorn sauvignon blanc, from (relatively) austere Alsatian offerings to an opulent Jordan chardonnay on the white side, and from Siduri and Belle Glos Clark & Telephone (a personal fave and a real steal) pinots to bigger-than-life cabernets such as Spain’s Torres Mas La Plana and Napa’s Darioush Caravan — both also big-time bargains. Order a small plate of grilled bobwhite quail, Texas lump crab with avocado aioli or baked chevre with rosemary and caraway olives, and pick your own bests. Please.
— Ron Bechtol