The eternal quest for the best Mexican food in San Antonio is futile and here’s why: There is no single “best Mexican” restaurant because there’s really no such thing as just “Mexican food” in San Antonio.
Instead, think of Mexican food in San Antonio as three different categories: Mexican food for non-Mexicans, Mexican American home cooking and regional Mexican cooking.
They overlap in homes and restaurants all over the city, and until people started paying attention to these distinctions, all three were usually just called “Mexican.” Let’s untangle them.
Flavors of home
Mexican American home cooking, or comida casera, is simple, soul-satisfying and delicious. Think of dishes like fideo, calabacita (sautéed squash with corn), picadillo and migas. They trace their roots to the indigenous cooking that goes back an estimated 25,000 years and lives on in techniques such as the pit cooking tradition of barbacoa and cabrito. In his book Truly Texas Mexican, author and chef Adán Medrano traces this history and notes how people combined their ingredients with those of newer arrivals to create the home cooking of this area.
One of the dishes that arose was carne con chile, made by adding white flour as a thickener to chile ancho plus dried spices and meat, writes Medrano. That dish became famous in the mid-1800s in the open-air plazas where the famed Chili Queens served these bowls, along with enchiladas, tamales and frijoles. By the 1880s, the construction of a new City Hall coupled with a growing population and shifts in culture forced the Chili Queens across San Pedro Creek and eventually to the West Side before the chili vendors went out of business for good in 1943.
Meanwhile, the comida casera of the Tejanos and immigrants who fled the Mexican Revolution continued quietly, largely on the West and South Sides. In many ways, it still does.
“Made by white people”
In 1900, a Chicago businessman named Otis Farnsworth opened The Original Mexican Restaurant near Alamo Plaza. He had visited bustling eateries serving comida casera on the West Side and saw an opportunity to sell similar food to a non-Mexican clientele. With jackets required for men, it was run “by Anglos for Anglos,” Medrano writes, and served enchiladas, chile rellenos, tamales, chili, rice and beans, plus chile con queso, all on individual fine china plates.
To give an idea of the times in which the restaurant thrived, the nearby Palace of Sweets in Alamo Plaza advertised around 1920 its “famous Mexican pecan candies made by white people only.”
Perhaps the most well-known versions of “Mexican” foods around the country during the early 20th century were the canned tamales and sauces from San Antonio–based Gebhardt, which were advertised as having “that real Mexican tang.” There were also cookbooks with torta de carne enchilada recipes, which was a chili meatloaf featuring Gebhardt chili powder.
The restaurants that catered to Anglos simplified the time-consuming home recipes to use only a few chiles while focusing on frying and often incorporated lots of a then-new invention: processed melting yellow cheese.
After The Original Mexican Restaurant, other eateries—owned by both Anglos and Mexican Americans—followed and helped to popularize many of the foods that later became known as Tex-Mex.
The cultural mix got interesting during the mid-20th century, as the children of immigrants who arrived during the Mexican Revolution came to enjoy many of these restaurant dishes and began creating their own versions of them at home. Now, in many San Antonio homes, a bubbling slow cooker of queso dip will often accompany a buffet spread that includes simply seasoned grilled meat—the industrial and ancient sitting side by side.
In 1972, Diana Kennedy—a white, British-born woman who moved to Mexico in the 1950s—released The Cuisines of Mexico, in which she trashed the “mixed plates” in “so-called Mexican restaurants.” Although she never used the term “Tex-Mex,” other writers did, as a way of insulting what they saw as inferior, watered-down dishes.
Kennedy’s success and that of Rick Bayless (who is also white and grew up in Oklahoma City) more than a decade later, brought a wider awareness to the English speaking world that food in Mexico was different from the dishes available at most “Mexican” restaurants in this country.
In San Antonio, the combination of more Americans doing business in Mexico, more migration of business owners from Mexico, the growing awareness of regional Mexican dishes among dining aficionados and the ethnic awakening of third- and fourth-generation Mexican Americans, created a hunger for Sinaloa-style seafood dishes. Think moles from Oaxaca, cochinita pibil from the Yucatán Peninsula and others.
The success over the last decade of chef and restaurateur Johnny Hernandez, of La Gloria and The Frutería, showed that San Antonians (and visitors from elsewhere) would devour regional and regionally inspired dishes just as readily as they do Tex-Mex fare.
Still confused and hungry? Think of San Antonio Mexican food like this: Some of our dishes have been around for thousands of years, some came from different parts of Mexico, some were developed when San Antonio was a part of Mexico, and some came from the push and pull of cultures as San Antonio grew into the city it is today.
Don’t ask what’s most “authentic.” Instead, look for what’s delicious.
San Antonio’s Mexican Dining Milestones
1860s: The outdoor food stands, Chili Queens and the The Menger Hotel served as a destination for dining by travelers who came by stagecoach and later railroad.
1899: Otis Farnsworth’s The Original Mexican Restaurant showed how Americanized Mexican food could attract a non-Mexican clientele and offered the first popular example of what we now call Tex-Mex cuisine.
1941: Mi Tierra, opened, taking the Tex-Mex dishes, adding Mexican and Mexican American culture, and growing into a dining empire.
2010: La Gloria opened at Pearl, showcasing Mexican street foods from a Culinary Institute of America–trained Mexican American chef, Johnny Hernandez.
2013: Mixtli debuted in a train car in Olmos Park. Its chefs have since been recognized by the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine Magazine.