San Antonio is famous for its Tex-Mex and claims to be the birthplace of that spicy stew we’ve all eaten called chili. The cuisine is noted for its use of shredded cheese, beef, pork, beans and cumin. A trip to San Antonio is not complete without some authentic Tex-Mex dining.
Five Tex-Mex Favorites and where in San Antonio to Eat ‘Em:
Brisket Tacos at Garcia’s Mexican Food
Andrew Garcia spends his night smoking 20 briskets at a time in three giant pits for 13 to 16 hours. A rub, oak wood, and apple juice give the meat more than enough flavor–don’t insult it with BBQ sauce. Garcia’s was opened in 1962–a no-frills hole in the wall with white tile floors and laminate tables. The meat is served in a fresh flour tortilla, sliced to a perfect thickness with a lovely pink ring.
Puffy Tacos at Los Barrios
A puffy taco shell is made with fresh white masa, and a little water and salt, which is deep-fried. My mother-in-law remembers eating them when she was a teenager in San Antonio. When she saw Diana Barrios-Treviño throwing down with Bobby Flay she said that those were the puffy tacos she remembered. A lot of people would agree. In 1979 Barrios-Treviño’s mother invested $3000 in an old garage to open Los Barrios after the death of her husband. Soon the local critics noticed and the lines were out the door. Viola Barrios never dreamed that one day her daughter would be serving puffies to the POTUS on the White House lawn.
Crisp on the outside and soft of the inside, the puffy taco can hold anything from beans or beef to shrimp. We tried to make them at home using the Los Barrios Family Cookbook, but Mom said they just weren’t quite right. I guess, like Bobby Flay, we just don’t have quite what it takes.
Raspados at Las Nieves
San Antonio is liberally dotted with palaterias–roughly translated as ice cream shops. Raspas, the Mexican version of the snow cone, is one of the most popular things on the menu. Unlike snow cones they are made with shaved ice instead of crushed ice–which keeps the juice in the ice instead of the bottom of the cup. Flavors sold at Las Nieves include lime, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, tamarind, strawberry and mango.
Las Nieves has plenty of other cool snacks on offer including malts, fruit cups, Mexican ice cream and fruit bars. They recommend their fruit cups with a topping of Lucas (a red powder served liberally on nearly everything they serve) and lime. Or maybe you want to try corn in a cup–warm corn topped with cheese, mayo, spice, and Lucas. Or maybe chango–a sour cone made with crushed ice, pickle juice, chamoy ( a variety of savory sauces and condiments in Mexican cuisine made from pickled fruit), and Lucas.
If you see a long line on a summer night, it’s probably in front of a palateria.
Cheese Enchiladas at Rita’s Enchiladas
Constructed out of corrugated tin and red paint, Rita’s Enchiladas is a plain jane Tex-Mex establishment. Like all the best Mexican restaurants there is a refrigerator where you can choose your drinks, loaded with ice-cold bottles of Mexican Coke. This stuff is worth trying, made with real sugar cane instead of corn syrup, the taste is out of this world.
The portions at Rita’s Enchiladas are large and you get both a red salsa and a green salsa with your meal. Enjoy Monterrey style enchiladas in red corn tortillas with panela cheese inside and topped with melted asadero cheese. Enjoy chunks of potatoes on the side or a dish of cabbage with chopped tomatoes.
Texas Red Chili con Carne at the Institute of Chili Food Truck
Delve into Texas history and you will find the San Antonio “chili queens” the street food ancestress of today’s food trucks. These pioneers used local ingredients and family recipes and sold their street food in San Antonio’s public squares for over 200 years. At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago the San Antonio Chili Stand introduced chili to the American public. San Antonio was a tourist destination and soon Texas-style chili con carne spread. It is now the official dish of Texas.
The Institute of Chili’s Ana Fernandez serves a chili recipe, modified just a tad, that she found in the Institute of Texan Cultures’ archives. This is old school red, a mixture of ground chuck and beef brisket with a blend of peppers. Look for this food truck parked near the Alamo.
Original Texas Style Chili
The Original Texas-Style Chili version of chili con carne contains no vegetables at all, except chili peppers. If using fresh peppers, they should have been prepared by being boiled, peeled, and chopped. If using dried peppers, they need to be soaked in hot water for 1 hour before being chopped.
- 3 lbs. (1.3 kg) beef or other meat
- 2 oz. (55 g) beef kidney suet
- 4 chili pods (previously skinned and blistered, or else buy sun-dried chili peppers)
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon crushed cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce (optional but frequently included)
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped (or more, to taste)
- 2 heaping tablespoons masa harina
Many of the above quantities may be somewhat adjusted up or down, depending on personal taste.
- Sear beef in a little cooking oil (not lard) until lightly browned. Drop the seared beef, suet, and chile pods in a large iron skillet or pot (at least four quarts), and enough water (the reserved “pepper water” if you prepared the pods yourself) to keep the meat from burning. Bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover, and simmer about 30 minutes.
- Take pot off the stove and add spices and garlic. Put back on the stove, bring to a boil again, lower heat, and simmer another hour, keeping the lid on as much as possible. Stir when necessary, but remember that too much stirring will tear the meat. Add a little more water if anything seems seriously in danger of burning (but as little water as possible).
- Take pot off the stove and skim off all or most of the grease. (The old-timers left it all.) Mix in masa harina, which “tightens” or thickens the chili con carne and adds a subtle tamale-like flavor. Simmer about 30 minutes more, until meat is done. Do a lot of tasting during this time, (1) to adjust the seasoning, and (2) just because a chili cook should do a lot of tasting. Serves 6-8.
Text of this recipe is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.