After being heralded as the next big thing for a decade, San Antonio's dining scene is blossoming thanks to an unprecedented burst of culinary diversity. Wandering around Alamo City, one can find a Sichuan restaurant that embraces modern design and house beats, a minimal charmer serving Jewish-Balkan cuisine, and an Italian coastal eatery dishing enough glamor for an Amalfi Coast resort.
With increasing zeal, local chefs are battling the notion that San Antonio is just a Tex-Mex and barbecue town. And that makes this year's CultureMap Tastemaker Awards more electric than ever. The nominees for Restaurant of the Year don't just represent culinary acumen; they represent the point where Alamo City finally arrived.
Read about their indelible contributions below, then join us on May 18 at the Briscoe Museum downtown, when we'll announce the winner and count our many blessings. Tickets for the blow-out event are on sale now.
Blindingly white with washes of sunrise yellows and orange, this Pearl hot spot immediately inspires wanderlust. While staying in an Amalfi villa may not be in the cards, that doesn't mean guests can't still take the trip. Seafood is the specialty, done as humbly as anchovies dotted with pistachio pesto or as luxuriously as a saba and brown butter-drenched flounder. But chef Robbie Nowlin has just as much fun on solid ground. The roasted cauliflower, sweetened with wine-poached sultana and caramelized onion, is perhaps the city's crowning vegetable dish.
Best Quality Daughter
On paper, this Pearl darling seems high concept. Owner Jennifer Dobbertin created the eatery, in part, to address South Texas' sparse representation of Asian-American woman chefs. At one of the earliest pop-ups, she collaborated with artist Jennifer Ling Datchuk to bring a Chinese laundromat to life. Like so many chefs on this list, Dobbertin mixes the personal and political to create cuisine that resonates with the mind as much as the palate.
As a category, New American restaurants have gotten a bad rap, sullied by green chefs who mistake fancy for creativity. Mark Bliss' eponymous eatery is why the genre exists in the first place. A travelogue of global flavors, the ever-changing menus stop to consider Mexico in a corn fritter, Japan in Hamachi tostadas, and Spain in charred octopus. Still, the showstoppers reveal it's all grounded in French technique. Need more reason to reassess? Order the duck with foie gras. Its flamboyant accompaniments of strawberry sambal and blueberry gastrique are why seasoned chefs should be allowed to play.
Brasserie Mon Chou Chou
They call it a sandwich, though that undersells the sensual coupling of fat and carbs. Nonetheless, few local offerings have captured the town's attention as quickly as this brasserie's raclette. The bubbling and blistered cheese embraces a toasted baguette, offset by a smear of smoked paprika aioli. It almost seems like an embarrassment to welcome the (not really) optional Bayonne ham.
There's no reason to pretend otherwise; you've had this food before. Maybe it was over a few beers at a backyard barbecue or a buzzing Rio Grande restaurant, but it is as familiar as a family group text. This Pearl showcase's genius was in giving South Texas fare the respect it deserves. Instead of being fettered by the honey assumptions that regional foods should be cheap, Carriqui fires Wagyu on custom Mill Scale grills. Instead of settling for hominess, it announces South Texas as a destination.
Dashi Sichuan Kitchen + Bar
San Antonio isn't exactly known as a hot spot for considered Chinese cuisine, but don't tell that to the owners of this strikingly contemporary eatery. Though the centuries-old flavors and techniques of Sichuanese fare are well-represented, Dashi hardly preserves them in amber. Cumin lamb is reimagined as a lollipop, and egg drop soup becomes "boujee" with beef and shiitake. It's a reminder that for all the time-honored traditions, dining out should still be fun.
The historic Sullivan Carriage House is darling, and it's hard to think of a better view than the San Antonio Botanical Garden. Truth be told, we would probably brunch at Jardín regardless of the food quality. Luckily, chef Jason Dady's menu has enough oomph to distract from the stunning surrounds. He is adept at balancing flavor profiles, layering tangy dill crème fraiche with a sweet caponata jam. But his humbler dishes somehow speak louder. He makes one heck of a soft scrambled egg.
This Pearl newcomer bills itself as a "modern Mediterranean grill house," an undeniably apt tagline. However, it doesn't begin to tell the story of Berty Richter's food. Ladino doesn't just celebrate the dynamic seaside region and its panoply of cultural influences. It is deeply rooted in the Sephardic traditions of the chef's youth. One doesn't need familiarity with the region's culture to understand the immediate thrill of saffron chicken paired with labneh. But when chefs give of themselves, it is made all the more meaningful.
Though this restaurant anchors San Antonio's sleekest hotel, there's a certain rusticity to chef Steve McHugh's regional Texas fare. The steaks, though they may be Akaushi, bring backyard pleasures thanks to the charcoal grill. The sides are minimally flourished, letting the integrity of a carrot or mushroom shine. Arguably the city's most lauded chef, McHugh doesn't have a trace of braggadocio. The ingredients do all the boasting for him.
Stixs & Stone
The strip mall façade may not be inspiring, but don't let that keep you from walking through the door. Chef Leo Davila doesn't need all that flash anyway. Instead, the Latin-Asian flavors do the talking in dishes like street corn dressed in Green Goddess and the chicken and Hong Kong waffle with sweet potato drizzled in soy chile honey. We're taking notes for our next Thanksgiving feast. That kind of finesse should be on every table.