Every year, we crown a Restaurant of the Year during the annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, and every year making that decision gets harder. With increasing fervor, local chefs are fighting back against the notion that San Antonio is just a Tex-Mex and barbecue town, even while producing some of the most strikingly modern food those cuisines have to offer.
With the help of past winners and other culinary experts, we were able to carve down the list down to seven superlative eateries. We will announce the winning one during a blowout party held at Austin’s Bullock State History Museum on April 10, but all serve as examples of the brilliance Alamo City has to offer.
Few operation in San Antonio are more a labor of love than this East Side favorite. Pitmaster Esaul Ramos and his team financed the 2016 opening by staging pop-ups around town, then built everything right down to the tables by hand. The DIY spirit extends to his food, where Mexican and Texan traditions meld into one of the most interesting menus in town. The brisket is as sumptuously barked as any of the revered Texas Hill Country joints, but it's made here with a cumin and coriander rub. The sausage surprises with Oaxaca cheese and serrano peppers. And the sides are just as likely to be creamy esquites as traditional potato salad.
With carnitas this good, it would have been easy for Alex Paredes to cut corners. The crisp strands of pork would still astound on a chunk of asphalt, but the team instead serves them with pliable corn tortillas, lending a little sweetness to all the fat. The chorizo adds another layer of texture and spice, amped up by the pair of nimble salsas. All of the above are made painstakingly in house by a shoestring staff. Guests can taste the high standards in every bite.
There are some who think that historic dishes should be set in amber, prepared with the same techniques and ingredients in endless facsimile. Nothing could honor tradition less. Creole cuisine especially has always been about invention, always open to the diverse flavors of New Orleans' unique cultural mix. Chef Pieter Sypesteyn embodies that rebellious spirit better than anyone in San Antonio. Who cares if dusty cookbooks never list snap peas as an ingredient in jambalaya or suggest topping blackened catfish with saffron cream? The Cookhouse makes one of the foundations of American cuisine more than just a treasured memory.
This Pearl showstopper has always been a triumph, not only because it was opened after owner Steve McHugh won a battle with cancer. The recent James Beard Awards Best Chef: Southwest finalist seems to not take any moment for granted. The meats in the charcuterie case may take months to come to fruition, but it is delivered with ease. There’s a sense of immediacy to the food, whether it's the spike of hot sauce rousing masa fried oysters or the roll-your-eyes-back lusciousness of the whipped pork butter.
Rico Torres and Diego Galicia, the chefs behind Mixtli, use clouds as an analogy for their menu. They mean the atmospheric definition, but the comparison could just as aptly apply to the technological. The duo seems to be able to effortlessly pluck thousands of years of culinary knowledge from the ether. One prix fixe might explore pre-Hispanic techniques, then switch up to contemporary cuisine 45 days later. The common thread is a deep reverence for terroir and craft of Mexico.
Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery
Somewhere along America’s timeline, comfort food got entangled with trash, insisting that what comes out of a box could offer the same succor as what is made by hand. Luckily for San Antonio, Southerleigh chef Jeff Balfour knows the difference. Not all of his dishes are as slowly braised as the stout and sorghum beef cheeks, but he gives each dish a chance to develop. Making scratch beer cheese and sweet bacon jam takes time, but the thought that goes behind them is timeless.
John Brand’s stunning eatery bucks ideas of what hotel food is supposed to taste like, but, of course, Hotel Emma is no ordinary hotel. In congress with the luxe lodging, Supper spoils diners with the best of contemporary Texas cooking. Naturally, the fresh ingredients are sourced close to home, which makes all the difference in a garden salad. But the chef’s palate is anything but provincial. A braised lamb shank dish borrows equally from the American South and Mediterranean, while the Italian crudo takes a detour to Japan.