Conventional wisdom goes that Alamo City is on the cusp of being one of the nation’s greatest food cities, but we respectfully disagree. How can a town be at the cusp when the work of the nine nominees for the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Chef of the Year prove it has long since arrived?
Don't just take our word for it; read on to find out about their innovative contributions to the culinary scene. Or better yet, visit their restaurants to taste for yourself before we crown the winner at our annual awards show and party held April 10 at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
Jeff Balfour, Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery
The affable chef behind one of the most popular Pearl eateries knows his way around Texas cuisine. Raised in Galveston, Jeff Balfour is a whiz with seafood, whether it's oysters served at the outdoor raw bar or the restaurant’s signature fried snapper throats. He’s just adept at dishes from more landlocked areas. A soaring wood-fired quail dish pays homage to the state’s Mexican heritage with queso fresco and pepita mole. Elsewhere, German traditions are honored in a crispy pork schnitzel, made his own with the addition of a wild mushroom spaetzel and luscious brown butter made with famously sweet Lone Star onions.
John Brand, Supper
John Brand’s stylish Hotel Emma restaurant may be named after an evening meal, but its brilliance starts hours ahead. Arguably, the nationally recognized chef has created the best breakfast in San Antonio, keyed to satisfy almost any morning craving. The pancakes are practically weightless, the scrambled eggs a work of sorcery, and the French omelet — a test of any chef’s mettle — is almost impossibly luxuriant with a mantle of mature cheddar cheese. Then, there’s the beignets, stuffed with cheesecake mousse and dabbed with caramelized and sage chutney. There’s no better way to say good morning to Alamo City.
Jason Dady, Range
It’s no easy task to reinvent the chophouse, a type of restaurant concept more known for embracing French stodginess than the vibrant flavors of contemporary global cuisine. Leave it to one of San Antonio’s most cosmopolitan chefs to blow the dust off for good. Instead of waterboarding limp steamed asparagus with hollandaise, Jason Dady serves it charred with a jaunty lemon aioli. Fatty foie gras is held up with a thrill of pickled blueberry. Most impressively, none of that is done while losing sight of the meat. Born and raised in corn-fed Nebraska, Dady knows a good steak when he sees one.
Diego Galicia and Rico Torres, Mixtli
Every 45 days, the dynamic pair behind Mixtli rotates the menu, usually exploring a vast array of Mexican regions and states. In 2019, Diego Galicia and Rico Torres seem to be in celebratory moods. On January 8, the restaurant launched Festivales, a prix fixe devoted to the way indigenous groups ritualize food. What could have been a gimmick is instead a heartfelt homage. Using pre-Hispanic techniques, the chefs arrive at cuisine that’s startlingly contemporary, proving that history doesn’t belong in a museum.
Steve McHugh, Cured
The name of Steve McHugh’s Pearl restaurant certainly references the chef’s obsession with food preservation techniques, ranging from charcuterie like smoked duck ham and porchetta di Testa to pickled goods like cauliflower and chow chow. It also has another meaning. Three years after McHugh was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the eatery's opening was a way of marking the start of a next chapter. No wonder the cooking inside feels like such a celebration.
Alex Paredes, Carnitas Lonja
Carnitas Lonja isn’t Alex Paredes’ first culinary project — he launched pop-up Gallo/Toro during his stint as Lüke’s sous chef — but it is perhaps his most personal. Drawing from his upbringing in Morelia, Michoacán, he brings the Mexican state’s best-known dish to San Antonio in its purest form. Scandalously marbled pork is confited in lard, wanting nothing but the sweetness of a corn tortilla and perhaps a squeeze of lime. Yes, it can be gilded with a plop of guacamole or a squiggle of green and red sauce, but it astounds when it’s unadorned.
Brooke Smith, The Esquire Tavern
Downtown’s Esquire may be best known as a top cocktail mecca, but under the direction of Brooke Smith, the humblest of bar foods become paeans to the gustatory arts. Take the latchkey kid staple bologna melt. Starting with thickly cut meat, the sandwich amps up the flavor with dijon mustard, pickles, and a creamy aioli. Like the comfort dishes, it’s awash in nostalgia while making sure guests eat like adults.
Andrew Weissman, Signature
Countless trend articles may argue that fine dining is dead, replaced by the jeans and flip-flops insouciance of counter service spots. Signature offers a sharp rebuke. With this “culinary love letter” to San Antonio, Andrew Weissman has created one of the most seductive menus in Texas. The forms are classically European — think black cod in papillote or a salade Lyonnaise reworked as a wedge — invigorated with unexpected ingredients like za’atar labneh, earthy truffles, and Jerusalem artichokes.