Pop-ups have always been a thing in Alamo City. After all, the city birthed the Chili Queens, who would set up camp in plazas to sell enchiladas, chili con carne, and tamales to locals and tourists alike. The challenges of the pandemic, however, have ensured what’s old is new again. Faced with staff challenges and the need to serve outdoors, crafty chefs have revived the tradition of restaurants without walls. The menu is now more international, and the public square has shifted from parks to bars, but open-air food stands are still just as San Antonio as ever.
Maray McChesney and Matt McLaughlin have already made a mark on the city’s food scene with their South Texas-inspired mixer line Bexar Tonics. Now they are shaking up the pop-up world with their Philadelphia-style sandwiches. Instead of the requisite cheesesteaks, think hoagie rolls piled high with Italian roast pork and garlicky greens or cold cuts and all the fixings — and more to come. As with their first brand, the couple has a knack for the unexpected. Even though this concept only debuted on October 9, it has already left its mark.
Sure, Subway has salami, but the art of the Italian sandwich in San Antonio has been neglected for far too long. Chef Matthew Garcia is doing his part to correct that with his series of pop-ups at St. Mary’s Strip wine haven Little Death. The menus change with the theme (previous pop-ups have paid homage to The Sopranos and Mean Girls), but guests can expect artisan bread stuffed with creative ingredients like roasted pork, provolone, broccoli rabe, and pickled peppers or fried zucchini, roasted garlic ricotta, and gremolata — along with a specially paired dessert. Mamma mia!
Last Place Burgers
Smash burgers are, as they say in the fashion world, having a moment in San Antonio. Few eateries take them as seriously as this roving concept — frequently found at local hot spots like Tony’s Siesta, TBA, and Jefferson Bodega. Take its latest creation, a still-unnamed burger featuring a wagyu patty loaded with chili crisp mayo, house-made pickles, butter lettuce, and a positively scandalous drape of American cheese. Owner Mark Villareal doesn’t have to take such care with his burgers, as bar patrons aren’t always known to have the most discriminating tastes. But one bite with a Lone Star tallboy easily explains why he does.
Masshole Food Truck
OK, this one may be a bit of a cheat. After all, chef Adam Bylicki’s lobster rolls can be found around town every weekend and he does park an actual truck. Still, you must follow the concept on Instagram to know where it will park next. When guests track it down, they would be wise to order St. Anthony, a Texas twist on the New England staple with sweet onion, jalapeños, and lime. Traditionalists shouldn’t balk, however. There are still pitch-perfect representations of both the Maine and Connecticut styles.
Owners Aldo Cortes and Nari Hodges fuse their respective Mexican and Korean heritages in this innovative pop-up concept specializing in hand-piped macarons. The adorable character cookies look great in pictures, of course, but it’s the flavors that really stand out. The couple has a knack for creative fillings like lavender Earl Grey, matcha guava, and soybean injeolmi (a variety of traditional Korean rice cake). Perhaps the cleverest of all their treats is the red bean macaron, molded in a fish shape like their waffle-like cousin bungeo-ppang.
Chef-driven food sometimes takes itself way too seriously. That’s why it was so refreshing when Stefan Bowers — one of Alamo City’s culinary powerhouses — debuted this smash-burger concept at the height of the pandemic. Delightfully profane, Pumpers doesn’t try to impress guests with its lexicon of global ingredients and adherence to classic techniques. Instead, guests get a damn fine burger and a jolt of R-rated humor. Though the food truck was recently sold, Bowers promises that the joint is still kicking. It’s hard to tell if the mischievous chef is really rebranding as Humperz, Shrumperz, of Frumperz. A burger by any other name would taste as sweet.
Pure Heart Foods
Proprietors Priscilla Gomez and Jessica Gaertner started this Alamo City-based company partly out of necessity. On restricted diets, the pair struggled to find commercial grain-free baking mixes that met their family’s standards. Though their products are typically reserved for lazy Sundays at home, the team frequently takes their waffle iron on the road to spots like Southwest Elixirs and Vista Brewing. There, they adorn treats with crowd-pleasing toppings like fresh berries and whipped cream or Wildflower Caramels and nuts. What better way to show that gluten-free eating can also be decadent?
Sijang Korean Corn Dogs
The State Fair of Texas as nothing on this brand-new collaboration between The Hayden sous chef Brian Reese and Extra Fine cook Eddie Barrera. Golden battered, with a hint of sugar, their takes on the popular Korean street food are slathered with Kewpie mayo, encased in ramen noodle crusts, or sprinkled with something called chicken sugar. Though the concept would be right at home in a Seoul night market, it does allow room for some puro San Anto flavor. The SA is a mad mix of XO Kewpie, pork sung (fluffy cotton-candy-like dried pork), and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Vegan and Sara
Vegans often get a bad rap as humorless scolds, but this recent CultureMap Tastemaker Awards nominee is pure joy. Owner Stephanie Lopez specializes in nostalgic “plant-based junk food” that brings up memories of summer afternoons spent at North Star Mall. Chicken-fried steak is transformed with cauliflower, fries are loaded with pickled onions and soyrizo, and pan-fried noodles are lightened up with plenty of broccoli and carrots. These are the universal foods of youth, made better by winking at teenaged angst. Asymmetrical haircuts are strictly optional.