MEET THE TASTEMAKERS
The 9 top chefs defining San Antonio's restaurant scene
If you ask us, there’s a reason why San Antonio keeps getting so much buzz. Our culinary scene is overfilled with talent. Any number of pros could have been nominated for Chef of the Year. We wish we could write valentines to all of them.
But that’s how awards go, so we’ve whittled down the contenders to nine finalists. Read about them all below, then join us for a lavish tasting event and awards ceremony held on May 18 at the Briscoe Museum.
Ceasar Zepeda - Sangria on the Burg
Born in a tiny South Texas town, Zepeda knows the value of community. He is often the first to sign up for a nonprofit fundraiser and is always eager to lend a hand to chefs in need. That spirit shows up in his food too. He’s much more concerned with feeding guests good food than impressing them with artfully placed micro greens. Still, though dishes like a crab cake salad and chicken verde tacos may be accessible, his flavor finesse makes them new.
Diego Galicia & Rico Torres – Mixtli
The Nahuatl word “mixtli” translates to “cloud” in English, a tidy summation of this dynamic duo’s approach. Their constantly changing menus drift overhead to explore the myriad culinary traditions of Mexico. Sometimes the weather can be stormy — as in the current Guatemalan-inspired prawn dish with moody chocolate chile. Sometimes, it’s clear skies with a lemongrass yogurt and passion fruit helado.
Jesse Kuykendall- Milpa, Ocho
Arguably San Antonio’s hardest-working chef, “Chef Kirk” runs two eateries simultaneously while still finding time to be a UNESCO chef ambassador. Oh, and they absolutely destroyed the competition on an episode of Chopped. Somehow, they still find time for innovation, always finding new interpretations of their other’s South Texas fare. Their sweetbread taco, garnished with a tangle of pickled onion, has already entered San Antonio’s pantheon.
John Russ – Clementine
It takes no small amount of chutzpah to showcase thinly sliced raw white mushrooms as a signature dish of an upscale eatery, but such is the confidence of this New Orleans-raised chef. Sure, Russ can spatchcock a chicken and whip up cavatelli in a flash, but his cooking is at its best when the produce is unadorned. It’s an ethos shared with his wife Elise, the restaurant’s playful pastry chef — and an integral part of why the Castle Hill’s eatery always winds up on “best of” lists.
Johnny Hernandez - La Gloria
Call him Mr. San Antonio. The city’s culinary scene wouldn’t be half as developed without Hernandez’s hefty investment. Not only does he help some of the buzziest hot spots in town (Burgerteca and The Fruteria are also under his umbrellas), but he also founded one of Alamo City’s most enduring food festivals — the must-attend Paella Challenge. And he is providing for the future, too, through his Kitchen Campus nonprofit for aspiring culinarians.
Leo Davila - Stixs & Stone
Davila may not have won 2022’s Big Restaurant Bet, but we would be glad to wager on him anyway. The chef’s Latin-Asian fare is everything we crave for a weeknight dinner. One of the city’s least pretentious chefs, he views food with a much-needed wink. Consider the Big Red and barbacoa taco flight. It has chef-y accompaniments like pickled watermelon rind and chile de arbol salsa. But the tortilla and a partnering jam are made with San Antonio’s most puro soda.
Robbie Nowlin - Allora, Arrosta
Casual San Antonio offers scant opportunities to dress up, so we’ll give you a reason to wear a jacket. Though no jackets are required, Arrosta’s offerings invite one to be a little more buttoned up. Nowlin’s Reggis Ova caviar is the most luxurious dish in town, even if it’s served on a humble fried dumpling. Even the fried potatoes are so gorgeously presented that they demand some decorum. Can’t imagine wearing hard pants? Waltz next door to Arrosta to experience the chef’s prodigious fare in a much more casual setting.
Stefan Bowers – Rebelle
First, let’s pour one out for Playland Pizza, Bower’s much-missed triumph downtown. Thank goodness his cuisine is still ringing loud and clear at Rebelle. The St. Anthony Hotel restaurant is simply the spot for seafood in San Antonio. Much of it is informed by the hallowed traditions of New Orleans — from blackened redfish with a crab-jalapeño maque choux to char-grilled Gulf oysters. But he’s too talented to go fully doctrinaire. The cioppino is an absolute stunner.
Steve McHugh - Cured, Landrace
The Susan Lucci of San Antonio’s culinary scene, McHugh has been nominated for more James Beard Awards than we can count. Local diners already devour his charcuterie at Cured and Texas regional fare at Landrace. So, we’ll say this: give the man the damn medal already.