MEET THE TASTEMAKERS
The top 10 neighborhood restaurants in San Antonio serve the soul of the city
Neighborhood restaurants are not merely places to eat; they become essential parts of their patron’s personal stories. Within their walls, romantic entanglements are formed, promotions are announced, and heartbreaks are drowned at the bottom of a cocktail. In a frantic fast-food world, they have the patience to create memories.
That unassuming work often goes unsung. That’s we annually honor the Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year as part of the prestigious CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. But before we reveal the winner at our highly anticipated event at the Briscoe Museum on May 18, we want to take a moment to celebrate all the nominated restaurants. It takes magic to provide a home away from home. Buy tickets now before they sell out.
It’s often said that San Antonio is the smallest big city in America. This tiny St. Mary’s strip dynamo proves it. A personal project for chef-owner Chris Cullum, it also speaks to a shared local experience. The dishes call back to Alamo City restaurants of yore and the largesse of everyday indulgence. The dining room crowds guests in to form friendships over a perfect omelet.
Though a neighborhood restaurant can be hard to define, it absolutely must pass the slump test. Flop into one of the booths at this Monte Vista eatery and order a canned Lambrusco and a carbonara pie. Or chase the Sunday Scaries away with the “keep it coming” Bloody Mary bar. We’re willing to bet that your shoulders will drop, your back will relax, and you’ll settle in for the long haul.
On paper, this Southtown haunt seems suited for special occasions. Indeed, more than a few locals have celebrated milestones with a smokey Birthday Manhattan. As the night draws on, however, the spot grows more familiar. Service industry types stream in from nearby bars and restaurants. The light dims as the conversation hits full roar. Yes, dozens of San Antonio bars host post-work parties. Only Loretta serves immaculate steak frites until 1 am.
Most neighborhood favorites eschew innovation for comfort, filling the menu with standbys like burgers or simple steaks. This Castle Hill jewel adds a little zest. Cavatelli is topped with broccoli top pesto, fried quail is dipped into the charred eggplant skin mayo, and crème brûlée awakens with coffee meringue. The menu is ingredient-driven, sure, but Clementine serves it with the unfussiness of a sidewalk café.
Community is at the forefront of this Los Patios café. For those in recovery, it provides a stable workplace free from the pressures of the often toxic restaurant world. For those on a fixed income, it gives a pay-what-you-can model. For everyone else, it delivers on the promise of its name with a beautiful outdoor setting and simple sandwiches, salads, and egg dishes served with dozens of variations.
Michael Sohocki is known as one of San Antonio’s most statement-making chefs. His much-missed fine dining restaurant, Gwendolyn, famously operated without electric machines. But Southtown’s Il Forno has always been about ease. Yes, the produce is meticulously sourced from local farmers, and the meats are cured in-house. Still, the offerings are accessible, the wine list affordable, and the dessert menu is tidy with a single luscious chocolate mousse.
Sangria on the Burg
This Medical Center restaurant’s website says it all. Sangria on the Burg offers “craft sangria, margarita, and beer paired with sliders, tacos, and salads.” The aforementioned are flourished with ingredients like hand-pressed corn tortillas and pineapple cabbage slaw, but chef Ceasar Zepeda isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Who says a neighborhood restaurant can’t also be a destination? This Northwest Side plays pied piper with Chinese classics like Sichuan green beans, Mala dry pots, and tea-smoked duck. Regulars know they should arrive with four or five best friends and order more than anyone could eat in one sitting. One shouldn’t miss out on the frenzy of flavors; besides, plenty of take-out containers are in stock.
When this beloved Blanco Road eatery resumed dine-in service after a lengthy pandemic pause, it almost broke the internet. Floods of fans graffitied its Facebook page with rows of emoji hearts while followers busily tagged friends to plan a quick visit. That sort of rapture is usually reserved for celebrity baby bumps or NBA draft picks. Thai Dee does it in a stir of curry.
This newly expanded East Side bistro is hard to describe. Chef Jungsuk “Sue” Kim doesn’t let genre hold her back, dishing out Korean specialties like dak galbi and Italian rabbit ragu. The wine list has an equally well-stamped passport, exploring traditional and low-intervention winemaking in equal measure. The Magpie doesn’t need to be easily categorized to make an impact. Guests happily gobble up whatever comes into the nest.