Where the Locals Eat and Drink in San Antonio By Garrett Heath Yes, there is the Alamo. And the River Walk. But the second most populous city in Texas (on your left, Dallas) has so much more to offer than an old awesome fort and a river that goes through a hotel. Though the Tex-Mex and BBQ scenes have always been fantastic, the other aspects of the food/drink scene in San Antonio have grown much in the past few years, thanks to both big-name chefs (ahem John Besh) recognizing it as a destination they want to be in, and locals who’ve come up here, and made a name for themselves nationally. So check out our guide that’ll get you started on eating and drinking in the city. And maybe hit up the Alamo too, while you're here. By Garrett Heath
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Where the Locals Eat and Drink in San Antonio Yes, there is the Alamo. And the River Walk. But the second most populous city in Texas (on your left, Dallas) has so much more to offer than an old awesome fort and a river that goes through a hotel. Though the Tex-Mex and BBQ scenes have always been fantastic, the other aspects of the food/drink scene in San Antonio have grown much in the past few years, thanks to both big-name chefs (ahem John Besh) recognizing it as a destination they want to be in, and locals who’ve come up here, and made a name for themselves nationally. So check out our guide that’ll get you started on eating and drinking in the city. And maybe hit up the Alamo too, while you're here. More Stuff You Will Like
Southtown Why you’re here: A funky meal out in Southtown What you’re getting: Enter into the garishly decorated interior that will make you feel like you’re walking into a kung fu speakeasy. If the restaurant is packed, belly up to the bar managed by Karah Carmack -- a Speed Rack finalist who's part of the new wave of San Antonio bartenders. Start out with one of her rum-based cocktails, such as the Taeng Wan #2, a Tiki-inspired drink with house-made melon shrub, cassis, orange liqueur, and lime. The fried pork and glass noodle spring rolls are a solid starter but you have to get the hot fried chicken -- with chunks of blue cheese -- as your main dish.
Southtown Why you’re here: Elegant cuisine without the pretense What you’re getting: You can’t go wrong starting with a charcuterie board with exotic cheeses and house-baked bread paired with a nice glass of wine. The menu changes frequently and focuses on local ingredients that are in season. However, you’d be remiss not to order their version of “pork & beans” if available, as nothing causes mass jealousy like a hearty grilled and braised heirloom pork shank sitting in a bowl of Italian corona beans with applewood-smoked bacon.
Pearl Brewery Why you’re here: Lover of charcuterie and history What you’re getting: As you walk into the restaurant -- the brewery’s old administration building -- you’ll be greeted by a throng of dried meats hanging in a temperature-controlled chamber affectionately known as the “Charc Tank.” Start off with a charcuterie board; I like the whipped pork butter and jalapeño sausage. You can’t go wrong with the pumpkin salad (if it’s on the seasonal menu), the masa flash-fried oysters on tapioca, or pan-seared quail with mole grits. Wash it down with a Pearl beer or get fancy and order 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle -- Cured is one of the few places that have it available at the bar.
Downtown Why you’re here: River Walk dining that’s not a tourist trap What you’re getting: Enjoy a taste of New Orleans right here in San Antonio at Chef John Besh’s only restaurant outside of Louisiana. The happy hour at Lüke is one of the best in the city, with half-off drinks (including French 75 and Sazerac cocktails) along with bites like meat pies, pretzels, and sliders that you can have for a buck or two (not to mention 75-cent fresh daily oysters). There are always a couple of NOLA-inspired dishes on the menu -- turtle soup and shrimp ‘n’ grits -- but it’s hard to pass on the Lüke burger, a 3/4lb prime beef beast with huge slabs of bacon and Emmentaler cheese.
Downtown Why you’re here: A true cocktail on the River Walk instead of watered-down margaritas What you’re getting: The dim interior of this bar founded in the ‘30s is lit with oil lamps on the tables and is a taxidermist's dream, including animals such as a Rio Grande turkey and a huge bison head. While the Esquire’s bar food is fantastic -- get the fried pickles -- this place is known for its cocktails. Moscow Mules are served in copper cups, but instead try an Oaxaca Mule (made with mezcal instead of vodka) for some South-of-the-border flavor. If you have a group of four or more and don’t have to wake up early, consider ordering the punch and canceling the rest of your plans for the night.
Pearl Brewery Why you’re here: Looking for pre-dinner drinks at the Pearl What you’re getting: Stay Golden Social House takes the best elements of the South Texas ice house and combines them with the sensibilities of a craft cocktail bar. One of Jeret Peña’s projects (he owns The Brooklynite, a popular cocktail bar up the road), this bar adjacent to the Pearl Brewery offers a killer happy hour (handful of $4 cocktails and $2 Pearls and Lone Stars) in a laid-back environment. Giant wooden spools used by electric companies serve as tables outside, and it’s a great place to unwind after a day of work or sightseeing or just casually hanging out with Matt Bonner.
Southtown Why you’re here: A craft beer drinker’s heaven on Earth What you’re getting: The Friendly Spot took the old model of the ice house and modernized it for the craft beer fan. Instead of sipping on Lone Star or Coors Light, you’ll have to decide which beer to order from one of their 76 taps or 250 bottles on hand -- I’ve even found a Prairie Bomb on draft. The atmosphere is especially cordial to folks with children, be they the two- or four-legged variety, with a playground for the kids and a friendly environment for pets.
Downtown Why you’re here: The epicenter of the San Antonio cocktail scene What you’re getting: While the restaurant is famous for its steaks, the legacy of Bohanan’s is that it engendered the local craft cocktail scene; many of the staff have gone to open bars throughout the city. The bar is definitely more upscale, a perfect starting place if you’re dressed up for a show across the street at the Majestic Theater. Opt for an Old Fashioned -- Bohanan’s makes one of the city’s best.
Northeast Why you’re here: Going out of your way for BBQ and peach cobbler What you’re getting: If you’re stopping by in the middle of the week, try to get to the Big Bib before 11:30 -- shortly thereafter it’s packed with locals and hungry military personnel from nearby Fort Sam Houston. While not advertised, ask for a two-meat plate and go with the smoked turkey and brisket. If they ask you if you want the brisket trimmed lean, the correct answer is always “No.” Just be sure to leave room for the peach cobbler.
Mahncke Park Why you’re here: The smoke smell beckoned you inside What you’re getting: Originally started as a food truck (which still operates in a parking lot on Nacogdoches and Loop 410), the Smoke Shack made the leap into the brick-and-mortar world this past year. While they do brisket well, the owner hails from SEC country so he also knows his way around pulled pork (be sure to get the mustard-based BBQ sauce). Really hungry? Try the “Big Dog,” a hoagie that has a link of their sausage, brisket, and pulled pork topped with coleslaw.
Brackenridge Park Why you’re here: Need a BBQ fix after visiting the zoo What you’re getting: This throwback smokehouse is right outside of Brackenridge Park and walking distance to the Japanese gardens and the San Antonio Zoo. You can’t go wrong with a two-meat plate (brisket and sausage is my choice) with some pinto beans and mac & cheese. Wash it down with a Shiner on the porch while you relax and let your kids run wild. Note that this is one of the few BBQ joints on lower Broadway that’s open on Sunday.
Tobin Hill Why you’re here: Researching to see if Texas can do pork ribs What you’re getting: When the Pearl complex was developed, one old home was spared in the demolition. This building went on to house some of the tastiest meats that you’ll find West of the Mississippi. Buy your meat by the pound and go for the brisket (love those burnt ends) and St. Louis ribs (if they have them in stock) with a side of burnt-end beans and homemade bread. But be warned: those ribs move fast. They brew their own beer in house, and the Rye Saison is refreshing in the South Texas heat. One thing to note is that the traditional barbecue items are only available during lunch; dinner is a different animal.
Southtown Why you’re here: Tex-Mex in Southtown What you’re getting: Tito’s is a rare bird in Southtown -- amidst contemporary and posh cuisine, these guys are pumping out some of the tastiest Tex-Mex in town. Two of the most popular dishes that Tito’s serves are the enchiladas Tejanas (basically cheese enchiladas) and cilantro cream enchiladas. And of course, no plate of enchiladas is complete unless you’re pairing it with a michelada.
Southside Why you’re here: In search of the old taste of San Antonio What you’re getting: Located on the Southside, Oscar’s is one of the storied drive-in restaurants of San Antonio. Make your way inside and order the “Sleeper Plate” -- two cheese enchiladas, a chalupa, and a puffy taco. Unique to San Antonio, the puffy taco is a fried corn tortilla that puffs up and has a light crisp to it. Eat it first so you can enjoy the airy crispiness before it falls apart! The cheese enchiladas are my current favorite in town -- they’re topped with chile con carne instead of plain old enchilada sauce.
SoFlo Why you’re here: Seeking out interior Mexican food in a Tex-Mex town What you’re getting: Located off of South Flores Street on the edge of Southtown is Chef Johnny Hernandez’s botanero called The Frutería. As the name would imply, fruit is featured prominently in the drinks, be they cocktails or non-alcoholic aguas frescas. My drink of choice is El Moretón, a tequila-based cocktail that is made with fresh muddled blackberries and lemon. For lunch, try the spicy chicken tinga tostada piled high with shredded chicken in a chipotle salsa or one of their many tortas.
Northwest Why you’re here: One of the quintessential Mexican restaurants in town What you’re getting: There’s always a wait for a table on the weekends at La Fogata, so make your way up to the bar and order a house margarita, one of the best in town. Start your meal with the tableside guacamole (you can even add tequila to the mix) and rajas con crema, an appetizer of sliced poblano peppers in cream. I favor the Tacos Norteños, corn tortillas filled with beef fajita meat, avocado, and cabbage and crisped on the grill.
Garrett Heath loves all things about San Antonio, maintains the blog SA Flavor, and is a social media marketer for Rackspace.