Food & Drink

The 14 Most Essential Restaurants in San Antonio

Published On 06/16/2015 Published On 06/16/2015
Veronica Luna

San Antonians are staunch advocates for the promotion of Texas’ five major food groups -- barbecue, Tex-Mex, chili, tacos, and deep-fried anything. To some degree, this down-home food pyramid is well represented on the list of our 14 most essential restaurants, but what might surprise many diners is our food scene’s diversity. For every innovative chef finding creative new uses for our beloved chili peppers, another is crafting exquisite dim sum or a brunch-time game-changer. Here’s the prime mix of food meant to be eaten with a napkin in your lap and uncomplicated meals served up in joints that looks like someone’s backyard.

Bliss

Bliss

Southtown
What you’re getting: Oyster sliders, “Pork & Beans”
Chef Mark Bliss’ take on an American classic kid food features a grilled and braised heirloom pork shank, corona beans, applewood-smoked bacon, and grilled broccolini -- not your grandma’s pork & beans, but honestly, your grandma would feel welcome at this Southtown favorite, so long as she appreciates good food and has formidable dentures. The food can best be described as innovative, sophisticated, and eclectic, and the atmosphere as warm and inviting.

Courtesy of The Monterey

The Monterey

Southtown
What you’re getting: Depends on the season
If your security relies on being able to order the same dish every time you go to your favorite restaurant, El Monty’s not for you. But if you are down for a little culinary adventure, you won’t be sorry. Monty is a hip, fun, social joint  unassuming and comfortable but never anything but thoughtful when it comes to the food they’re dishing up. What you’re getting depends on what’s in season and what Chef John Philpot gets the urge to whip up. A recent menu featured pastrami dumplings, chicken pot pie bánh mì, and smoked buffalo pork ribs.
 

Ray’s Drive Inn

Westside
What you’re getting: Puffy tacos: one beef, one carne guisada
If you’ve lived in the Alamo City for more than five minutes, you’re well aware that puffy tacos are our national dish. And while the heated debate over who does them best will rage long after we’re all dust in the wind, Ray’s is as beloved as any other SA institution. How can something deep-fried be so greaseless? It’s been touched by the hand of the taco gods, that’s how.

Stefan Bowers/Feast

Feast

Southtown
What you’re getting: Brunch, including a Bloody Marie and blintzes or the S.A. Breakfast
Don’t think for a minute that pretty food served in equally gorgeous surroundings automatically translates to all style and no substance. Feast serves up Mediterranean-influenced contemporary cuisine for dinner and Sunday brunch to an eager crowd of Southtown hipsters and suburban pilgrims who appreciate the social atmosphere almost as much as the creative cuisine, craft beer, and solid cocktails. Feast lives up to its name, offering sustenance for the eyes, the belly, and the spirit.

Restaurant Gwendolyn

Restaurant Gwendolyn

Far Northwest
What you’re getting: Ceviche de pescado, mariscoco, tostada super mixta or mariscada de la reyna
Far from the hallowed dining corridors of Alamo Heights, Southtown, and The Pearl -- and from its original Southside location -- El Bucanero attracts a just-inside-the Loop crowd on the far Northwest side with Sinaloa-style Mexican food and a lively atmosphere. The menu is focused on seafood, and most dishes are interpretations by LA native Cesar Cervantes, the wunderkind chef-owner who runs El Buc with his family. The mariachis and margaritas are auténtico; no tourists ever find this place, so there’s no need to water anything down, which is greatly appreciated by the locals who come in droves to have a good time.

Mariscos El Bucanero

Far Northwest
What you’re getting: Ceviche de pescado, mariscoco, tostada super mixta or mariscada de la reyna
Far from the hallowed dining corridors of Alamo Heights, Southtown, and The Pearl -- and from its original Southside location -- El Bucanero attracts a just-inside-the Loop crowd on the far Northwest side with Sinaloa-style Mexican food and a lively atmosphere. The menu is focused on seafood, and most dishes are interpretations by LA native Cesar Cervantes, the wunderkind chef-owner who runs El Buc with his family. The mariachis and margaritas are auténtico; no tourists ever find this place, so there’s no need to water anything down, which is greatly appreciated by the locals who come in droves to have a good time.

David Rangel

Cured

The Pearl
What you’re getting: Apple jalapeño pork rillettes, beer can mussels, roasted bone marrow, and either chocolate cake with boiled peanut ice cream or peach upside-down cake
The Pearl is a veritable playground for food lovers, home to some of the city’s finest restaurants and bars. Red-blooded Texas carnivores will appreciate that Cured’s charcuterie offerings are made in-house and cured for up to a year. The menu is especially impressive in its breadth: seafood, fowl, lamb, beef, and pork dishes are all masterfully executed.
 
 

Kate LaSueur

Chris Madrid’s

Beacon Hill
What you’re getting: Tostada bean burger
The Alamo City’s favorite burger joint dates back to ’77 and it remains a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, squat, and nondescript edifice that’s not much to look at from the outside, but that only adds to its appeal. Inside, it’s cozy and comfortable and usually bursting at the seams, buzzing with lively conversation and the contented sighs of a seemingly endless progression of satisfied diners. As for beans on a burger, yes, it works -- especially when paired with a mango margarita.

The Luxury

The Luxury

Downtown
What you’re getting: French fries and craft beer
If you’ve ever required proof that luxury isn’t about white linen tablecloths and tiny portions of fancy food, here it is. The Luxury is fun and quirky, an order-at-the-counter joint housed in converted cargo containers that serves hearty portions of eclectic, casual fare and features all-outdoor seating. It’s near the Pearl but not part of it, close to the River Walk but not on it... kind of a maverick but with a serious chef pedigree. Feel free to order more than just beer and fries, just as long as you don’t skip those two; the fries are some of the best in Bexar County.
 

Augie’s Barbed Wire

Brackenridge Park
What you’re getting: Two-meat plate with brisket and jalapeño sausage, mashed sweet potatoes, honey baked beans
As one of five or so BBQ joints that could arguably claim the “Best in SA” title, Augie’s definitely has one of the best locations, abutting Brackenridge Park, and pretty much equidistant from the golf course and the zoo (there’s now a downtown location as well). But whether or not your ‘cue comes as an accompaniment to a larger outing in the park makes no difference, as this is destination meat all on its own. The lone caveat: they do run out of some of the more popular meats -- moist cuts of brisket and pulled pork, often -- so come early on weekend days especially.

Paloma Blanca

Paloma Blanca

Alamo Heights
What you’re getting: Tacos al pastor, crema de aguacate, puntas de puerco, pastel de tres leches
It will surprise no one that San Antonio has some kick-ass Mexican restaurants. And plenty of them have stucco walls painted in Fiesta colors -- i.e. bright -- and dish up the super-cheesy Tex-Mex we all know and love. But for a bit more serenity, you can’t beat Paloma Blanca, where the decor is comfortable but elegant and the food is the same way. Fresh, bright flavors, warm and friendly service, dynamite margaritas, and one of the prettiest patios in Alamo Heights -- and that’s really saying something.

Courtesy of Dough Pizzeria Napoletana

Dough Pizza Napoletana

Castle Hills
What you’re getting: Oak-roasted prosciutto & mozzarella spiedini from the Burrata Bar, polpette di carne
It is hard to believe that Dough has only been open since 2007 as it’s become ingrained into the fabric of the city. Ask any foodie in this town where to find the best pizza and the response is automatic, like finishing a lyric from "Deep in the Heart of Texas": it’s Dough. It’s always Dough. Owned by husband-and-wife team Doug and Lori Horn, Dough relies on locally sourced ingredients and a commitment to artisanal Italian cooking to remain perpetually on top of its game. Also endearing is the eatery’s efforts to stay a real neighborhood favorite and integral part of the community, even with the distraction of endless accolades, widespread media attention, and the launch of a second location in Dallas.

David Rangel

Hot Joy

Southtown
What you’re getting: Migas fried rice, double miso ramen + pork belly, Thai tea ice cream
San Antonio is known for its spicy flavors, but it’s rare that you’re talking about Asian food rather than some form of Mexican. But Hot Joy -- the aptly named newish offering from the guys who brought you The Monterey -- bills its menu as “funky, spicy, and radically flavored,” and that’s pretty dead-on. It’s got that Southtown vibe that can feel hipper-than-thou, but it definitely doesn’t intend to. Bottom line: letting yourself get intimidated by the cool factor or the bold flavors would be a grave mistake and leave you missing out on a fun meal that is chock-full of sensory overload -- in a good way.
 

Chez Vatel Bistro

Olmos Park
What you’re getting: Watercress salad with smoked bacon & poached egg, mixed grill de poissons frais
Two fallacies you’ll have to eradicate from your mind before securing a reservation at the city’s best-known French restaurant are 1) there’s no way that SA has decent French food, and 2) even if it exists, the place is gonna be pretentious and uptight. Chez Vatel’s name has gone through an evolution, but what endures is its consistently stellar fare -- fresh, bright, and not heavy (another stereotype busted) -- and a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. For some longtime patrons, Chez Vatel is saved for special occasions. But others come for leisurely lunches once or twice a week, hardly needing to glance at a menu or hear the daily specials. Whichever profile is a better fit for you is fine, but skip it altogether because of preconceived notions? Mais non! (Don’t do that!)

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Previous Venue Next Venue Venue Description
1. Bliss 926 S Presa St, San Antonio, TX 78210

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.

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2. The Monterey 1127 S Saint Marys St, San Antonio, TX 78210 (Southtown)

If you're the type of person who likes the option of ordering the same dish every time you go to a restaurant, The Monterey is not the place for you. But if you're the type who is down to mix it up a bit, you won't be sorry you came. What you’re getting depends on what’s in season and what Chef John Philpot gets the urge to whip up. Monty is a hip, fun, social joint unassuming and comfortable.

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3. Ray's Drive Inn 822 SW 19th St, San Antonio, TX 78207

The puffy taco. Any self-respecting San Antonian will tell you it's the signature SA dish, but the debate as to who does them best is heated. Still, Ray’s, home of the original puffy taco (which looks an awful lot like a chalupa or muchaco), is as beloved as any other SA institution. Nine times out of ten, those tacos are what you're gonna be there for, but that doesn't mean you should miss out on Ray's wide selection of other Mexican dishes, seafood, burgers and hot dogs. You can pull up into the actual drive-thru, or order inside for a beer and a trip down memory lane with its memento-lined walls.

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4. Feast 1024 S Alamo St, San Antonio, TX 78210 (Southtown)

Feast serves up Mediterranean-influenced contemporary cuisine for dinner and Sunday brunch to an eager crowd of Southtown hipsters and suburban pilgrims who appreciate the social atmosphere almost as much as the creative cuisine, craft beer, and solid cocktails. Feast lives up to its name, offering sustenance for the eyes, the belly, and the spirit.

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5. Restaurant Gwendolyn 152 E Pecan St, San Antonio, TX 78205 (Downtown)

While it may sound like a gimmick, running a kitchen as though it is 1865 -- by hand, with no electric gadgets whatsoever -- has been working for the brainchild restaurant of Chef Michael Sohocki since 2010. The menu changes daily with what's in season, but you can be sure it will transport you back to a simpler time for food.

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6. Mariscos El Bucanero 16505 Blanco Rd, San Antonio, TX 78232

El Bucanero serves up Sinaloa-style Mexican food and a lively atmosphere. The menu is seafood focused and most dishes are interpretations by LA native Cesar Cervantes, the wunderkind chef-owner who runs El Buc with his family. Everything is auténtico; no tourists ever find this place, so there’s no need to water anything down, which is greatly appreciated by the locals who come in droves to have a good time.

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7. Cured 306 Pearl Pkwy Ste 101, San Antonio, TX 78215

As you walk into the restaurant -- Pearl Brewery’s old administration building -- you’ll be greeted by a throng of dried meats hanging in temperature-controlled chamber affectionately known as the “Charc Tank.” Start off with a charcuterie board.

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8. Chris Madrid's 1900 Blanco Rd, San Antonio, TX 78212

Although San Antonio's patron burger saint passed away in 2012 at the tender age of 61, Chris Madrid's legacy lives on through the long lines at his eponymous burger joint. On a Saturday at lunchtime you can expect at least a 20-minute wait, which seems a bit silly until you receive your monstrous Tostada Bean Burger, which looks and tastes like the lovechild of a burger and nachos. The friendly service and inviting atmosphere at this family-owned, Tex-Mex-themed spot will make you feel right at home.

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9. The Luxury 103 E Jones Ave, San Antonio, TX 78215 (Downtown)

The Luxury is quirky and fun, with order-at-the-counter service and housed in converted cargo containers. They serve up hearty portions of eclectic, casual fare and features all-outdoor seating... kind of a maverick but with a serious chef pedigree. And remember, the fries are some of the best in Bexar County.

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10. Augie's Barbed Wire Smokehouse 3709 N Saint Marys St, San Antonio, TX 78212

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 our rec) with some pinto beans and mac-n-cheese. Augie's also has a dope beer garden (perfect for washing down that brisket) and regularly hosts live music events.

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11. Dough Pizzeria Napoletana 6989 Blanco Rd, San Antonio, TX 78216 (Olmos Park)

Dough Pizzeria is owned by husband-and-wife team Doug and Lori Horn, and is known for serving the best wood-fired pizza in town. The ingredient list is simplicity itself: imported buffalo mozzarella, tomato sauce, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and locally sourced basil. Menu highlights include the house-made mozzarella and burrata bar, and a truly memorable Margherita pie.

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12. Chez Vatel Bistro 218 E Olmos Dr, San Antonio, TX 78212 (Olmos Park)

Chez Vatel is not your typical snooty, uptight French restaurant. But it sure is legit. The fare is fresh, bright, and not heavy (another stereotype busted) -- and there is a prevailing relaxed, welcoming atmosphere.

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13. Paloma Blanca 5800 Broadway, San Antionio, TX 78209 (Alamo Heights)

Paloma Blanca is an upscale Mexican restaurant with gluten-free & paleo options on the menu, along with all the classic Tex-Mex dishes everyone loves. In terms of decor, this spot can't be beat: it has one of the prettiest outdoor patios in Alamo Heights, a comfortable but elegant dining room, and the food is the same way. This spot also has a great happy hour special where you can get appetizers for $5, margaritas for $3.50, and domestic beers for $3.

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14. Hot Joy 1014 S Alamo St, San Antonio, TX 78210

Enter into the garishly decorated interior that will make you feel like you’re walking into a Kung Fu speakeasy. 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.

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