There’s a lot more to San Antonio than the Alamo and Riverwalk, and there’s a lot more to San Antonio’s food scene than Tex-Mex and barbecue.
Last year, San Antonio became the second American city to be designated a Creative City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, the branch of the United Nations that designates World Heritage Sites. Just in time to celebrate its tricentennial, San Antonio has become a go-to place to sample chicken fried oysters, chorizo burgers, and tacos of all styles from hundreds of unique restaurants.
San Antonio’s transformation into a foodie destination began more than a decade ago, kickstarted by an urban revitalization project that transformed an old brewery into a culinary paradise anchored by a Culinary Institute of America campus. The Pearl Brewery operated for more than 100 years before closing in 2001. It’s since been redeveloped and now houses San Antonio’s first food hall, a restaurant by James Beard Award-nominated chef Andrew Weissman and a year-round farmers market.
“It’s become the cornerstone of the San Antonio food community,” said Delicia Herrera, a lifelong San Antonio resident who served on the local City Council from 2005 to 2009.
The school, the city’s low cost of living, and a low cost of doing business have made it an easy place for chefs to set up shop.
“Once they arrive, they want to stay,” said Karen Wolfe Haram, a retired San Antonio Express-News food and dining editor who has lived in San Antonio for more than 30 years.
TLC’s Cake Boss Buddy Valastro has two restaurants in the city. Actor Armie Hammer and his wife Elizabeth Chambers own San Antonio’s Bird Bakery. Chef Johnny Hernandez, who helped bring Top Chef Texas to the Alamo City, now operates a dozen local restaurants.
“There are just a handful of cities that have a truly unique food identity,” Hernandez said. “San Antonio is one of them.”
The Pearl Brewery is likely to be the first of many culinary destinations within the city. Hernandez says he’s floated the idea of turning other historic spots like La Villita and Maverick Plaza into food villages aimed at showcasing the city’s unique cuisine.
“The Pearl set an example and created a model for us to follow in redeveloping these sites,” he said. “A lot of people are already coming here for the food and culture. San Antonio is the place for Mexican food, but there’s more.”
For Mexican food, La Gloria, Villa Rica, Rosario's, La Fogata, Aldaco's, and La Fonda on Main are staples. Beyond Mexican, there is Biga on the Banks, Bohanan's, The Granary, Supper, and Cured, which specializes in charcuterie and craft cocktails.
The Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern, who is known for eating bizarre foods as he travels, has been spotted in San Antonio at least three times in the past three years, Hernandez said.
“Ten years ago, he did one segment on Liberty Bar,” Hernandez said. “Three years ago it was a full episode on San Antonio. That’s how much is going on here now.”
Shows like Zimmern’s and local millennials, the generation everyone loves to hate, have helped to elevate the city’s food scene. “They see a place on a TV show and they just have to go there,” Herrera said.
Top Chef filmed a full season in Texas, shooting half of its episodes in San Antonio. Host Padma Lakshmi was even photographed outside of the Alamo.
Even with Hollywood’s attention, there’s little pretense to the San Antonio food scene.
San Antonio is America’s most affordable foodie hotspot, according to a 2017 report from WalletHub. San Antonio was the country’s number 25 overall foodie city, according to the ranking, which judged 180 U.S. cities on measures including affordability, accessibility of high-quality restaurants and the presence of food festivals.
San Antonio is also a city that’s true to its culinary roots.
“You can certainly find more trendy things here — hyper local, vegetable-centric dishes, street food, cured foods etc. — but by and large, this is a city that likes to dance with the one that brought it,” Haram said.
Hernandez is perhaps the perfect example of this. His Burgerteca menu includes al pastor and enchilada-inspired burgers and sides like mole fries.