Of course, the noodles at Ming’s Noodle Bar sing, but the steamed buns rock

Steamed bun with pork belly at Ming’s Noodle Bar

When you think about it, the beloved gua bao, or Taiwanese pork belly steamed bun, might as well be the Asian cousin to the taco.

But as much as I love tacos, there are cravings that only a steamed bun can satisfy. Those cravings need the combination of tender, juicy, meaty and fatty pork belly, minced scallions, cilantro and other shredded veggies that bring a wave of happiness.

Fortunately, just north of downtown are some of the city’s best, at Ming’s Noodle Bar. There, chef and co-owner Ming Qian offers amazing steamed buns and a customizable array of hot and cold noodle dishes. She’s from Beijing and her husband, Hinnerk von Bargen, is a professor at the Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio. Together, they transform a former railroad car into an amazing dining experience.

The steamed buns offer other filings besides the house-cured and smoked pork belly, such as the pulled pork with 5-spice and some other goodies, marinated chicken and a few vegetarian options.

And the noodles themselves are wonderful. My favorite, the Spicy Sichuan noodles, are a cold dish of egg noodles with a generous topping of chile oil and shredded vegetables, minced herbs with a sesame dressing. The contrasts of flavors and textures are succeed brilliantly.

Among the noodles with broth options, I’d lean slightly toward the spicy coconut noodles, with rice noodles in a red curry coconut broth. That’s not so slight any of the other dishes. Truthfully, the only reason why I order one instead of another is more about a mood.

The shop offers some Asian beers and local craft brews, along with Mexican Coke, Topo Chico and some other bottled beverages, so it’s easy to come in and enjoy a fun meal. Or get an order to go and pop open your own libation of your choice and let the flavors wash over you as you relax at home.

Amazing tacos at Carnitas Lonja

More than 20 years have passed since I ate perhaps the single greatest taco of my life, and I can still taste it in my memory.

I remember ordering two tacos from a little stall in front of a bank building in Mexico City.  The young man working the stall grabbed what looked like a small machete. He speared a couple of chunks of browned pork and plunged them into a vat of boiling oil. After a few seconds, he pulled them out of the bubbling cauldron.

With a skilled, practiced motion, he flicked his wrist to release the meat onto a cutting board that looked like a small tree stump, then used that machete to scoop up a couple of nearby corn tortillas and plopped them onto an oil-moistened comal. As the tortillas heated, he used his machete to chop the larger chunks of meat. At that point, I could see some darker crisp edges on his board. Another quick flip of the wrist to flip the tortillas, and he grabbed a plastic plate topped with a sheet of waxed paper. Holding the plate with his left hand, he scooped the tortillas with the machete, plopped them on and then scooped up the chopped meat with his right and then handed the plate to me.

I scooped a spoonful of salsa, chopped cilantro and minced onion from the bowls assembled on the counter of his stand. The first bite rocked my world. The contrast of the crisp edges of the meat, the juicy interior, the freshness of the cilantro, the crispness of the onions and the bite of salsa all combined to form a sensation I never had experienced before. When I finished my tacos, I asked the owner about the tacos.

His response: “Carnitas, estilo Michoacán.” Carnitas, in the style of the Mexican state of Michoacán.

Michoacán style in S.A.

After all these years, I finally experienced carnitas in the United States that took me back to that little stand in Mexico City.

At Carnitas Lonja on the South Side. Even the logo says “Estilo Mich.”

Of course, you can never have carnitas for the first time again, but the carnitas at this shop are incredible. It’s the focus of the menu and nearly its entire contents.

At Carnitas Lonja, chef Alex Paredes doesn’t plunge his pork into a vat of oil outside any more, but he gets the same textures with his setup inside his renovated kitchen. And his carnitas are gorgeous. Only a few flecks of the deep-fried edges enliven his creations, but the familiar flavor and juiciness is all there. His creations come with bowls of pickled vegetables and two fierce and flavorful housemade salsas.

And what does lonja mean? Literally, it means a “slice,” but it usually refers to love handles. So enjoy your carnitas responsibily.

Longhorn Cafe’s burger makes the Best list

Original Big Juicy and onion rings at the original Longhorn Cafe location on Blanco Road inside Loop 1604.

I finally tasted the burger at the Longhorn Cafe — and it’s good. How good? Read on.

It’s not a fancy burger and it’s not backed up by a big marketing budget. But it’s a good, straightforward burger, filled with great flavor. And you can’t beat the atmosphere that evokes a small-town feel, even though it’s just inside Loop 1604.

The next time I go, I’ll try the beanburger or the jalapeño cheeseburger. For now, I kept it simple with the Original Big Juicy — the regular with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mustard and mayo. The patty stayed true to the name, while the rest of the elements accentuated the overall flavor, and a grill-toasted bun elevated and brought it all together. Overall, I liked the burger a lot, and will definitely add it to next year’s edition of San Antonio’s Best Restaurants.

Although Longhorn Cafe has expanded into a local chain, the original location began as in the 1950s as a taco stand on Blanco Road. Back then, this stretch of road must have felt like a cow pasture, far away from downtown. For all I know, it may have actually been one. Even now, the gravel parking lot and well-aged interior keep the restaurant close to its roots.

This restaurant does serve more than only burgers, but I’m not sure I saw anybody order anything else when I visited. Maybe the chicken-fried steak is good, too. I’ll order one, eventually. I will strongly recommend the onion rings, thinly cut and hand battered with a crisp, craggy breading. The onions themselves were cut thinly enough so they cooked and softened in the fryer, but kept just a bit of their fresh crunch. These onion rings were good enough on their own to prompt a drive. Those rings, with a burger and a couple of beers and a Spurs game on TV — that’s a great evening.

So yes, Longhorn Cafe’s burger has earned a spot on the top list. Maybe not at the very top, but it’s definitely on the list.

Battalion: Best new restaurant of 2017

Square meatballs

San Antonio has been fortunate that 2017 brought some very good restaurants, but Battalion stands at the top of the list as the best of the year.

The regional Italian and Italian American dishes here are absolutely incredible, while the cocktails sparkle and the atmosphere has enough style for several restaurants.

It has already vaulted to the No. 2 position as Best Italian in San Antonio’s Best Restaurants, and ranks high in several other categories of my book.

This is the latest project from owner Andrew Goodman and chef/partner Stefan Bowers, famed for their sibling restaurants Feast and Rebelle,

Bowers demonstrated his square meatballs on a video for Food & Wine magazine, and the recipe is not super difficult. The shape is not a gimmick — the flat surface means they’ll take a better sear than a traditional round ball. That That wonderful Maillard reaction works magic on the meatballs, too.

How to eat here

As with the menus at Feast and Rebelle, the dishes at Battalion are meant to share. I really need to try every single item on this menu to make truly comprehensive recommendations. But for now, let me recommend the meatballs with a wonderful hard sear and eloquent marinara, the housemade ricotta with grilled pears and a light sprinkle of fresh rosemary, the daily risotto and the orecchiette alla Campagnola, with crumbled goat sausage, broccoli and ricotta salata. Truthfully, I had to leave before I could order a main dish, but those are next. But let me say that the handmade pastas are wonderful.

I will have to make several more visits to work my way through this menu. And I can’t wait to come back.

On this Thanksgiving, thank you!

Sweet potato casserole at Casa Tijerina

Thank you for joining me on this journey of exploring the best restaurants that San Antonio has to offer.

Of the many blessings that I celebrate this year, I give thanks for you. Thank you for giving me the gift of your time and attention. We have just started in our path of enjoying the many wonderful restaurants that San Antonio has to offer and there are many more places to try.

And now that the guidebook, San Antonio’s Best Restaurants, is out, watch for more books, tours and demos coming soon.

May your Thanksgiving be filled with much love, turkey, libations of your choice and leftovers!

An underrated gem at Picknikins Patio Cafe

The Fabulous, a kicked-up roast beef sandwich at Picknikins.

You don’t hear much about Picknikins, but it’s an underappreciated gem of a restaurant.

It doesn’t do anything trendy or show off a hot new chef’s technique or culinary worldview. Instead, it shows the quiet and unmistakeable power of solid craftsmanship and consistent execution.

At lunch, it specializes in sandwiches and salads and follows a fast-casual model. Order at the register, take a number and a server will deliver your food when it’s ready. Dinner offers sit-down table service and a more upscale experience.

So what makes this place so special? It’s something that few places actually achieve: Everything tastes as it should. Each dish accentuates the main ingredient without detracting from it.

I got a reminder about this during a recent lunch, when I ordered The Fabulous — a roast beef sandwich with, red onions, horseradish, mayonnaise and cream cheese. I could taste the beefy flavors of the sliced meat, a little sweetness and sharpness from the onions, a touch of spice from horseradish and luxurious mouthfeel from the cream cheese and mayo. Not a traditional version of the sandwich, but nothing extraneous, either. The housemade chips have just the right amount of seasoning. Think of kettle chips, but much better.

Dinner offers dining favorites prepared with a solid sense of craftsmanship. My only real complaint with dinner is that several of the plates lean on the sauce squiggles. With a well-seared salmon, for example, there’s no need for a balsamic squiggle.

Make sure to try the Malay Beef Curry, a South African specialty that celebrates the home of owners Andre and Cheryl Bezuidenhout. It’s a thick stew of deep, rich flavors that may remind you of an Indian curry, but has its own flavor profile. And it’s served with sliced bananas and chutney. It was one of those dishes that offered an unfamiliar flavor to me that quickly became a new favorite.

This restaurant served as a great location for a recent business meeting, and I will definitely call them for takeout sandwiches. And the next time my wife and I want to chill with some good food, a nice and not too expensive bottle of wine — and not worry about cleaning up afterwards, we’ll head over here for dinner, too.

Two locations:

6901 Blanco Rd,
210-616-0954

5811 University Heights Blvd,
210-236-5134

Proper paella, sangria and tapas at Toro Kitchen + Bar

Paella at Toro Kitchen

Paella is one of those dishes that restaurants rarely get right. It usually takes too long to cook for a typical restaurant, and using shortcuts often cuts into the quality.

Fortunately, Chef Juan Carlos Bazán at Toro Kitchen + Bar hits his marks and serves a paella that any home cook would be proud to claim. The rice is properly cooked, while the other ingredients add — but don’t overwhelm — the rice, and the pan has the proper socorrat, or toasted layer at the bottom.

I liked Toro a lot, and wrote about it for my first restaurant profile in San Antonio Magazine. Overall, the dishes were very good. On a Saturday night,  a table on the patio with a guitarist playing Latin standards made for a wonderful experience.

There were a couple of service flubs that should not have happened. Another table received our order, and the kitchen had to remake our order quickly. Still, I’d recommend the tapas, the paella, the good selection of gin-tonics and the very satisfying and smooth sangria.

Although I learned how to make paella several years ago in preparation for the inaugural Paella Challenge , and love to make it at home, sometimes I appreciate the opportunity to enjoy somebody else’s — and I really appreciate that I don’t have to clean up afterwards.

Puffy taco happiness at Patsy’s Place

Puffy tacos
Puffy taco plate at Patsy’s Place

There’s a special skill in getting a puffy taco right. When made correctly, the crisp, puffy masa has just enough crunch to contrast with the juicy filling, but not too much to feel tough.

I have always argued that the best ones come from Ray’s Drive Inn, but the ones from Patsy’s Place can take a confident spot at the top level of San Antonio puffy tacos. The masa has a delicate crunch that’s just gently cradles the filling. I asked for a mix of picadillo and shredded chicken in my tacos. In both, the somewhat soupy fillings added to the contrasts of textures. Best of all, the fillings have plenty of seasoning. They would taste good inside corn tortillas, flour tortillas, on top of chalupas or as part of a combo plate.

The refried beans and rice are perfectly fine accompaniments, but the stars of this plate are the puffy tacos.

In a way, the puffy taco success shouldn’t be surprise. Co-owner Patricia Torres formerly worked as general manager at Ray’s. Clearly, she learned the lessons well.

Eventually, I’ll get around to the rest of the menu here, but it’s great to know that the puffy tacos are in good hands.

Go-to barbecue at Smoke Shack

Smoke Shack barbecue
Mac and cheese, brisket, pork ribs, sausage and potato salad.

When my wife and son asked where I wanted to go for my birthday, it was an easy choice: barbecue at Smoke Shack.

Why Smoke Shack?

I still think it’s one of the most solid, consistent and all-around excellent barbecue in the city. I absolutely raved about it in 2014, and touted the brisket grilled cheese in 2016.

But the landscape has changed, and it’s no longer one of very few top-notch barbecue spots in the city. It is still very good, and definitely worth a visit. Now, there’s just more destination barbecue in San Antonio.

The brisket is tender, juicy and blissfully smoky. Ribs still have a nice smoke flavor and maintain a little texture on the bone. The sweet, honey glaze can put off some, but it’s a memorable rib anyway.

And the brisket grilled cheese has graduated from occasional special to featured menu item. It’s every bit a glorious as the name sounds. Crisp white bread, melty American cheese, smoky and a little saucy chunks of brisket, all together in a wonderfully excessive sandwich.

Mac and cheese with corkscrew pasta and chunks of brisket is almost a meal itself, while the feta-spiked vinegary cole slaw helps balance a lot of the rich meats and the potato salad feels like a mashup of potato salad with a baked potato.

In today’s barbecue landscape, Smoke Shack is like a trusted friend that I will return to for celebrations or just times when I need some good smoked meat.

Eat pizza, drink and be happy at Barbaro

Clams Casino pizza at Barbaro

When Barbaro first opened in 2013, I called it “sophisticated yet accessible” in a review shortly after it opened and praised it as a superior neighborhood pizza place.

Since then, it has grown even more comfortable in its skin as a neighborhood hangout. But it’s close enough to downtown and the hip areas near The Pearl to attract a broader clientele than most other neighborhood spots.

In practice, this means the dishes have maintained their quality, while the well-crafted cocktails make this a destination bar, too.

Barbaro’s dough comes from Bakery Lorraine, and it brings a slightly chewy texture with almost an undertone of sourdough flavor.

That complexity serves as an ideal canvas for the clever toppings that mark the best pies here. I’m talking about combos such as Clams Casino. It sounds like a funky pizza, but give it a chance. This one takes the New Haven, Connecticut specialty of a clam pizza and cranks up the volume with bits of bacon and a creamy white sauce. You can also create your own pizza, but why pass on so many satisfying combinations?

Meanwhile, the vegetable dishes often get overlooked, and they’re some of the best on the menu. I don’t care that kale salad has turned into a hipster dining cliché. The one here, with pumpkin seeds, sliced grapes, Gorgonzola and a lemon vinaigrette, is outstanding. Really — order less pizza and get more vegetables. They’re that good.

Since its opening, Barbaro has added a few main dish items that are best shared. I can vouch for the meatballs in marinara sauce and keep meaning to try the rest of that section of the menu — just as soon as I can tear myself away from the salads and pizzas.