First look at The Maverick

Grilled octopus and calamari

Despite some opening night hiccups, The Maverick will soon become one of the best restaurants in the city.

The dishes from chef/partner Chris Carlson deftly balance a comfortable yet refined sensibility, while the atmosphere and service are polished but never stuffy. It’s truly a place that’s great for dressing up for a special occasion, or dressing down for a drink and a bite.

Carlson’s strong performance in the kitchen finds its equal in the management from director of operations Miguel Ardid, and sommelier/hospitality director Joshua Thomas and owner/partner Pete Selig. Together, they have created an impressive restaurant that’s likely to stay filled.

Cauliflower, turmeric, pickled raisins, slivered almonds

If it’s any indication, on the first night, the first guests stayed, lingered and kept ordering. In a way, that’s a great sign, but it also caused some backups for later reservations.

Flatiron steak

Everything on the menu is a la carte, so diners can create their own plates. That’s the idea behind the restaurant’s tagline of “make your own rules.”  Those dishes were superb. A mixture of roasted cauliflower with turmeric, pickled raisins and almonds succeed the best in a strong lineup, while grilled octopus and calamari were tender, juicy and filled with flavor for calabrian pepper oil, fingerling potatoes and accents of fried kale.

Meanwhile, a flatiron steak and a salmon fillet arrived at the table grilled to a perfect medium rare temperature. You don’t need to order sauces, but there are plenty available. Go old school and try the bordelaise with the steak.

Grilled salmon

The salmon includes a side of mango chutney, which adds a nice bit of brightness. For the fish, the flavors and textures of the chutney elevate, rather than compensate.

I could go on with the compliments, but I’ll stop with these initial observations.

To be sure, opening night saw a technology glitch that delayed orders getting to the kitchen. This backed up an already busy evening and caused plenty of confusion with orders getting to tables.

Very crisp fries

But at the same time, the service staff never lost their collective cool in the face of an early challenge. Servers and managers worked very hard to keep diners updates on the progress of their tables. This way, even when guests had to wait for a while, they at least knew that the staff was keeping tabs on them and serving them as well as possible.

The opening glitches will work out soon enough. What’s important is that all the elements are in place for The Maverick to grow into a must-visit restaurant. I can’t wait to go back.

Fade to Cab cocktail

 

 

 

 

Crab cake sliders
Profiteroles
A riff on a cheesecake
Blistered green beans, cherry tomatoes and shishito peppers

Replenishing my soul at Guajillo’s with tacos from Mexico City

Tacos al pastor
Pitch perfect tacos al pastor at Guajillo’s

Just as a favorite burger joint, pizza spot or deli not far from home is a staple of American life, the neighborhood restaurante gives a feeling of home and identity in Mexican cities. Fortunately, Guajillo’s brings that feeling of a homey Mexican spot to San Antonio. It doesn’t matter that the restaurant sits at a busy intersection, just off a major freeway. It takes me back every time I go.

The dishes are very good, and the table salsa is outrageously tasty. I proclaimed it among the nation’s best for Epicurious several years ago, and I still think Guajillo’s is amazing. It’s still a pain to get to and it still looks like a chain from the outside — but it also still feeds my soul. There aren’t many places that take me back to Mexico, so I treasure the ones that do.

Guajillo's salsa
Guajillo’s table salsa includes some type of magic.

So what is it about this place that transports me to Mexico and makes me feel like a zócalo is nearby? Part of it has to be the clientele — lots of working-class families, many speaking Spanish with accents that proclaim their homes in central Mexico.

Another part is definitely the dishes. I get my fix of pitch-perfect tacos al pastor, in which the achiote, citrus and other spices all come together on oil-moistened corn tortillas. The broth of a gorgeous tortilla soup focuses more on dried chiles than chicken soup, and the thick tortilla ribbons stay crisp and bring lots of wonderful corn tortilla flavor.

Tortilla soup
Outrageously good tortilla soup works perfect for a cold day. Or a hot one.

If I’m in the mood for a mole poblano or a mole verde, I can get my fix here. And when I’m not craving the tacos al pastor, I’m getting chilaquiles. These are the ones I first tried and fell in love with when I first visited Mexico. Unlike the Texas version of the dish with cheese and egg, the interior Mexico version is little more than crisp pieces of corn tortillas cooked in green salsa, topped with cotija and crema. The key is that the corn tortillas need some heft, and they hold their texture best if they’re a little stale when first cooked. Guajillo’s makes their chilaquiles with shredded chicken. Sometimes, I’ll ask for it without the chicken, for the flavor that keeps me rooted in my ancestral cuisine.

To wash it down, I like a Bohemia, but my wife likes the margaritas and my son prefers the vanilla sweetness of horchata. In fact, when my wife and I were dating and when we were first married, it was one of our go-to spots. Because we have more demands on our time, we don’t visit it as often as we used to. But when we to, it’s always still a treat.

Find one of the city’s best sandwiches at Bohanan’s Bar

Bohanan's BLT
Kurobuta BLT at Bohanan’s Bar is one of the city’s best sandwiches

Leave it to Mark Bohanan to elevate a diner staple into one of the best sandwiches in the city. It’s the Kurobuta BLT, served at the bar downstairs from his steakhouse.

What’s Kurobuta pork? It’s kind of the equivalent of Wagyu beef in the pork world. The meat comes from Berkshire hogs that have been pampered to develop well marbled muscles that are filled with amazing flavor.

So this sandwich highlights thickly cut slices of the flavorful bacon, with a few leaves of romaine lettuce, thick slices of juicy heirloom tomatoes (fresh, when they’re in season and hydroponic when it’s not tomato season), a housemade basil aioli, all between thick butter-toasted slices of sourdough bread. And its served on the gorgeous china, with housemade potato chips.

The success of the sandwich comes from Bohanan’s signature attention to detail. As with the steakhouse, every element of the sandwich receives an upgrade from the typical version that you find at lesser restaurants, or throw together quickly at home.

Old Fashioned at Bohanan's Bar
Like the other cocktails at Bohanan’s Bar, the Old Fashioned is spot on.

It’s such an elegant sandwich that it calls out for pairing with a house-crafted cocktail or even a bold red wine. I can vouch for its success with a Moscow Mule or an Old Fashioned.

Other dishes on the lunch menu at Bohanan’s Bar offer a thoughtful approach. If you want to splurge, you can even get a steak at lunch. But to see a BLT presented with this much thought and care is something else, and a true treat.

Can’t get enough of the wings at Alamo Pizza

The Original Breaded Crispy Wings at Alamo Pizza are excellent.
Original Breaded Crispy Wings at Alamo Pizza

Since 2011, I have been an evangelist for the glories of the Original Breaded Crispy Wings at Alamo Pizza. They’re super crisp, not too messy, wonderfully spicy and vinegary enough and absolutely packed with flavor. They depart just enough from tradition to make them interesting, but not so much that they’re weird.

They made the list of Best Wings in San Antonio’s Best Restaurants, and I have given them lots of love in all kinds of lists. What makes them special is that owner Fred Nuñez seasons with wings with Frank’s Red Hot sauce before he tosses them in a well-seasoned flour and later fries them. He even graciously shared his recipe — minus a few secret ingredients.

I’m happy to drive an extra 20 minutes from my house to score a batch of these wings, and I have several times.

Once I’m there, I have to get a pizza or two, as well. I will say that the pies at Alamo Pizza are good. Maybe they’re not as outstanding as the wings, but they are definitely good. And the chicken enchilada pizza — as funky as it may sound — is memorable in all the best ways.

If I’m feeling extra fancy, I like to pair the wings with a deep, bold Zinfandel or a crisp kolsch. As much as I love a good IPA, I feel that the extreme hoppy bitterness overpowers even the bold flavors of the wings. It’s a guilty pleasure, but a slightly sweet and effervescent Lambrusco works really well with pizza and wings, too.

Whatever you want to drink with them is fine so don’t sweat the pairing — just get to the South Side for some of these outstanding wings.

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