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.

Shrimp Paesano: A San Antonio Italian tradition

Shrimp Paesano

If there’s a classic dish that exemplifies San Antonio dining, it’s Shrimp Paesano.

It’s a favorite in this city. And when you mention it to longtime diners, especially those who grew up here, it inspires sighs and maybe even a few swoons.

 

I think it’s good. But just good. Not great, not holy-cow-this-is-amazing, but good. Better than fine, but not at great.

It starts with lightly breaded and sautéed shrimp, covered with a creamy lemon-garlic-butter sauce. The appetizer portion is just the shrimp, while the lunch and dinner includes pasta.

I get that Shrimp Paesano, is as much a piece of San Antonio comfort food as a well-made breakfast taco. And if you visit almost any locally owned Italian spot in town, it will include its own version of Shrimp Paesano.

The heritage of that dish goes back to in 1968, when a young Joe Cosniac moved to San Antonio to work at HemisFair. The following year, he and then-business partner Nick Pacelli opened the original Paesanos on McCullough Avenue. The restaurant quickly caught on. It grew into an empire of three locations, plus several other restaurants in the Paesanos Restaurant Group.

Visit any location and wait in line with with regulars and visitors who quickly turn into regulars. I get the reasons for its success: Fast, friendly service, big portions, lively atmosphere and an accessible wine list that still offers a few options for oenophiles. But I’m just as happy visiting several other places.

And when it comes to dishes, I prefer the pork osso bucco much more than the Shrimp Paesano. But with its history and several generations of happy customers, I’ll offer my respect.

Hey, Richard Marx: San Antonio welcomes vegans, too!

Vegan food in San Antonio
Kale, carrots, pepitas in cashew Caesar dressing from Pharm Table.

When you think of San Antonio food, images of tacos, enchilada plates and heaping piles of meats come to mind — not vegan cuisine.

But this city now known for its health-conscious options does indeed offer some choices for vegetarians and vegans. I’m not for a second going to argue that it rivals cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Houston or even Austin, but vegans — and people who just want to eat something without meat or animal products — can find good flavors in San Antonio.

I feel compelled to defend my home city and calm things down after singer Richard Marx tossed off a Twitter post bemoaning the lack of vegan offerings downtown — and then a talk radio host picked a Twitter fight and even insulted Marx’s wife, Daisy Fuentes.

I’m not going to wade into that fight. Instead, I’ll offer to Marx, Fuentes and other vegans living here or visiting here a list of places with vegan options:

Where to eat

  • Pharm Table It has limited hours, but the menu from chef/owner Elizabeth Johnson, a former instructor at the Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio, makes vegetables sing.
  • Moshe’s Golden Falafel Israeli-inspired falafel from Andrew Weissman, the city’s most celebrated chef. The falafel balls are good and the accompanying salads are incredible.
  • Green Vegetarian Cuisine The city’s biggest and best-known vegetarian and vegan restaurant offers a lot of options.
  •  Señor Veggie The jackfruit carnitas make good tacos.
  • Viva Vegeria Get the vegan nachos and wash them down with a cold beer.
  • 5 Points Local Vegan, vegetarian and some meat dishes, and all good.
  • Sweet Yams Organic, vegan-friendly Southern food? Yup!
  • Earth Burger Solidly made veggie burgers.

Another tip: Call ahead to some of the city’s chef-driven restaurants and ask if they can do something vegan. Already, Cured and Bliss offer a vegetable-focused daily special. If they’re not completely slammed, they’ll figure out a way to make it vegan, if you call ahead. The city’s other chef-driven restaurants could do it, too.

It does take effort

I’m not going to tell you that eating well if you’re vegan or vegetarian is easy in San Antonio. There’s not the market in San Antonio for an upscale vegan dining temple like Crossroads Kitchen. And if you’re downtown on the River Walk, remember that many of San Antonio’s visitors are families on a budget.

But this is a welcoming city. If you plan ahead and call when you can, you can have a great dining experience in San Antonio, just like the carnivores. Besides, guacamole is a naturally vegan dish. And that’s something we all can agree on.