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.

Loving the ramen (and more) at Kimura

Kimura ramen
Shoyu ramen with pork shoulder

When I reviewed the ramen palace Kimura in 2013, I immediately loved it. Since then, I have brought my wife and son several times and still think very highly of it.

When it opened, chef/owner Michael Sohocki touted it as a ramen shop. Now, it’s an izakaya, or a Japanese bar with good food. It still offers ramen, but the menu also includes smaller bites and several hearty dishes.

Frankly, I don’t care about the nomenclature; this place rocks! The gyoza, pieces, connected by a lattice of cornstarch and water, show a note of extra care.

Yakisoba
Yakisoba

A lively yakisoba that featured stir-fried soba noodles with shredded carrot, ginger, caramelized onion and cabbage will satisfy my next noodle craving.

The katsudon, a breaded pork cutlet, brought deep richness from caramelized onion and eggs, while a touch of ginger brightened the mixture. Served on top of steamed rice, it was a hearty dish that’s ideal for a cold day. Even in the middle of a San Antonio summer, it satisfied nonetheless.

Katsudon at Kimura
Katsudon

And this time, instead of my usual long-simmered pork bones of the tonkotosu ramen, I tried the chicken and soy sauce shoyu broth. The caramelized essence from the soy sauce accented the savory notes from the chicken bones and even added a touch of subtle sweetness. Actually, I should say that my son ordered the ramen. I only got a few tastes of it.

Of course, we’re coming back. Often.

Zinc’s Crack Burger: One of the best

Zinc Burger, one of the best in San Antonio
The Zinc Burger easily ranks among the best in San Antonio.

If the Zinc Burger isn’t the best in town, it’s tops on a very short list.

The secret is umami. Lots and lots of umami.

All that umami, that savory essence, begins with the seared crust on the burger patty. Then that savoriness receives a lot of boosting from the other ingredients: smoked cheddar, tomato aioli and a Parmesean tuile.  All of those toppings are rich in umami and totally addictive. There’s a reason why people call it the Crack Burger.

The result? Rich, beefy flavor that just doesn’t quit. It’s so good, it even made Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s 50 greatest burgers.

This suggestion may be over the top, but if the folks there could add some mushrooms to the ground beef mixture, and increase that umami even more. Not that it needs anything.

Order it with a glass of a rich, red wine or a good craft beer and just bask in all that goodness.

Come to a fundraiser at La Fonda for a good cause

With all the recent disasters, there’s so much need for help right now. Even though it feels overwhelming, please consider supporting this effort:

La Fonda on Main is hosting a fundraiser Oct. 4 to support earthquake relief efforts in Mexico. Tickets cost $50 and include passed appetizers and two drinks.  Proceeds from the event will be donated to and matched by Citibanamex Compromiso Social (website in Spanish).

La Fonda on Main is at 2415 N. Main Ave.

Click here to buy tickets or visit lafondaonmain.com for more information.

 

La Sorrentina: You’re coming here for the Italian food

La Sorrentina
Mussels marinara

Just a few blocks from St. Mary’s University sits La Sorrentina, a wonderful neighborhood Italian joint.

There’s nothing fancy about it. I mean, it’s really not fancy.

But the food is really good and it’s a treat every time I visit this place. I loved it when I reviewed it in 2011 and I still think it’s outstanding whenever I visit now.

Start with a wonderful appetizer for the table, the mussels marinara. It’s such a simple dish, but I can’t tell you how many restaurants serve it without all the mussels open, or a weak marinara, not enough sauce or old mussels. The version here avoids all the potential pitfalls. It looks gorgeous and tastes great, with a touch of chile heat giving an extra zip to the tomato-rich tang of the marinara. The sauce combines well with the plump mussels for a great way to start a meal.

On a menu filled with stars, I keep coming back to the baked spaghetti. It’s linguine  in a white cream sauce that includes a lot of diced shrimp, octopus and scallops. Served in a foil packet, it’s not the prettiest presentation, but who cares? It tastes great.

The lasagna is also worth seeking out, as is the Sicilian pizza. Also, this place allows diners to bring in their own wine. I’d recommend bringing a good, food-friendly Italian wine, because the dishes here deserve a proper pairing.

Outstanding charcuterie at Restaurant Gwendolyn

 

Charcuterie at Restaurant Gwendolyn
A “cheesecuterie” board at Restaurant Gwendolyn combines housemade charcuterie, housemade cheeses, jams, pickled vegetables and local honey.

Restaurant Gwendolyn offers many reasons to love it, but the outstanding charcuterie often finds itself overlooked.

That needs to change.

Of course, there’s a lot to celebrate with creative and thoughtful dishes that come from the restrictions of no electrical equipment and nearly all ingredients sourced within 150 miles.

Still, humanity’s oldest forms of preserving food absolutely thrill..

I’d say the charcuterie speaks to what makes this place special.

Gwendolyn offers a mixture of housemade cheeses and charcuterie called “cheesecuterie.” Whatever you call it, the selection just sings.

The housemade jams, local honeys and even a slightly effervescent pickle keep this party going.

The board costs $45, and it’s best split among a few friends. But if it’s just you and one other guest, you may find yourself a little full for too many other courses. As if that’s a bad thing…

 

Stuffing my soul at Cascabel Mexican Patio

Cascabel Mexican Patio
Pipián, or green mole, at Cascabel Mexican Patio.

One of the joys of living in Mexico was being able to enjoy some truly transcendent dishes that seemed to speak directly to my soul.

Those dishes instilled new level of appreciation of the cuisine of my ancestry, but they also left a hunger for that feeling, the experience of discovering flavors that were brand new for me, yet deeply familiar.

To be sure, I didn’t grow up eating Michoacán-style carnitas wrapped in fresh corn tortillas. No, I grew up in suburban Houston and my treats were barbacoa or chorizo with eggs with my mom’s fresh flour tortillas.

But after three months of home, restaurant and street food in central Mexico, those flavors became imbedded in my memory just as much as my mom’s enchiladas.

Memories of Mexico

The quest to find those flavors again has often left me frustrated, but a visit to Cascabel Mexico Patio put my soul and memory at ease. It’s a small, family-run spot, and the hours often change. Still, one taste of the squash blossom quesadillas, the tacos al pastor and the green mole called pipián, and I knew I had found a home.

I raved about it in a 2010 review and named it as one of the city’s Top 100 restaurants three years in a row.

Don’t look for chips and salsa. Instead, meals here start with a complimentary cup of light chicken broth with fideo. It’s part of the Mexican tradition of beginning with some type of soup.

I have yet to try something here I didn’t love, but for a couple of favorites, I’d suggest the quesadillas de huitlacoche (a corn fungus that’s a delicacy in Mexico), a huarache (like a thick tortilla, but shaped like a sandal, which gives the name), or the pipián.

The puerco cascabel balances heat with the deep roasty flavor of dried chiles, and an underlying touch of sweetness with the pork, while an accompanying salad of sliced cactus paddles, or nopales, add a bright, tart fresh note to the plate.

The limonada pulls its weight just as much as the dishes, but it’s BYO — so you can bring something stronger, if you’d like.

Burger Boy — good memories, great flavors

Burger Boy
No fancy toppings, just good, old-school excellence.

What makes an old-school burger special? Of course, the burgers have to taste good, but they also need to evoke a sense of nostalgia and happy childhood memories.

So as much as I love custom-blended patties and housemade toppings, I delight in the joys of a basic, old-school burger.

For me, that glorious burger comes from Burger Boy. It’s a simple burger that begins with a thin, well-seared patty of high quality ground beef.  Add shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, diced onions, a couple of pickle slices and mustard, and it adds up to greatness.

It’s an old-fashioned burger in all the best ways. I raved about it in the newspaper several times. I happily continue to tout it, even after the restaurant ownership changed.

My burger memories

Disclosure: I didn’t grow up with Burger Boy. My childhood treat, Burger Mart, sat a couple of miles away from my house on the outskirts of Houston. Here’s a page showing how it looked in 2009, shortly before the place was demolished.

We all have our own Burger Marts, the places we treasure for their flavors, memories and what they represent. So how much of my love for Burger Boy really comes from happy memories at my own childhood treat? Can you even separate it?

So when I introduced my son to his first Burger Boy, I felt like I passed an important family torch. He said it tasted almost as good as Whataburger.

What’s the best restaurant in San Antonio?

Edmund Tijerina
I’m explaining some of San Antonio’s classic dishes on “Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations.”

What are the best restaurants in San Antonio? It’s important, because when you’re spending your money on dining out, you don’t want to get it wrong.

That’s why people ask me for restaurant recommendations: Where’s the best Italian spot? Where’s the best place for margaritas? Who serves the best bean and cheese tacos?

I understand — you don’t want to waste time or money on disappointing food, and I want to help steer you in the right direction.

In San Antonio’s Best Restaurants, I want to help you make the most of your restaurant experiences.

Here, I’m going to share my recommendations for where to visit and what to order. Why should you trust me? You may already know my previous work when I shared my thoughts and impressions during my tenure as food writer/restaurant critic and later food and drinks editor at the San Antonio Express-News and on my Facebook page. Whether you agree with me or not, you at least know where I’m coming from.

San Antonio offers a lot of great food and excellent restaurant experiences, in different price ranges and cuisine styles — and we’re going to share them here.

As we explore this city’s dining options, please share your suggestions, or disagreements.

¡Buen provecho! and bon appétit!