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.

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.