3 Chef-Owned Restaurants Are Crushing It In San Antonio

3 Chef-Owned Restaurants Are Crushing It In San Antonio

Dispatch from San Antonio, Texas:
If you travel to San Antonio, get out your cellphone and safeguard these 3 chef-owned San Antonio restaurants that will give you the rich and vibrant flavors of San Antonio’s native food. You won’t find them on the famous downtown riverwalk, though.  They are anchored in three different neighborhoods of San Antonio, and because they are all chef-owned, their passion for flavor, el sabor, is preeminent.  That’s what makes them successful, thriving businesses.

Huevos A La Mexicana served at Casa De Rosa by Chef Ernesto Torres
Huevos A La Mexicana served at Casa De Rosa by Chef Ernesto Torres
Chef-Owner Ernesto Torres and Front-Of-House Manager-Owner, Erica Torres
Chef-Owner Ernesto Torres and Front-Of-House Manager-Owner, Erica Torres

Casa De Rosa Café

Customers have enjoyed the traditional Texas Mexican breakfast and lunch dishes of Chef-Owner Ernesto Torres for over 20 years.  My first taste of his cooking was a breakfast dish, Huevos A La Mexicana, eggs scrambled with diced chile jalapeño, white onion and tomato. It was the papitas that perked me up.

Not to get too technical, but Chef Ernesto raises the cooking temperature to 350ºF when sautéing the potatoes that he serves as a side in all the breakfast plates.  At that temperature, when the medium-sized potato chunks are dropped in the oil, they instantly become golden crispy, forming an exterior hard shell that prevents the oil from penetrating the interior of the potato pieces. The interior of the chunks continue cooking in their own steam. The result is a moist and creamy center; I love those papitas. Unlike at some chain-owned Mexican restaurants, there’s no chance that there’s ever any greasiness on the plate, nor the odor or taste of old, over-used oil.

Erica Torres is chef Ernesto’s wife, and she partners with him in the kitchen but mainly manages the front of house, managing the hospitality, checks, and keeping a keen eye on any cues from customers about the food or service.  “My wife, Erica Torres, has to be in the picture because she is part of the business,” says chef Ernesto.

Their menu offers outstanding in-house-made corn tortillas and flour tortillas that are made in the soft, fluffy style of San Antonio home kitchens. The two salsas, in plastic spout-pour bottles stand like two sentinels on the table, colorful, delicious and, Dios mío, picante.  Whether you choose verde or roja, keep in mind that a tiny drop will do if you’re having your first taste of home-made chile salsas. They are hot, hot, hot, but it’s still the chile flavors that are enticing.

Casa De Rosa serves Texas Mexican food, Comida Casera.
Casa De Rosa serves Texas Mexican food, Comida Casera.

The cheese enchiladas are prepared in the traditional style, with red chilified corn tortillas. The enchiladas taste of home to me, the sauce made with a chile ancho base that stands up to the  yellow colby cheese.  Another classic, the tostadas, is a dish of crispy corn tortillas with a layer of refried pinto beans, optional cheese, and topped with super fresh lettuce and tomato.

A unique dish is nopalitos, cactus, and it’s only at places like Casa De Rosa Cafe that you can find them.  Order them scrambled with eggs and onion or “a la Mexicana,” sautéed with diced tomato, onion and green chile.  Of course, there’s chorizo and egg tacos, the breakfast favorite of many.  If you are a foodie, this is probably why you travel to San Antonio, to taste this unique vinegar-chile-spice flavor of chorizo that is typical of south Texas and northeastern Mexico.

Like most of the Texas Mexican restaurants of San Antonio, Ernesto and Erica open at 7 am and close at 2 pm.  These hours are de rigueur, a strong cultural tradition of many Texas Mexican restaurants serving this food, all the way from Houston to Brownsville.  They’re open only for breakfast and lunch, and everything is home-made, hand-made.

Where: Northmoor Neighborhood– Open from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm Monday-Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Casa De Rosa Café
1120 Basse Rd, San Antonio, TX 78212
(210) 733-3414

SIDE BAR: Although each of these three restaurants has a chef-driven style, they are all serving the same family of flavors. They do not serve Oaxaca Mexican food, not Jalisco Mexican food, not Yucatán Mexican food. They serve Texas Mexican food.
It is the comida casera, home-style cooking emblematic of native Texas Mexican American families.  If you are looking for Tex-Mex in San Antonio, don’t come here. Clue: If you are looking for tex-mex dishes, make sure the outdoor restaurant sign says “tex-mex.” I couldn’t find many of those hyphenated food signs in San Antonio.

Rita’s Fiesta Cafe

Diony Cedillo makes the fresh Salsa Ranchera
Diony Cedillo makes the fresh Salsa Ranchera

A comfortable, cozy cafe with white vinyl tablecloths and over 20 years of delicious food history. The servers understand the food very well because they take shifts as line cooks in the kitchen.  The servers also take turns making the fresh salsa of the day. In fact,  the salsa ranchera left me openmouthed, it was so good.

Prepared that day by Diony Cedillo, it is one of the best salsas I have tasted in a very long time. Ms. Cedillo says there’s no printed recipe to follow. It’s all about “el tanteo,” she says. That’s the agelong practice handed down in home kitchens, from generation to generation: “tantéale!” try it, taste it, correct it, taste again. Your palate and body will tell you when it’s right.

Happy to have found this important cultural place, I need to thank my nieces and nephews, Chris, Adrian and Syl, who recommended Rita’s to me.

The Chef/Owner is Martin Islas. Like Casa De Rosa, Rita’s is a husband and wife cafe.  Mayra Islas is the Front-of-house Manager/Owner who radiates the hospitality that you’ll find in any Mexican American home on the Westside and the Southside, also Eastside and Northside.

Every Wednesday the lunch special is Pollo Con Mole Plate. I resist hyperbole when it comes to food because restaurants can have bad days, but this is really a great mole, and it is the traditional flavor from this region.  The taste is from the Westside of San Antonio.

Mayra Islas and Martin Islas, Owners for over 20 years of Rita’s Fiesta Cafe

Oaxaca can claim the origins for this dish, but over time every region has crafted a different style. Chef Ernesto’s is somewhat similar to mole poblano, that’s the best description I can give: not sweet, chile flavors prominent, a bare glimmer of chocolate/cinnamon.  I had it with flour tortillas, not corn, and ate lustfully (sorry) because it was so good, served with fluffy, lightly flavored Mexican rice.

The breakfast dishes represent the myriad flavors of the neighborhood’s morning fare, including Huevos A La Mexicana and Nopalitos  Con Huevo, with either corn or flour tortillas, both made in-house. I sometimes eat the flour tortilla by itself

Puffy Taco and Cheese Enchilada at Rita's Fiesta Cafe
Puffy Taco and Cheese Enchilada at Rita’s Fiesta Cafe

The puffy taco is a strong contender for best in San Antonio. The chips for the salsa are hard-crispy, all cooked in the kitchen.  The cheese enchilada  is also recommended if you want a true taste of Texas Mexican food. Like the enchiladas in the other two restaurants noted here, the tortillas are red, chilified.  The sauce has a chile ancho base and it’s delicious.

Where:  Woodlawn Lake Neighborhood– Open from 6:30 am to 3:00 pm daily, and on Saturday from 6:30 am until 7:00 pm
Rita’s Fiesta Cafe
612 Bandera Rd, San Antonio, TX 78228
(210) 732-1537

El Puesto #2

The classic Carne Guisada is a favorite at El Puesto #2
The classic Carne Guisada is a favorite at El Puesto #2

Chef/Owner, Santiago Segura, and Front-of-house Manager/Owner, Miriam Segura, opened El Puesto #2 seventeen years ago, and business has been steadily growing stronger. The success is driven by a menu showcasing dishes that are native to this Westside neighborhood, like carne guisada, an aromatic, flour-thickened beef stew unique to this region (south Texas and northeastern Mexico), and unfamiliar in the regions located south of Monterrey.

The carne guisada is served with delicately flavored Mexican rice, refried beans and a salad/garnish of iceberg lettuce and tomato. The plate comes with two tortillas, either flour, corn, or both, that are handmade in the kitchen by a team that always stays busy.

The delicious cheese enchiladas feature the standard red corn tortillas that are chilified, filled with colby cheese and covered with the recognizable, complex chile ancho sauce. (Sound familiar?)

The menu has some fried items, but not predominantly. Chef Segura uses fat sparingly, and does not cook with lard, which in most kitchens today is the store-bought hydrogenated type. It’s the hydrogenation that has made lard unhealthy today.

El Puesto #2 is anchored in the Westside neighborhood, El Jardín

“Tenemos ya mucha gente muy grande,” he says “We have already too many people who are too big.”  Besides, he says, his guests don’t like to see oil on their plate, and they will complain if the food is greasy. I have heard that before from other Texas Mexican restaurants.

When you try Chef Santiago’s green salsa, you’ll find no tomatillos. He simply mashes Jalapeños, and the only additions are hints of cilantro and garlic. These are the subtle variations that make his food special.

Chef Santiago Segura holds a tray of ingredients for the daily Menudo that he serves.
Chef Santiago Segura holds a tray of ingredients for the daily Menudo that he serves.

Another special touch shows up in his tostadas, crispy corn tortillas topped with refried beans, cheese and salad. Different from other places, he spreads cheese over the beans and then bakes the tostada. The cheese melding with the beans recalls the flavor of Nacho’s, and that’s a chef’s special touch. He tops the tostada with fresh, crispy iceberg lettuce and diced tomatoes.

Finally, your trip to enjoy native San Antonio food would not be complete without menudo, the beef tripe soup that’s iconic all the way down to Mexico City. Not only on weekends, as most restaurants do, but daily, Santiago and Miriam Segura offer menudo with the option known to connoisseurs: “con pata o sin pata?” with or without the hoof?

Where:  Westside El Jardín Neighborhood– Open daily from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm
El Puesto #2
766 Old Hwy 90 W, San Antonio, TX 78237
(210) 432-1400

Final Tasting and History Notes

These three restaurants continue to crush it in San Antonio, remembering their culinary traditions and trying new twists. There are many more like them, and they hold an important historical protagonism that has not been told. They are the precursors of today’s Tex-Mex restaurants and menus. The original founders of Tex-Mex restaurants were Anglos who imitated San Antonio’s Westside Cafes.

In the late 1800s, Chicagoan Otis Farnsworth visited Westside San Antonio, saw the many neighborhood cafes, and was hugely impressed by their success.  These were the same flavors and dishes that native Mexican women were selling in open-air stands in downtown San Antonio. Later called chili queens, these chef/owners  had single-handedly turned downtown San Antonio into a culinary tourist destination and business was booming. Unfortunately, the women were increasingly harassed and eventually forced out of the city center.

It seems that money was ringing in Farnsworth’s ears, so he decided on a venture, to open one of these restaurants himself. He would do so in the place where Westside Mexicans could not afford to build, in downtown San Antonio. But his would not be like the open-air stands of the women who had no access to the capital necessary for an indoor site. His wife had money. His would be a brick and mortar, indoor restaurant. His clientele would be Anglo Texans who loved the food but would never think of frequenting Westside barrio cafes for dinner.

Using money from his wife, Sarah Roach Farnsworth (1874-1968), the two opened up the restaurant in 1900 with a menu that imitated the Westside cafes. They also erased the agency of the Westside chefs by naming the place, “The Original Mexican Restaurant.” By Anglos, for Anglos, and claiming to be the original, that’s how Tex-Mex food began.

Otis Farnsworth and Sarah Roach hit on a winner.  Tex-Mex restaurants have been hugely successful over the years and even Mexican Americans have followed suit by opening up similar format restaurants, also with great success.

But they are different from El Puesto, Rita’s and Casa De Rosa, of course, in many ways that speak to class, taste, cultural awareness and indigenous memory.

Whichever style you prefer, you’re sure to enjoy culinary delights in San Antonio.

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