Food & Drink The three comidas

Local Mexican fare has norteño flavor

Former Mayor Henry Cisneros once told a news reporter his favorite restaurant was Panchito’s in the Military Plaza. It was nearby, and the flautas were muy delicioso, hizzoner said, but that restaurant’s use of near-fake cheese likely damaged his credibility and political power.

The next thing you know, the voters opted for City Council term limits. A loose census of the Yellow Pages reveals there are approximately 600 local restaurants that specialize in “Mexican,” or more correctly, Tex-Mex cuisine. That’s roughly one Mexican restaurant for every 2,000 residents inside the city limits.

Owner Ricardo Bistrain (right) and waitress Sylvia Arellano serve breakfast at Ricardo's Restaurant. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

How does one discern which local is the best? Opinions vary as widely as the quality of the various Mexican food venues around town. One way to gauge a restaurant’s worth is to count the number of police cars and CPS maintenance trucks in the parking lot.

One would expect City Hall insiders to have the scoop on the best place to do lunch within reach of the office. At least two were mentioned at a recent City Council meeting, and a quick conference with a Council aide revealed another little gem that I can personally vouch for.

Hence the tale of the three comidas, which makes sense, because if the Current ever tries to take stock of all Mexican restaurants in this City, it could take another 20 years. So here we go, three at a time.

The quintessential local breakfast plate, huevos rancheros, served sunny-side-up with potatoes, bacon, refried beans, and tortillas.

Ricardo’s Restaurant is a little hole in the wall on Houston Street, in the same block as the Alameda Theater. It has a following with health-care workers and their patients at Santa Rosa Hospital and the medical complex across the street. A few City Hallers have found their breakfast tacos and huevos rancheros plates satisfying. A Mexican plate, which invariably features a trinity of refried beans, Spanish rice, and choices of enchiladas, crispy tacos, or chalupas, is a common sight on the menu. Beware, however, of the crispy taco. My recent order included one, but the cook had apparently deep-fried an already-formed-and-baked corn tortilla into the wedge that translates in Spanish to a “taco.” Greasy, greasy, greasy.

Generally speaking however, Ricardo’s can be counted on for a good breakfast taco or lunch plate.

District 3 Councilman Roland Gutierrez recently gushed over the carnitas he shared with outgoing City Manager J. Rolando Bono, at El Chilaquil on West Commerce Street, just over the railroad bridge on the West Side.

Brush up on your Spanish, as the waitstaff prefer their native tongue. The carnitas plate was OK, but the homemade corn tortillas at Chilaquil were too thick for my taste. On another visit, my dining companion ordered an Old México favorite, barbacoa de borrego, and the result was a travesty. We both were repulsed by the huge glob of fat that tried to pass for food. We sent it away, only for it to return with even more fat. My dining companion, who has for years contended that barbacoa norteño (made from the cheeks and jowls of a cabeza de vaca), was not the true barbacoa you could get in Ciudad de México. After this experience, she might opt for the cow cheeks and thinner corn tortillas.

Ricardo’s Restaurant
342 W. Houston
Price Range $5-10
Hours: 7:30am-2:45pm Mon-Sat
Not wheelchair accessible

El Chilaquil
1821 W. Commerce
Price Range $5-10
Hours: 7am- 10pm daily
Credit cards
Not wheelchair accessible

Salsa Mora’s
502 S. Zarzamora
Hours: 8am-3pm Tue-Sat, 8am-2pm Sun
Price Range $5 - $10
Credit cards
Wheelchair accessible

“You brought me here to make me your guinea pig,” she quipped as she eyed my large, perfectly breaded bistec milanesa. The huarache on her plate was loaded with carnitas, chopped onions and cilantro, but she complained that the underlying layer of beans were “too mushy,” and nowhere near the “chinitas” state we both preferred. Don’t under-fry the refried beans, please.

Lastly, District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle raved about the food at Salsa Mora’s at the corner of West Durango and, you guessed it, Zarzamora. The corn tortillas are also homemade, and still too thick, but the chipotle salsa was superb, and I heard no complaints about the chorizo-and-egg filling. My overeasy huevos rancheros were good, but I suspect the salsa was from a bottle. Don’t order huevos rancheros with scrambled eggs unless you like a soggy breakfast; they’re more suited for huevos a la Mexicana.

On another visit, I opted for a large bowl of menudo, served every day, and was pleased. It contained a delicious mixture of comino and chile powder, and was served piping hot. The waitress overlooked the lemon wedges, and the chopped onions were a little ripe, but the menudo hit the spot, and made it to my A-list of good places to eat this tripe-based dish.

There it is, las tres comidas que están preferidas entre los politicos at City Hall. But judge for yourself, as we still have term limits in San Antonio.

By Michael Cary