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JLK

San Antonio, TX

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Of San Antonio’s indigenous foods, the puffy taco is seemingly the most notable. You can’t find them in any other major Texan city, at least not regularly, which gives them a sense of place that’s hard to come by with food nowadays.

Ray’s Drive-Inn is often cited as the birthplace of puffy tacos, although I’ve read rumors that a place in Austin predates them. Whatever the case, they’re most known for popularizing them, so I guess the victors write the history.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, the restaurant itself is a hodgepodge of parking, seating, decor and menu items. In addition to puffy tacos they sell hamburgers and hot dogs, are cash only (of course), and have about five Jesus pictures staring at you at all times. True kitsch on display here.

I’ve found it’s best to keep it simple with puffy tacos: A beef taco ($2) and avocado taco ($2.15) arrived freshly fried but not greasy, both with ballooned masa shells that you just can’t find in many other places. These puffy tacos avoided the common fault of flaking apart too quickly, which is probably a lot harder to do than it seems. The fillings, however, were about as rudimentary as they come -- I wasn’t expecting to be floored by ground beef or crushed avocado, but both could’ve used a lot more seasoning.

That aside, the shells themselves were delicious and well-done. I left one of the country’s classic food institutions with a new puffy taco benchmark.

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While Ray’s Drive-Inn is the original flag-bearer, Los Barrios gave the puffy taco Food Network appeal -- literally, when Diana Barrios-Trevino competed on a “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” episode back in 2007. The Los Barrios owner bested Mesa Grill’s golden boy, and a lot more people knew what a puffy taco was afterwards.

Today there’s not much to mark the big media blitz from a decade ago, as the whole place is largely unassuming (albeit popular). Unlike Ray’s it’s a full-service Mexican restaurant with a menu of all the familiar classics, but I was here for those scripted-TV-winning puffy tacos.

An El Perfecto ($9) margarita started things off strongly, literally, along with a perfect rendition of chips and salsa. And I mean perfect chips -- warm, with that fresh out of the oil glisten and ideal texture.

The #4 Presidential Puffy Tacos ($10.50) is a two-taco combo platter of your choice. I went with beef and avocado again, and in a direct comparison these were not structured as well as Ray’s -- my ground beef taco was past the point of picking up by the time it hit the table. The actual fillings were better, however, and the sides of rice and borracho beans were phenomenal.

I’d work through the rest of Los Barrios puffy taco menu if given the chance, but based on the sides and chips I’d be content coming here for everything else is on their menu.

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Like most good food histories, the puffy taco comes with a little bit of family drama. Ray Lopez, owner of the aforementioned Ray’s Drive-Inn, had a pair of younger brothers that worked for him back in the murky 1950s of food copyright. Arturo Lopez eventually took over the original business, while Henry Lopez took the puffy taco idea out to California for a bit.

Of course, both men claimed invention of the puffy taco in the years after, especially when it came to branding their separate restaurants. When Henry got back from the west coast he opened Henry’s Puffy Tacos in 1978, about three miles from his brother and Ray’s.

Whatever the history, I have to give the edge to Henry on this one. The chicken taco ($2.89) and beans and cheese taco ($2.89) were the best of my visit; the shells were fried expertly and the fillings had the most attention paid to them. I believe refried beans with cheese is the way to go when it comes to puffy tacos, as both act as a bond that prolongs the integrity of the delicate shell.

The shredded chicken was just as delicious, however, and was fit for hand-held consumption even after sitting a bit while I took an awkward picture.

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Anyway, after gaining some basic knowledge of the landmarks serving it, I’d recommend everyone try a puffy taco when in San Antonio. It’s not a mind-blower, but it’s certainly unique, tasty and worth experiencing.

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Second Los Barrios-one of my consistent favorites in SA. The town is booming food wise. Why TS lauded Houston over SA is a mystery. After all, the CIA has a branch in SA not Houston.

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Will be headed here for work next week. Any recommendations? Places to avoid on the riverwalk?

-Andy

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On 6/19/2018 at 3:07 PM, And said:

Will be headed here for work next week. Any recommendations? Places to avoid on the riverwalk?

-Andy

Avoid eating on the River Walk in general.

Pearl Brewery is a 10-minute Uber from downtown and a much better bet. It's one of those "Eat-Shop-Live" mixed use areas, but done on the grounds of a 135-year-old former brewery. There you'll find: 

The Granary -- A very good barbecue restaurant that helped popularize barbecue pastrami in Texas a few years ago. Their pastrami beef rib is a Tuesday special and worth the trip alone. They also do composed courses for dinner and make their own beer.

Cured -- I would not argue with anyone who proposed this as San Antonio's best restaurant. I don't get excited for charcuterie at most places, but they put real effort into it and have great variety. Make sure to load up on the small plates; chef Steve McHugh does an incredible job taking familiar dishes and giving them one or two lovely surprises. I had a blood sausage pain perdu that remains fond in my memory, and a simple couscous with grilled lamb liver, lemon and parmesan that ate like one of the best risottos ever. Great drinks and rustic desserts as well.

Bakery Lorraine -- Worthwhile bakery that specializes in French staples, breakfast and light lunch. Perfect stop to begin or end your day around Pearl.

Lick Ice Creams -- An Austin export but I've had good experiences at all their locations. It's June in Texas, so you'll want ice cream.

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I wasn't too impressed with Cured though it has been a couple of years. Hot Joy is fun. I've had good meals at Bigga on the Banks, can be pricey. Touristy but fun El Marcado in the Market Square has decent tex mex though Los Barrios remains a favorite-also try Rosarios on South Alamo.  Have a drink at Esquire Taven.

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11 hours ago, mr food said:

Have a drink at Esquire Taven.

I had a rough go eating on the River Walk but a second vote for Esquire Tavern. They made me a perfect Manhattan and the atmosphere is just right during the week.

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Some highlights from a recent trip to San Antonio, in chronological order:

Nonna Osteria - Pleasant rustic Italian food in the Fairmont Hotel.  The menu has evolved a bit from what is currently online.  We enjoyed a Pizza Cinghiale and the Lobster Ravioli.

Esquire Tavern - We appreciated our drink at an extremely long bar, which was generally loud and crowded on an early Saturday evening.  We quickly retreated to their Downstairs bar, which had more of a speakeasy vibe - dimly lit and doorway not immediately obvious.  It also appeared to have a policy of serving only those who have a seat, so no crowds lingering by the bar.  They have a smaller, more select menu.  We enjoyed a nice cheese plate.

High Street Wine Co. - Despite being November, it was a hot walk to the Pearl District, so we ducked into High Street Wine Co. for some wine and a carafe of water.  The wine was fine, and the air conditioning and soul and R&B on the sound system was most welcome.

Maverick - Stopped in here for brunch.  If you like coddled eggs, they have them on the Braised Pork Belly and the Salad Lyonnaise.  We had both and suggest you do as well.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot, get a brown butter brioche doughnut.  You won't be sorry.

Burleson Yard Beer Garden - We tried walking to the Alamo Brewery through a desolate stretch of San Antonio, but got waylaid by this place.  They had an interesting draft beer selection and a taco shack outside in the beer garden.  A frozen mango margarita was particularly tasty.  I am pretty sure we were the only tourists there as everyone else seemed to know each other.

Sternewirth - Had a gin and tonic at the bar of the Hotel Emma in the Pearl District.  This seems to be where all of the beautiful people stay when in San Antonio.  We stayed at a Marriott.

Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery - Also in the Pearl District.  As the name implies, this was southern-style eats.  Enjoyed some gulf oysters, quail, and fried chicken.

Rosario's - Final stop of the trip at the Southtown location.  Got here around 11:30am for lunch and the place was already half-full.  It was packed when we left, and it is not a small space.  Had to try some puffy tacos, because that's apparently how they do it in San Antonio.  The Sopa Azteca was also a strong offering as were the Albóndigas.

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