San Antonio for Foodies

04/11/2011 06:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2011
  • Pam Grout Author, National Geographic's 100 Best Volunteer Vacations

At eight, when all my peers wanted Easy-Bake ovens, I wanted the electric hotplate that turned plastigoop into tarantulas, worms and beetles. It was called Creepy Crawlers and I look back at that Christmas wish as the starting gate of my life's misspent culinary arc.

It's not that I don't adore food... I might even call myself a foodie. I'm just not crazy about making it. I take cooking classes, not to collect recipes to later use at home, but to enjoy the end result.

So on my recent trip to San Antonio, I took (and even enjoyed) a class at the Culinary Arts Institute, the third installment of the esteemed cooking school. But even better were the restaurants I enjoyed. Here's the list I took home:

Mi Tierra: This isn't just a restaurant. It's a San Antonio institution, ranked above the Alamo and the River Walk as a must-see by Lonely Planet readers. Started in 1941 with three small tables, this still-family run restaurant now seats 500 and is open 24 hours a day. The Tex-Mex food is good, but the atmosphere is what draws returning locals and visitors. With tens of thousands of Christmas lights, piñatas, banners, fiesta flags, murals and strolling mariachis, it's like a fraternity party, a bachelorette party and the Spurs-just-won-the-NBA-Championship party rolled into one. Don't miss the giant carved oak bar, the room-long mural depicting such Mexican revolutionaries as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa along with the Cruz family and the gift shop where you can buy pretty much anything you can buy in a Mexican market.

Liberty Bar: Last year, in preparation for its 25 year anniversary, this popular San Antonio restaurant upgraded from its 1890 leaning brothel location to an equally-ancient Benedictine convent. The new hot peach location, I'm happy to report, sports the same delightfully quirky menu, the same fresh baked bread, the same impressive, but affordable wine list, and the same creativity that concocted such "must-haves" as drunken goat cheese platter (with roasted almonds, dried cherries, jalea de membrillo and four kinds of gourmet cheese), iced hibiscus-fresh ginger tea and buttermilk pie. Now, instead of one kitchen, there are three, one for each floor, where Liberty Bar chefs can work their magic.

Tre Trattoria: Jason Dady, the 34-year-old proprieter of this Tuscan-inspired restaurant, may be Hamelin's Pied Piper reincarnated. Only instead of a magic pipe, he lures, not just kids, but anyone with a palate with his pan-seared gnocchi and Nutella chocolate torte. After lunch one Sunday, I was prepared to give up everything in order to follow the scents coming from this northern Italian restaurant, Dady's fifth. He opened his first San Antonio restaurant, the Lodge in an old Castle Hills mansion, when he was a wet-behind the ears 24-year-old. He said then he wanted to change the culinary landscape of San Antonio. Mission accomplished. At Tre Trattoria, pastas are made in-house daily and on Sundays, mimosas ring in at a measly buck. My only regret is that I couldn't stick around long enough to try his other restaurants.

Q on the Riverwalk: Johnny Cash had a "Ring of Fire." This barbecue joint, located on San Antonio's famous River Walk, has a "Wall of Fire," a combination smoker, Churrasqueira, rotisserie grill and campfire that's on display for patrons to watch. Calling this eatery a joint is a bit of a misnomer. It's located in the Hyatt Regency and it has a sleek U-shaped bar, gorgeous hardwood interior and inspired views of the River Walk. But between its 16 tangy sauces, smoky ribs and dry-rubbed steaks, it's on par with the best BBQ joints in Texas. The cocktails are Texas-sized, the brisket tacos are cheap and the armadillo fritters (BBQ pork and jalapeno-stuffed) will have you two-stepping in no

La Gloria: There's an old Mexican saying, "No hace falta morir para llegar a la Gloria." It means you don't have to die to go to heaven and that's what this restaurant at the old Pearl Brewery complex offers--a piece of culinary heaven on earth. Opened for about a year, La Gloria (yes, it's Spanish for 'the heavens') offers authentic Mexican street food, all served ala carte. Chef Johnny Hernandez, local boy who left to work the Mirage and Four Seasons, returned with everything from seafood tostada to tacos bistec to stone bowls of queso.

Guenther House: Located in the King William historic district and right on the non-touristy part of the River Walk, this 1860s mansion has been turned into a restaurant/museum/gift store. Built by Carl Hilmar Guenther, the guy who started the Pioneer Flour Mill, this Victorian parlor-style eatery specializes in biscuits, waffles and other bakery items. There's often a wait, but free gourmet coffee, the kind you'd normally pony up a couple bucks for, a bakery case near the hostess desk and the chance to stroll around this gorgeous neighborhood makes the wait seem