September 4, 2015
Appearing as a guest celebrity chef on food and travel network shows like Top Chef, Man Fire Food, Simply Ming, and Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, as well as garnering lots of ink in magazines like Bon Appétit, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, and Texas Monthly, Chef Johnny Hernandez is emerging as the friendly face of San Antonio‘s exploding “Tex-Next” culinary movement.
With two new restaurants at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, nine Texas eateries (including La Gloria, El Machito, Fruteria-Botanero, Casa Hernan and more) and his busy True Flavors catering company, Johnny is known for bringing Mexican street food to the forefront of the San Antonio dining scene. The creative, hard-working chef says the city’s amalgamation of so many cultures – Mexican, German, Czech, Polish, Italian, Spanish, French, Alsatian, etc”¦ – offers a rich base from which to draw inspiration.
“San Antonio should tell its own story through its food and speak to its unique history and traditions in a creative way, and I know its chefs are committed to that. When Travel Channel Chef Andrew Zimmern was filming here, he coined a new name for San Antonio cuisine: He said, a generation raised on Tex-Mex is redefining its signature Southern style and creating “˜Tex-Next’ – taking old traditions to the next level, drawing from our heritage, and telling our own stories, but introducing new things – new takes on the basics,” says Hernandez.
Flying back and forth to Las Vegas, attending to his Texas restaurants, opening a large new La Gloria at Dominion Crossing this month, and making frequent road trips to Mexico in search of inspiration for recipes, art and ingredients, Chef Johnny Hernandez is often on the road. But when he’s back in San Antonio, he hits his favourite hometown spots.
“I love to start the day with a breakfast taco at Garcia’s on Fredericksburg Road. It’s my traditional Tex-Mex breakfast go-to place, a small hole-in-the-wall – but wow! – such great food,” says Hernandez. “They also make excellent machados (dry shredded beef with pico de gallo), and I love to order their brisket taco – it’s incredible.”
Hernandez knows San Antonio’s newest eateries, too, and is on first-name terms with most chefs. “This is a small community in so many ways, even though with a population of about 1.5 million, San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the U.S.,” he explains. “Chefs here really help support one another and work together to raise money for charities.” Hernandez’ annual Paella Challenge, funding culinary school scholarships for kids, raised $70K this year and even sponsored an all-expenses-paid trip for four aspiring high school age chefs and their teacher to the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park, New York campus. “It’s my goal with the Paella Challenge to help nurture San Antonio’s future culinary leaders, and it’s important to me to give back to the community that’s always been so supportive of my businesses,” says Hernandez.
He also supports new restaurants like Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery at Pearl: “Manager Philippe Place welcomes guests at the door, and the food is creative.” Southerleigh is La Gloria’s close neighbour, set in the old San Antonio brewery building near the soon-to-open Hotel Emma. “I also love the charcuterie boards at Cured at Pearl – Chef Steve McHugh does a great job,” says Hernandez.
Starfish on South Alamo Street is another favourite. “Owner/Chef Diego Fernandez is the son of Chef Rene Fernandez, owner of Azuca Nuevo Latino Restaurant, Starfish’s next door neighbour. Diego trained at the CIA in New York, and he’s brought a really solid seafood concept to SouthTown.”
Chef Johnny Hernandez is also excited by the modernist Mexican concept of Mixtli, from chef/owners Diego Galicia and Rico Torres. “Their little 12-table dining room is a renovated railroad boxcar. “With their ultra-creative/always-changing 10-course menu, these talented chefs from Mexico are doing something special,” says Hernandez of the high-end Olmos Park-area eatery.
For a special treat at a much lower price point, Hernandez heads to Big Daddy’s, just down the street from Casa Hernan, his private home and occasional pop-up brunch spot in SouthTown. There he gives in to his favourite guilty pleasure – traditional Mexican “raspados“ or “raspas” as they’re called in San Antonio (think decked-out snow cone). “Big Daddy’s is a small family-owned raspas stand, and it’s the bomb! It reminds me of when I was a kid. The line at Big Daddy’s is usually an hour long – families line up around the block – and if it’s raining or cold, they’ll just pull up in their car and the staff will hand out Raspas from the curb. They make this killer Mangodilly with mango and pickles. I know, it sounds weird, but it’s amazing. And they have a strawberry “Fresadilly” with sweetened condensed milk and strawberries. Kids can even add gummy bears, sour cherry balls and other candies – whatever they want,” says Hernandez.
Near Market Square, Hernandez also likes to drop in on Chef Jorge Rojo at Ro-Ho Pork & Bread. “Have you ever had a torta ahogada?” he asks, “You’ll love it! Torta means sandwich, and ahogada means drowned – so it’s a shredded pork sandwich with a birote salado bread (also called bolillo), all drowning in this amazing dried chile de Ã¡rbol and tomato-based sauce – a popular dish in Guadalajara, Mexico.” Culinary school-trained Chef Jorge also owns a restaurant in Guanajuato. Ro-Ho is set in the old Sanitary Tortilla factory. “They also serve great carnitas, (pork), so there’s a funny mural of pigs on one wall,” says Hernandez. An art piece created with small toy action figures created by Chef Rojo also hangs in the restaurant as his own quiet reminder of the massacre of 49 Ayotzinapa college students in Mexico in 2014. “Please photograph it and tell everyone that these young people must not be forgotten,” says Rojo.
On his way home at the end of the day, Hernandez makes a pit stop at The Monterey, a laid-back hangout with a big patio and progressive menu set in an old converted gas station. A vintage red Mercury Monterey sits rusting in the parking lot out front. A sign on a vine-covered wall says “Make Tacos Not War.”
“The Monterey menu is always inventive and fresh, solid and dependable, and they serve craft beers and interesting wine varietals,” says Hernandez.
“There’s also such a big microbrew and mixology scene in San Antonio now,” says Hernandez. “DorÄ‡ol Distilling Co. makes a fabulous plum-based spirit, Rakia, and serves great craft cocktails, and Eugene Simor at Alamo Brewery is doing a bang-up job too. Simor has been selling beer out of the back of his car for like 15 years, so I’m happy to see him do so well. Today the Alamo brewery is a big set up, and it’s a great place to sit outside at a table under the old railroad bridge and enjoy a cold craft brew,” says Hernandez.
When asked if there is any undersung place foodies might be surprised to find, Hernandez admits, “Yes, the Little Red Barn Steakhouse, a San Antonio institution that’s been around forever. They serve this huge 20-ounce Porterhouse that hangs off your plate with a loaded baked potato. You can’t get more Texan than that, right?” San Antonio streets are laid out over old cattle trails, so even steak tells a story.
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Have you been to any of Chef Johnny Hernandez’s favourite restaurants in San Antonio? Where do you go for great “Tex-Next” food in the city? Let us know in the comments section below.
By Janis Turk