What makes the best food in San Antonio’s so special – mySA

Only in San Antonio does your nacho cheese truly have a name. In a foyer between the entrance and a conference room of a nondescript office building, I hoped to gain a little insight into just how that happened — how the seemingly brandless, faceless product that’s served in stadiums and movie theaters across the country emanated from San Antonio’s own Ricos.

Sitting with two locals on my first day in town, I started in on my usual questions, trying to ferret out what makes a city’s food scene unique. My job, as a food writer on trips like this, is to taste my way around town, trying to understand — through the lens of food — what makes the place special.

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As a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, the food in San Antonio comes with quite a reputation. The obvious answers to what makes San Antonio cuisine tick serve more as a jumping-off point than the final answer: I’ve long loved the story of the chili queens, and it goes without saying that Tex-Mex cooking, overall, is something special. But what I want to know, what I look for, are the tiny things that nobody even thinks to mention. For instance, when I ask what makes the city’s food great, nobody mentions canned nacho cheese right away.

Tony Liberto, CEO of Ricos, the company that created concession nachos, poses at Ricos headquarters in San Antonio on Feb. 6, 2020. Liberto is selling his Shavano Park home.

Tony Liberto, CEO of Ricos, the company that created concession nachos, poses at Ricos headquarters in San Antonio on Feb. 6, 2020. Liberto is selling his Shavano Park home.

Josie Norris/Staff Photographer

But eventually we got there, which is how I ended up admiring the 6-foot-tall mascot, possibly shaped like a drip of cheese, with a photo of a man’s face taped onto it. It stood in one corner of the small “museum” of Ricos, which otherwise mostly displayed old photos and framed newspaper articles that praise the popcorn company founded by an Italian immigrant for its development of nacho cheese. None explained how, exactly, it came to be.

Elsewhere in San Antonio, I saw evidence of how it happened. Cuisines here flow into each other, creating a cultural fluency that swirls together uniquely South Texas foodways with whatever else gets near. Nobody stands on ceremony about authenticity; there’s no picking out the Tex from the Mex or separating the Big Red from the barbacoa tacos.

Cooks prepare tacos at the Big Red and Barbacoa Festival on Sunday, May 20, 2018. The festival celebrates one of San Antonio's most unique culinary pairings.

Cooks prepare tacos at the Big Red and Barbacoa Festival on Sunday, May 20, 2018. The festival celebrates one of San Antonio’s most unique culinary pairings.

B. Kay Richter, for mySA.com

At one point, that was the chili queens mixing Indigenous stews, Texas beef and spices, perhaps from the Canary Islands. Then an Italian American man creating a mass-produced national staple from a late-night snack served to Americans just across the southern border. Now, it’s the smoked brisket strip laid across a pliable flour tortilla at Garcia’s Mexican Food.

One day, perhaps, it will be the thick chunks of brisket afloat in a sea of flavor at Curry Boys BBQ or the curry guisada dan dan noodles at Best Quality Daughter. Maybe an evolution of the beloved mangonada, like beer made with pickles, Kool-Aid, and chamoy at Southerleigh Brewing Company or the Amba Karamba cocktail at Ladino, which uses pickled mango sauce of an Indian, Iraqi, and Israeli pedigree with chilies and a trio of Mexican spirits — Tequila, mezcal and charanda.

An order of penang curry dan dan noodles from Best Quality Daughter in San Antonio.

An order of penang curry dan dan noodles from Best Quality Daughter in San Antonio.

Yuki M. via Yelp

Today, it feels like fusion, tomorrow, like fluency. Always like San Antonio.

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