Eating Up San Antonio: La Gloria, The Monterey and The Esquire

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Until this past Tuesday, I didn't realize how easy a day trip to San Antonio could be. Thanks to the recently raised speed limit on I-10, you can speed to the Alamo in three easy hours (or less, if you set your cruise control just above the new 75-mile-per-hour speed limit...not that I'm advocating driving 82, ahem). Now that I realize this, it's only a matter of time before I'm back again for a leisurely Saturday -- most of which will undoubtedly be spent at The Monterey and The Esquire Tavern.

Why a random Tuesday day trip to San Antonio? That doesn't really matter; suffice to say that after a day spent with a very energetic seven-year-old at Sea World (worth the $60 ticket, by the way, although the $7 pepperoni pizzas are a rip-off), I was ready for some grown-up dining with friends. Randy Rouse, owner of Shiner Restaurant & Bar in nearby Shiner, suggested we start at La Gloria.

An icehouse near the old Pearl Brewery in the newest hip part of San Antonio, La Gloria serves Mexican street food and a terrific selection of cocktails. It's slightly expensive Mexican street food, to be certain, but the atmosphere and the view onto the river make the price worth it.

The fact that the food itself is relatively solid helps, too. We ordered an array of tacos, sopes, panuchos, tostadas and a ceviche, which ranged from just-okay to excellent. On the just-okay side of the spectrum were the beef tacos ("too whitebread," declared my boyfriend) and the ceviche, which didn't carry the heat promised by its habanero peppers.

On the excellent side, however, was everything else: a sope topped with soft, fatty chicharrones in a vibrant orange salsa was just the right combination of chewy and crispy at the edges; a tostada bearing only dark refried beans, tomatoes, avocados and queso fresco was crisp and refreshing; and the panucho -- a fried masa cake stuffed with more of those dusky refried beans -- carried my favorite meat of the night, achiote-infused shreds of cochinita pibil topped with tangy slices of pickled red onions.

Set off with La Gloria's tart green salsa, the panucho made me despair slightly at the fact that these little cakes are so hard to find in Houston. (I probably need to hit up Durango's soon.)

I'd give La Gloria a hearty recommendation for tourists looking to experience some excellent Mexican food while in San Antonio despite reservations about the price. As my boyfriend noted, "Paying $30 for Mexican street food is the very definition of gentrification." But it's accessible -- something most tourists absolutely look for when dining in unfamiliar terrain -- and you do pay more for the privilege.

Less accessible -- albeit in a very good way -- was the food at our next destination, where we met up with Rouse and fellow Houstonian (and occasional food photographer for the Press) Paul Sedillo. Both men promised that no food trip to San Antonio would be complete without visiting The Monterey, and they weren't wrong.

Located inside a converted Sunglo gas station in the equally hip King William neighborhood, The Monterey was called "what already may be the most important restaurant in the city" by San Antonio Express-News food critic Edmund Tijerina when it first opened in late 2010.

It's hard to disagree with Tijerina when you step inside the low-slung, mid-century-influenced dining room and are immediately confronted with a laid-back vibe that contrasts sharply with the serious menu and craft beer list.

"What off-menu beers do you have?" Sedillo asked The Monterey's chipper owner, who immediately sent out a waitress with four large-format bottles and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff she was carrying.

Between the group of us, we ended up with some beautiful gems that night: a Real Ale 15th Anniversary Imperial Stout, a Green Flash Rayon Vert and my favorite, a Lagunitas Lucky 13.alt that was bright and punchy with grapefruit and hops.

That was to say nothing of the food, which the kitchen sent out for free (the owners are friends with Sedillo and Rouse, it should be noted): roasted cauliflower in a yellow curry with fresh pops of green grape and basil; fried okra in a light, tempura-like batter; slices of foie gras on toast points with a blackberry jam that -- like the torchon -- was made in-house.

And although it was nearly 10 p.m. when we finished at The Monterery, we weren't done for the night, not by a long shot.

Rouse, Sedillo and my boyfriend all warned me that I couldn't leave San Antonio without a cocktail at The Esquire Tavern -- even if that meant leaving San Antonio for Houston at 1 a.m. -- and after that visit, the bar is now firmly on my must-visit list for every single future trip. Built in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition, the bar has been open ever since (with a brief hiatus from 2006 to 2011) and was recently nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program.

Almost everything inside and out at The Esquire is original, from the nailhead wingback barstools to the mirrors that line the back of the bar. The rear patio overlooks the Riverwalk, while the large space at the end of the L-shaped room hosts taxidermied animal heads and local bands, such as the Willie-Nelson-by-way-of-Lyle-Lovett-style quartet that was drawing applause on Tuesday night.

The cocktail program features old favorites like the Blood and Sand as well as creations that are all The Esquire's own: Try the Mexican-influenced La Bruja, with tequila, mezcal, averna, punt e mes, black currant and bitters, or the boozy Philly Smash with rye whiskey, averna, lime, sugar and berries in a mezcal-laced glass.

Toward the end of the evening, the diverse crowd inside The Esquire gave way to an elderly gentleman in a white seersucker suit and straw boater hat who plucked a young girl from his table and began to dance with her to the lulling strains of the quartet, who were winding down for the night.

"No matter what any of us do in life," remarked Sedillo, "none of us will ever be as cool as that guy." It was close to midnight and last call, so we closed up our tabs and walked back into the humid San Antonio night with promises to meet up again at The Esquire soon, which means I'll be making another short drive down I-10 west in a few weeks. I can't wait.

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