Soon after we moved to Philadelphia, Chuck and I had dinner with friends at an Italian restaurant. I remember nothing about what I ate. That was before my food obsessed days. I only vaguely recall that the restaurant was in either the Fox Chase or East Oak Lane section of the city. And my memory is hazy when it comes to remembering who we went with.
But there is one thing that I haven’t forgotten—the interior of the restaurant. To me it looked as though the owners had decorated for Christmas, then for Valentine’s Day, then for Easter, then for the Fourth of July—and on through all of the holidays. Year after year. With never taking anything down. And I am reminded of that restaurant whenever I walk into Mi Tierra Cafe Y Panaderia at San Antonio’s Market Square.
“In 1941, Pete and Cruz Cortez opened a little three-table cafe for early-rising farmers and workers at San Antonio's Mercado. Sixty years later Mi Tierra Cafe is a world-famous landmark—the place hometown regulars and hungry tourists go for authentic Mexican food and a warm Texas welcome. Mi Tierra now seats over 500 and is still located in Market Square…” (urbanspoon.com).
“…(I)t's a timeless attraction, almost as beloved as the Alamo and River Walk, a place where visitors can bask in the sounds of strolling mariachis and take in the atmosphere with decorations that proclaim Christmas all year long.
“Too often, those of us who live here say it's only for tourists or the after-bar crowd, but that's doing a disservice to the Cortez family and the many employees of this place who work hard to keep it going. Running a restaurant is difficult; operating a 500-seat place even more challenging; doing it 24 hours a day is an impressive feat of organization, stamina and dedication…” (Edmund Tijerina at mysanantonio.com).
“…Today the grandchildren of founders Pete and Cruz Cortez have a hand in running the business, and 10 of the founders' great-grandchildren spend their summers and weekends stocking, hosting and cleaning tables. From humble beginnings—Pete Cortez was a meat delivery man before opening the restaurant in 1941 with a $150 loan and family recipes—the restaurant is now a bustling gathering place for locals and visitors…. Everything is still produced in-house, from the salsas, barbacoa and lengua (Ed Note: beef tongue) to the candied oranges.
“The over-the-top ambience—Christmas lights! flags! mariachis!—and quality cuisine has led to a large local and national following. Guitarist Carlos Santana stopped by for a breakfast of machacado and chorizo con huevo…. Other notable figures from Eva Longoria and Steven Tyler to Bill Clinton also come here to dine while in the city.
“…Maintaining the city's Hispanic culture and remaining involved in the community are important pieces of his grandfather's legacy as well,” says Cortez. “Mi Tierra means a lot to everyone. It's like coming home. It's something spiritual,” he says, pointing out the altares and paintings of leaders in the Hispanic community, many who passed on long ago. Here, they are remembered and honored in the presence of city tourists and the thousands of San Antonians who come to the restaurant to feel at home” (Erin Eggers at mysanantonio.com).
This was not our first visit to Mi Tierra, the first being about nine or so years ago when a small but fun-loving group of Dannenbergs gathered for a long weekend family reunion and our intrepid reunion organizer (Thank you, Betty R.) had scheduled a group lunch at this restaurant. Not since that Italian place in Philadelphia had I seen such over-the-top décor. But at Mi Tierra it works.
Christmas trees are arranged on dividers separating lines of booths and every inch of ceiling contains banners and Christmas ornaments. Mariachis wander through the four dining rooms playing for tips. In fact, at one point there were two groups in our dining area and we were treated to “Dueling Mariachis.”
Arriving at just about noon, we only had a short wait for a table. But I feel for those who arrived later when the line had to be fifty persons long. As soon as we were seated, a small dish of warm tortilla chips arrived along with a dish of really good salsa. Having eaten so much salsa in New Mexico where they don’t skimp on the chiles, I frequently find Mexican salsas to be timid bordering on bland. Not this. It seemed to be fresh (uncooked) with visible chile seeds which provided lots of heat. And, at last, a salsa that contained enough cilantro. (Chuck is not a cilantro fan and once compared eating cilantro to eating aluminum foil. Go figure.)
In addition to a regular menu that covers almost all Mexican food bases, there is a list of lunch specials plus a daily lunch special. At our visit nine years ago, I ordered the Friday special of Pescado al Mojo de Ajo or grilled fish in garlic sauce served with enchilada ranchera de queso Acapulco, white rice, and salad. (Yes. I remember. I had become food obsessed by this time.) This was really good, but, alas, this visit was not on a Friday and the Monday special of Pollo con Fideo (baked chicken with Mexican pasta) just didn’t do it for me.
So I did something really strange—I ordered soup. The Caldo del Mercado to be precise. Why? Because virtually every other lunch special came with rice and/or beans, and I was in the mood for neither. This was basically a Chicken Tortilla Soup that contained big pieces of shredded white meat chicken with carrots, avocado, cilantro, and tortilla strips. And mixed in the broth was a stringy (in a good way) white cheese that didn’t really melt but was softened so that it clung to the spoon and hung in strands that wanted to adhere to my chin. This was very good, but still needed a jolt of something to brighten the flavor. A big spoonful of the salsa did the trick.
Chuck selected the Enchiladas Rancheras de Queso which came with Spanish rice and refried beans and was very pleased with this choice. Two corn tortillas were stuffed with cheese and then covered with “rancheras” sauce. This version--and almost every Mexican restaurant has its own version—was light with bright tomato flavor and was lightly seasoned. The beans were good enough (I am not a big fan of refried beans, but Chuck is.) and the Spanish rice appeared to have been made with long grain rather than converted. This latter is cheating.
But time for dessert. No. We didn’t choose anything from the magnificent pastry case in the lobby.
After some gentle questioning of our server (“Are they the puffy ones?”), we ordered the sopapillas which were four very puffy pillows dusted with cinnamon and sugar and then drizzled with raspberry syrup. And for additional sweetness, they came with a dish of honey into which one can either dip the sopapilla or use the spoon to drizzle the honey. We agreed that these were the best we have eaten outside of New Mexico.
As busy as Mi Tierra was, service was quick while being pleasant. This is a tribute to the Cortez family who “created a canary yellow, pocket-sized creed that every employee is encouraged to carry with them. Values in the creed include ‘Get involved in our community’ and ‘Preserve our culture. Remember your roots. Honor your ancestors. Imitate our heroes.’ The family keeps the values alive (Erin Eggers at mysanantonio.com)
A quick look into the bar revealed an equally colorful room, but it was the large eagle sculpture behind the bar that was the centerpiece of this room.
Is this the best Mexican food in San Antonio? Probably not. But when in San Antonio, it is an experience not to be missed and earns 4.0 Addies.