San Antonio’s culinary scene has become an undeniable force in recent years. Bolstered by the establishment of the Culinary Institute of America’s Texas campus more than a decade ago in the now-flourishing historic Pearl District, plus a 2017 UNESCO designation as a Creative City of Gastronomy, San Antonio is home to chefs who are serving innovative dishes and bold cocktails to locals and travelers alike.
Last fall, the first-ever Tasting Texas Food & Wine Festival, a four-day statewide event sponsored by the James Beard Foundation, drew internationally known chefs to the city for tastings and demonstrations. It showcased the city’s own formidable talent, cementing San Antonio’s food and beverage reputation on the larger stage. But along with the restaurants, food halls, market stalls, and caterers that are contributing to this gastronomic rise, cocktail culture has also blossomed. A new generation of mixologists is raising a glass to the city’s diverse cuisine options, shaking up menus with classic cocktails and new twists on old favorites. We explored a selection of the city’s most legendary—and soon-to-be legendary—cocktails, each offering a special sip of San Antonio’s culture.
What’s in it: Frozen fresh mango sorbet, swirled with chamoy and spiked with tequila, if you prefer, plus a tamarind straw for sipping
Where to find it: La Gloria (various locations)
When founder of La Gloria and chef Johnny Hernandez first tried a mangonada in Mexico City about 20 years ago, he marveled at the complexity of such a layered yet seemingly simple dessert drink. The silky, sweet mango mixed with spicy, salty, and sweet chamoy—a condiment made of pitted fruits, chilies, sugar, and salt—was transformative. When planning the concept for La Gloria in 2010, Hernandez knew he wanted to include an alcoholic version of the beloved frozen Mexican treat, which he says wasn’t yet widely available in San Antonio. Along with mango, he added Texas sweet cantaloupe, house-made chamoy—used both as a syrup and for dusting on the rim—plus a quality añejo tequila.
“Añejos go great with tropical fruits,” he says. “For a great mangonada, you don’t need the perfect, pretty mango that’s nice at the grocery store. You need the sweetest, creamiest mango.”
The result is a refreshing summer cocktail that feels quintessentially San Antonio.
What’s in it: Pearl Beer, rose cordial, sherry, gin, lemon and grapefruit juice
Where to find it: Hotel Emma
This drink, served at Hotel Emma’s Sternewirth bar or as a complimentary welcome beverage upon check-in, pays homage to the Pearl’s beer manufacturing roots and the sordid tale of “three Emmas.”
Legend says there were three women named Emma in the life of Pearl Brewery founder Otto Koehler. There was his wife, Emma, who later ran the factory after his death; and two nurses, also named Emma, who became entangled in affairs with Koehler. In the end, legend says one of the nurses shot and killed him. There’s a clever little tagline about the Three Emmas at Sternewirth, too: “One is great. Two are sinful. Three will kill you.”
Since opening, the recipe has been adjusted slightly from its original inception, a boozier version made from gin, apricot liqueur, Gran Classico, and absinthe that wasn’t broadly palatable for all guests, though you can still order this by asking for a Seele Von Emma.
“[The new version] has a subtle nutty flavor, balanced with the hint of rose from the cordial, and a refreshing squeeze of Texas Ruby Red grapefruit and lemon juice,” says Jennifer Clark, bar manager at Sternewirth. “It’s sweet, refreshing, and definitely sinful.”
What’s in it: Coffee, Licor 43, whipped cream
Where to find it: La Cantera Resort & Spa, La Panadería Bakery & Cafe at La Cantera Heights
Though its American cousin, the espresso martini, has enjoyed its moment in the spotlight for a few years, the carajillo offers a more complex take. Usually employing Licor 43, a Spanish liqueur that boasts 43 different ingredients—orange and vanilla are primary notes, along with hints of cinnamon—the carajillo marries coffee with sweet cream and citrus and can be served hot or cold.
“The origins of the carajillo didn’t always involve the now famous ingredient, Licor 43. It was any hard liquor. There’s a lot of room to make it unique,” says Chris Caldwell, La Cantera Resort & Spa’s beverage manager. La Cantera has been experimenting with infusing its Licor 43 with guajillo peppers and cinnamon and topping the coffee concoction with a hand-whipped cream for a decadent after-dinner treat.
What’s in it: Fresh lime juice or other fresh juices or purees, blanco or reposado tequila (may be infused), Cointreau or triple sec, simple syrup
Where to find it: Nearly everywhere—but specifically, The Fruteria, La Fogata, Boudro’s Texas Bistro, JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa
When it comes to margaritas, loyalties run strong in San Antonio. Hernandez says the best ones start with the best ingredients. “It’s very basic, but you can screw it up really easily if you don’t have the right balance of acidity and sweetness,” he says.
“I don’t agree with using cheap tequila for a good margarita. Quality agave spirits is essential. Good water and good tequila,” Hernandez says. “You need fresh lime juice, but I complement that with extracted pineapple for some tropical notes in the background. These are subtle flavors that leave the customers wondering, ‘Why is that margarita so good?’”
Notable mentions in the flavored margarita category include Boudro’s Prickly Pear Margarita, a famous River Walk tradition, is prepared with fresh prickly pear cactus juice. You can find the restaurant’s recipe on Facebook. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa’s strawberry jalapeño margarita uses house-infused strawberry jalapeño tequila for a slow, sweet burn.
What’s in in: vodka, elderflower liqueur, ube extract, ginger, lemon, sparkling sake
Where to find it: DASHI Sichuan Kitchen + Bar
Restaurateur Kristina Zhao infuses the menu at her newest San Antonio restaurant, DASHI, with inventive Sichuanese flavors. In particular, check out the Purple Moon, a sparkling cocktail with a splash of deep purple ube. An inspired Asian twist on the classic French 75, the cocktail is garnished with a slice of lotus root dyed with ube to resemble a purple moon. One diner described their experience at DASHI as “something out of a dream.”
What’s in it: Bourbon, bitters, simple syrup, cherry
Where to find it: Landrace, Esquire Tavern, Jazz, TX
San Antonio mixologists enjoy remixing old favorites, and the Old Fashioned provides an excellent canvas for trying out new ideas. Chef Steve McHugh’s Landrace features a mahogany trolley that delivers different customization options for the classic Old Fashioned cocktail. Patrons can incorporate mezcal, bourbon infused with mesquite beans, or house-made charred pineapple bitters.
“It was important to me that our cocktails reflected the same philosophy guiding us in the kitchen so that we were honoring the native ingredients of our region throughout the restaurant,” McHugh says.