To honor San Antonio’s tricentennial, Steve McHugh dreams up dishes inspired by the region’s earliest ingredients
As a city known for tequila libations, rollicking boat rides along the Riverwalk, a vibrant art scene, and festivals like Fiesta—the extravagant citywide party eleven days long—San Antonio is no stranger to celebrations. But as of late, San Antonians have had even more reasons to sound the mariachi trumpets. Last year, the city’s historic missions were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and this year marks its tricentennial. The 300-year history began in May 1718 with the founding of the San Antonio de Béxar Presidio and Mission San Antonio de Valero (remember? The Alamo!). Throughout the year, visitors and locals will celebrate with both long-standing festivals like the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo and colorful Día de los Muertos observances, new events such as Botánica Music & Arts Festival, and the World Heritage Festival in September.
For chef Steve McHugh, a New Orleans transplant who’s adopted San Antonio as his hometown, the anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the city’s rich history. San Antonio is more of a secret than NOLA (which also happens to be marking three centuries as a city this year), he says. “It’s surprising to many people that we also have 300 years of beautiful architecture, food, immigration, and a diverse culture.”
To commemorate, the chef created a menu of dishes inspired by San Antonio’s earliest indigenous ingredients. “Native Americans were here before anybody, so I’ve focused on some of the foods they were likely gathering: pecans, prickly pear, cactus paddles, chile pequin, and wild greens,” he says.
Some early staples have faded from the contemporary radar. “I read recently that mesquite beans are the largest food source in Texas that nobody is eating,” McHugh says. The beans—the fruit of the resilient tree that flourishes throughout South Texas—have been harvested as a protein source for centuries. McHugh hopes to champion their renaissance. “It sounds crazy but the flavor reminds me of graham crackers,” he says. “We feature Peaceful Pork from Dinero, Texas, on the menu. When those pigs eat mesquite beans during the winter, the meat takes on a caramel-y sweetness.” His restaurant Cured also features mesquite bean flour in pastries, and the bean recently landed on the cocktail menu.
Earlier this year, McHugh and his wife visited South Texas Distillery in Sandia, Texas, that recently produced its first batch of mesquite bean vodka. The vodka is “really smooth, and a little bit sweeter that traditional vodka, with faint caramel and coconut flavors,” says McHugh. Since sandia is also the Spanish word for watermelon, it was only natural to combine the smooth-tasting vodka with watermelon juice, lime, and ginger beer. “It’s kind of a South Texas play on a mule.”
Inspired by New Orleans, fried chicken livers with pepper jelly kick off the food menu. To root the dish closer to home, McHugh relies on pequin pepper, a tiny red chile that grows wild in the Hill Country. “I love pequins—they have so much flavor, especially when they’re pickled.”
“Native Americans were here before anybody, so I’ve focused on some of the foods they were likely gathering: pecans, prickly pear, cactus paddles, chile pequin, and wild greens.”
Crispy skin trout with “three sisters” chow chow follows the “what grows together, goes together” thinking, McHugh explains. For centuries, the three crops—corn, squash, and beans—have been the mainstay of Native American agriculture and culinary traditions because the crops complement each other in the garden, as well as nutritionally. “The former farm boy in me loves the notion of the way they all work together,” he says. “The corn is a trellis for the zucchini, and the peas act as ground cover to keep weeds away.” McHugh ferments the trio to create a brightness that balances the dish. “I love serving chow chow with sautéed fish or fried oysters.”
A roast loin of pork pairs with a salad of nopalito and Turk’s Cap, a native mallow plant. McHugh is not a big fan of jarred nopalitos. “They remind me of canned green beans,” he says. But when the fresh green paddles are blanched and tossed with vinaigrette, they have an appealing texture and “they almost have their own vinegar,” he says. The leaves and bright flowers (beloved by butterflies and hummingbirds) from Turk’s Cap create a delicious salad. Like hibiscus, Turk’s Cap flowers are high in antioxidants and can be used to make a pink-hued tea or preserves. The young, tender leaves “taste like a super sweet apple,” he says. To round out the local flavor, the chef coats Gulf oysters in masa and fries them.
As for dessert, McHugh credits the hummingbird cake with Texas pecans to pastry chef Latoya Boisley. “She arrived in San Antonio from New Orleans after Katrina and never left,” McHugh says. “Whenever I see Mayor Nirenberg, who opened up the city to Katrina evacuees, I thank him for Latoya. Her cake is a fitting example of how the two historic cities are intertwined and continue to evolve together.”