San Antonio: Brisket to Sushi
Steve McHugh grew up on a small farm in Wisconsin, but his culinary aspirations took him south to New Orleans, where he earned a name for himself as John Besh’s chef de cuisine at Restaurant August. But his most important achievement has been successfully battling cancer—a journey that eventually propelled him to open Cured in San Antonio’s historic Pearl Brewery. The name speaks to his triumph, as well as the restaurant’s focus on artisanal cured meats. In the last few years, his cooking and hyper focus on the best ingredients (including housemade bitters, vinegars, and pickles) has earned national attention, including a James Beard Award finalist nod.
Just like in New Orleans, we are always talking about three things: where we ate, what we ate, and where we’re going to eat next.
Tell us about the transition from the Crescent City to the heart of Texas. It didn’t take long for San Antonio to feel like home. I was immediately taken in by the city’s history and amazing architecture. It’s very similar to New Orleans in that way.
What should people know about the San Antonio food scene? San Antonio is 300 years old, the same age as New Orleans, and the food is just as ingrained in the way people think about their day. Just like in New Orleans, we are always talking about three things: where we ate, what we ate, and where we’re going to eat next.
Pearl continues to be a game changer for the city’s food culture. What’s it like being in their stable? Pearl took a leap of faith and put their trust in those of us who needed a leg up to get to the next level. Most developers want tried and true operators, but Pearl found those of us who were committed to our passion, but working for someone else at the time. It’s being a part of something bigger than what’s inside my own doors. The sense of community is strong and there’s a great synergy that’s developed when all of us business owners work together. Plus, having all this talent around only inspires us and makes us all work harder.
Your restaurant is beautiful. What are a few of your favorite details about the space? One is the massive, cast-iron vault that now serves as our walk-in bar fridge. The vault is an anchor for the bar—the other end is flanked by the charcuterie tank, aka “Charc Tank.” But the most serendipitous design detail is in the private dining room, where there’s a repurposed board above one of the windows that says “Steve’s.” The wood is originally from the old Steve’s & Sons lumber store—it feels meant to be.
Happiest part of your day? Being able to go to work with my wife and two dogs. It’s so nice walking into our office at the restaurant and seeing everyone together.
Rumor has it you like to sip tequila, every now and then, with fellow San Antonio chef Johnny Hernandez. I’ve never met someone more passionate about preserving the history of San Antonio, while doing more than his fair share to push it forward. Johnny inspires me, and tequila always brings out the best in all of us, and the best of times when we are together.
Steve McHugh’s Alamo City Haunts
THE GRANARY ’CUE & BREW
One of my favorite spots for many reasons. The Granary is really two restaurants in one. During the day, it serves classic counter-service barbecue, and then at night it turns into a sit-down plated experience where the barbecue is elevated (think shoulder clod with coffee quinoa crunch). It’s also right behind Cured, so it’s a good place for me to sneak off and enjoy a meal.
Where I take people who truly want to be surprised. In a city known for neighborhood taco joints, Garcia’s takes their brisket taco to new levels, slowly smoking it behind the restaurant and serving it with tasty beans and rice (sides that are usually an afterthought). There is a bright green, fresh salsa on the table that will light your world on fire.
MI TIERRA CAFÉ Y P ANADERIA
The always festive Mi Tierra is still satisfying tourists and locals alike, twenty-four hours a day. A must-order is the oven-roasted cabrito (goat). Cooked with nothing more than salt and pepper, they let the natural flavor of the animal shine. As you leave, be sure to grab some candied calabaza (pumpkin) from the pastry case that is filled with hundreds of cookies, cakes, pralines, and other confections.
A seafood mecca with roving mariachis and dressed Tecates (with salt and lime), El Bucanero is part show and part culinary amazement. Be sure to bring a crowd or a huge appetite. There are so many great options: my favorite is the botana mixta con ostiones (chilled seafood platter with oysters).
From the moment you walk past the custom- built, open-flame mesquite grill, you know you’re in for a treat. This is chef Johnny Hernandez’ haven of meat. Any of the parrilladas (grilled platters) are a must, but my favorite is the cecina asada, luscious pork cured in-house that comes with a delicious spread of rice, beans, tortillas, chiles toreados, and grilled bulb onions.
THE ESQUIRE TAVERN
The oldest bar on the Riverwalk (it dates to the 1930s) is known for flawless cocktails, but don’t overlook the food. Esquire has fun pub fare, just what you need when you’re sipping high-proof libations, served on the longest wooden bar top in Texas. Don’t miss the onion dip with waffle fries.
NIKI’S TOKYO INN
Niki’s is a family-run mainstay that specializes in traditional Japanese fare and has some of the freshest fish in the city. It’s so traditional that your shoes will stay at the door when you settle in to eat Japanese style.
This is a dangerous place. I say that because it’s just steps from the front door of Cured, so it’s easy for me to bounce over for a coffee, cookie, or twelve spectacular macarons, or any of the other treats that look like jewelry in their cases. They also serve a great croque madame.
BARBARO With a cracker-thin crust. the clams casino pizza is the must-have here, but the chopped salad is a great start. Plus they always have amazing beers along with a cocktail program that rivals most fancy-pants bars. Note: they have happy hour from 3 to 6 pm daily, even on weekends.
This is my go-to for when all I want is a great burger. The working man’s special is a double patty, the crinkle-cut fries and shakes are perfect, and the price and service are better than any fast food joint around. It’s a no-frills classic, with a drive-thru to boot.