Catching up with San Antonio chef Johnny Hernandez is harder than finding a seat during happy hour at La Gloria, his restaurant devoted to Mexican street food. As the chef has grown his empire—a diverse mix of concepts all anchored in the heart and soul of regional Mexican cuisine—he’s also racked up plenty of frequent flyer miles. One day he’s in Vegas checking on his restaurant in Caesars Palace, and the next he’s across the pond, translating tacos to the British. His favorite destination is easily Mexico, where he regularly returns for inspiration and his favorite spirit: tequila. We lassoed the chef for a chat about the best spots to sip agave juice in Texas.
When did you first fall for tequila?
The romance began on horseback, riding into agave fields in Amatitán, Jalisco. There were beautiful mountains in the background and rows of mature blue agave as far as the eye could see—their color contrasting with the deep red clay soil. The mineral qualities of that valley’s terroir are the foundation for my favorite tequilas. I ended the day sipping single-barrel tequilas with Doña Maria Teresa, the master distiller of Casa Herradura for the last forty years. It was a magical day I will always remember.
Tell us about your work with tequila producers in Jalisco.
I travel to Mexico and hand-select single barrel tequilas from multiple distillers. I’d like to bottle my own tequila label, but these days I’m limited to small-batch barrel aging in my personal cellar.
What characteristics are you looking for in single-barrels?
My preference is almost always a reposado tequila that maintains a classical spicy and mineral structure, hints of cooked agave almost like cooked pineapple notes, followed by soft vanilla, hints of caramel and toasted almonds with a long, lingering finish of soft clove and chocolate.
Mezcal, tequila’s smoky cousin (they’re both made from agave), is definitely having its moment. Are you on board?
I’m a huge fan of mezcal; it’s exciting to see all the innovation, the upward momentum, and the emphasis on quality. I’m especially excited because you can walk into almost any bar these days and find a mezcal cocktail on the menu. That was not the case just a few years ago.
You’re working with a local farmer to produce your own non-GMO corn for stoneground masa. Why did you take that on?
Stoneground corn is the heart of regional Mexican foods and our restaurants: We cook over 600 pounds of it every day. The nixtamalization of corn (when it’s soaked in an alkaline solution, then washed and hulled) is a dying tradition throughout all the Americas, and non-GMO corn products are very difficult to find. It’s our job to preserve this tradition.
Johnny’s top Texas tequilerias:
EL NARANJO | Austin
Chef Iliana de la Vega is a master of Oaxacan cuisine. I love that she brought her knowledge and talents—and her tequila chops—to Texas. Try their house martini made with Ambhar silver tequila, Union mezcal, and Ancho Reyes, a spicy and smoky chile liqueur made in Puebla.
XOCHI | Houston
My friend Hugo Ortega’s latest restaurant, Xochi (so-chee) is derived from Xochitl, goddess of the flowers, meaning to bloom or catch fire. The focus is upscale Oaxacan cuisine. Think moles— there are seven on the menu— and naturally you’ll want to drink mezcal. I recommend the Origen cocktail made with mezcal, gin, Fever Tree tonic, prickly pear, and a cucumber ice cube.
KOMALI | Dallas
Chef Geovanny Arredondo reimagines traditional Mexican dishes with clever and innovative flourishes, and he’s also a super cool guy. He has a great tequila list and an incredible infusion program (like tequila infused with blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries). Grab a seat on the patio, order brisket flautas and queso fundido, and sip a tamarind margarita made with Casa Noble Reposado, Cointreau, tamarind puree, fresh lime, and a spiced rim.
EL MIRADOR | San Antonio
This restaurant has been a shrine to Tex Mex since it opened in 1960. I love the way current owner Chris Hill has transformed the interior, relying on local artists like Cruz Ortiz to create a cool urban vibe. This is your spot to embrace riffs on classics. Their El Diablo is a frozen margarita made with blanco tequila, ginger, crème de cassis, and lime. Leo’s Paloma, made with reposado tequila, grapefruit, lime, and Squirt is great with everything—especially our sweltering summers.
CARACOL | Houston
Chef Ortega’s Mexican coastal kitchen takes seafood to an entirely unchartered place. I love the modern vibe, but don’t be fooled by the flash—his cuisine is firmly grounded in regional Mexican food. The restaurant has a great happy hour with drinks like spicy pineapple palomas, classic margaritas, and incredible small plates, like homemade chicharrones, shrimp and hominy soup, and fried oyster sandwiches with chipotle mayonnaise.
LA GLORIA AT DOMINION CROSSING | San Antonio
The private room at my restaurant is the ultimate shrine to tequila. The menu has six tequila tasting flights, including my personal single-barrel flight. I want guests to experience the broad range of tequila within the same style. For instance, on my flight of blancos, I start with a very soft, floral, fruity blanco from the highlands and finish with a blanco from the valleys loaded with spice, minerality, and green agave notes.
PARAMOUR | San Antonio
This swanky rooftop bar has incredible views of the San Antonio skyline, so a cocktail on the balcony is a must. It doesn’t hurt that they have a Champagne vending machine and and an extensive tequila list.
MESERO | Dallas
Mesero serves contemporary Tex Mex: brisket nachos, a queso made with spinach, artichoke, and roasted poblano, and corn cakes topped with roasted chicken. I like to stop by for a quick bite and a La Picosa or two, made with Herradura silver, citrus, and serrano pepper. It’s spicy!