Long before immigrants set foot in the New World, civilizations nurtured themselves off the bounty of the land. Later they taught settlers to plant the holy trinity of Native American cuisine – corn, beans and squash.
Those foods retain their importance today, especially in the Southwest, where tortillas and pinto beans dominate menus. Such cuisine may well qualify as the oldest U.S. regional style.
Prior to 1845 when the Spanish began to relinquish control, the entire area was part of Mexico. Not surprisingly, its contemporary cuisine bears a strong family resemblance to Mexican food. It still draws heavily on native foodstuffs, in particular corn, beans and chilies.
The word “chili” is Aztec in origin as are “guacamole” and “tomato.” Corn tortillas remain the essential Southwestern breadstuff. Pinto beans, stewed or refried, are a key source of protein. Tamales are festive food on both sides of the border and spicy salsas add zest to the meals.
In South Texas, many such dishes are indigenous to the area, including the Hill Country, where the drive to some restaurants is no longer than the morning rush hour commute.
Francesca’s at Sunset
16641 La Cantera Pkwy.
Westin La Cantera Resort
San Antonio, TX 78256
The establishment is laid out beautifully, with spaciously separated tables semi-circling a partially closed room for 10. The lighting, however, is a bit too dim so good eyesight is needed to read the wine, dinner and dessert menus.
To appreciate the view overlooking one of two golf courses, where a PGA tournament is played, and the hills beyond get there before dark during summer months to view breathtaking sunsets.
Contemporary Southwestern cuisine, on the expensive side, features exotic dishes in a most romantic atmosphere served by an informative, efficient staff.
The ala carte menu, created by celebrity chef Mark Miller, features tasty and spicy dishes. Appetizers include lobster ravioli, with a trifle too much hot pepper slivers. An outstanding tart salad is the warm pomegranate, baby spinach creation with slender, crunchy onion rings.
While most dishes are served French nouveau style, meat portions are generous, such as cherry-glazed, twin duck breasts, with potato-turnip puree and slim green beans. The fowl was tender, not too sweet.
Two popular steaks: filet of beef and buffalo, yes, buffalo that tastes great. The three-layer Mexican chocolate Napoleon is light and pleasantly crunchy.
14424 San Pedro Ave
San Antonio, TX 78232
This family friendly restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in cozy, nostalgic surroundings reminiscent of gas stations in the 1930s.
The menu of American, Hill Country and Tex-Mex cuisine features Eggs Benedict Mexicana with chili con queso, sandwiches from grilled turkey to the garden veggie burger and dinners like the grilled Chicken Royale breast smothered in mushrooms, onion and provolone cheese.
Beverages are exotic, including the Almond Joy (smoked blend of Blue Bell Ice Cream, Amaretto, Kailua, toasted almonds) and the Golden Mama Margarita (Golden Tequila, Grand Marnier, sweet and sour mix, splash of orange juice).
There are two lunch specials served daily while the full service bar is open Wednesday through Saturday after the kitchen closes.
Grey Moss Inn
19010 Scenic Loop Rd.
Helotes, TX 78023
Romantic steakhouse, minutes northwest of the San Antonio city limits, features candlelight dinners and a varied menu attracting those desiring to pop the question or celebrate an anniversary.
Towering oaks enhance a glorious setting in the patio where deer roam nearby on the restaurant’s eight acres in the wildlife sanctuary of Grey Moss.
Heavy-aged beef, basted with a Worcester-based sauce called “witches brew,” is prepared on an outdoor circular, mesquite charcoal grill. Besides the main dining area that accommodates 80, with a fireplace that warms patrons during winter, there are several rooms featuring country dÃ?Â©cor including figurines, plates and photographs.
The surf-and-turf dominated menu includes chicken and lamb. Most popular steak: the pleasing 12 oz. ribeye. Fish of the day is less consistent as the kitchen’s strength is beef.
Fresh mushrooms sautÃ?Â©ed with herbs in cabernet make a most appetizing start. Dishes include recipes by the original owner who started it all in 1929: squash au gratin, successfully flavored with green pepper, onion and cumin, and twice-baked potato, with an assortment of toppings.
Early birds seated and ordering by 6 p.m. save money on the filet mignon or salmon dinners, which include salad, dessert and beverage.
The wine list boasts more than 600 labels, with thousands of bottles (from $21 to $480) stored in two rooms. Patrons can join the mailing list to participate in tasting sessions.
Save space for dessert, especially the homemade pies, particularly the exquisite chocolate pecan.
305 Main St
Bandera, TX 78003
The Western motif restaurant, located in the so-called Capital of the Cowboy World a half-hour north of San Antonio, offers down-home Southwestern cooking and Mexican dishes.
Stools at the counter are horse saddles, long tables are covered with red-and-white oilcloth and wagon wheel chandeliers with lantern lights illuminate the cafÃ?Â©.
Named for the Old Spanish Trail, it has operated since 1921. Most popular dishes include enchiladas and chicken fried steak, hailed by many diners as No. 1 in Texas. An 8 oz. burger called The Duke honors John Wayne, who visited the area during filming of 1960’s “The Alamo.”
Cotton Gin Restaurant & Lodging
2805 S. Texas Highway 16
Fredericksburg, TX 78624
You can enjoy Hill Country cuisine in the cozy restaurant and relax overnight in 19th Century log cabins in a Pioneer Days atmosphere less than an hour north of San Antonio.
It’s an American Shangri-La in Texas: main dining room with stained-glass windows, plus loft and patio, landscaping that includes herbs used in many dishes, seven Kentucky-Tennessee cabins from the 1800s, a water garden, wishing well and windmill.
But the piÃ?Â¨ce de rÃ?Â©sistance is the food: indigenous products like trout, quail and peppers. The full dinner menu of meat, poultry and seafood ranges from jalapeno-stuffed rosemary and garlic-marinated grilled quail to spicy corn-flake and almond-crusted pan-fried catfish.
The extensive wine list features Texas labels as well as vintages from around the world.