For more than 40 days starting in March, San Antonio restaurant dining rooms sat empty as COVID-19 forced lockdowns in the pandemic’s early days. So when Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano and hundreds of other restaurants opened their dining rooms at 25 percent capacity May 1, it wasn’t just dinner; it was deliverance — albeit on a razor’s edge of uncertainty.
Through carryout, curbside, delivery and the slow restoration of in-person dining, restaurants have kept the faith. And through them, we’ve found comfort, and comfort food.
So here, even in this year of living precariously, are the 25 best restaurant dishes I had this year. Because though we have suspended restaurant reviews until dining rooms reopen fully, we should still celebrate those things worth celebrating.
Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano: Veal chop
With a regal bone towering like a tribute over the plate, this perfectly seared chop reminded me that the ritual and spectacle of fine dining still matters. 22211 Interstate 10 W., Suite 1101, 210-696-2536, aldossa.com. Read the story here.
Angel’s Mexican Restaurant: Pork chop huevos rancheros
The best way to experience a golden-fried pork chop as big as your hand is pairing it with sunnyside huevos rancheros with warm flour tortillas. 2302 E. Commerce St., 210-224-4500, Facebook: Angels Mexican Haven. Read the story here.
Birotes Tortas Ahogadas: Birria stew
Birria tacos get all the attention. But the complex, aromatic beef stew that made them famous is even better on its own. 3004 W. Martin St., 210-375-5230, Facebook: @birotestortas. Read the story here.
Blanco Cafe: Cheese enchiladas
These enchiladas fit the Tex-Mex template: red corn tortillas, processed cheese and chile con carne. Blanco Cafe’s had more than 45 years to get it right. And it’s right on. 1720 Blanco Road, 210-732-6480, Facebook: @BlancoCafeSA. Read the story here.
Bliss: Mediterranean Branzino
Citrus, quinoa and pumpkin seeds bring elegance and depth to grilled fish at this stylish Southtown favorite. 926 S. Presa St., 210-225-2547, foodisbliss.com. Read the story here.
Botika: Chicken teriyaki chaufa
Chef Geronimo Lopez takes fried rice to another level with robust rocoto pepper mayo and Peruvian-style corn chalaca. 303 Pearl Parkway, Suite 111 at the Pearl, 210-670-7684, botikapearl.com. Read the story here.
Brasserie Mon Chou Chou: Sandwich au Fromage Raclette
At this sophisticated new French bistro at the Pearl, they carve a wheel of raclette onto a crusty baguette right at your table. Because now more than ever, we need grilled cheese. 312 Pearl Parkway, Building 2, Suite 2104 at the Pearl, brasseriemonchouchou.com. Read the story here.
Chris Madrid’s: Cheddar Cheezy burger
In person or in a Styrofoam takeout box, this burger with cheddar cheese flowing around it like a Fiesta gown makes it clear why Chris Madrid’s is built — and rebuilt — to last. 900 Blanco Road, 210-735-3552, chrismadrids.com. Read the story here.
Curry Boys BBQ: Smoked chicken curry bowl
Pinch Boil House and South BBQ & Kitchen teamed up for this little walk-up curry stand on the St. Mary’s Strip, and their smoked chicken bowl radiates yellow curry flavor like sunshine. 2334 N. St. Mary’s St., 210-320-0555, curryboysbbq.com. Read the story here.
El Pastor es Mi Señor: Al pastor tacos
The name is a play on “the Lord is my shepherd.” Except here, al pastor is the one true god, shaved straight from the trompo for tacos with big achiote twang. 16615 Huebner Road, 210-479-3474, elpastoresmisenor.com. Read the story here.
Fairmount Rooftop Oyster Bar: Fresh clams
There’s more than oysters at this posh new terrace with an eagle’s nest view of the skyline. There’s also raw littleneck clams on the half-shell with big ocean brine and bite. 401 S. Alamo St. at The Fairmount Hotel, 210-224-8800, siloelevatedcuisine.com. Read the story here.
Frutería Chavez: Guayaba raspa
Eduardo Chavez brings drives in fruit from Mexico for a rainbow of mangonadas, fruit cups and novelties, but the best is a simple raspa with sweet cream and freshly chopped guava. 3505 Blanco Road, 210-625-1662, Facebook: Fruteria Chavez. Read the story here.
Full Belly Cafe and Bar: Carbonara spaetzle
Tight spirals of handmade German-style noodles incorporate bites of bacon and Parmesan cheese topped with a poached egg for something rich, smoky and filling at this stylish diner. 427 N. Loop 1604, Suite 202, Sonterra Village shopping center, 210-236-5374, fullbellysa.com. Read the story here.
The Hayden: Potato latke with beet-cured salmon
The artisan touch at this new Jewish-style deli extends to salmon lox, cured with beets for brilliant color and endearing sweetness, served on a crispy, waffle-pressed potato latke. 4025 Broadway, 210-437-4306, thehaydensa.com. Read the story here.
Jardín: Roasted octopus
Chef Jason Dady took over the Sullivan Carriage House at the San Antonio Botanical Garden to create the Mediterranean-inspired Jardín, where he sets off perfectly roasted octopus with an herb puree that evokes chimichurri and salsa. 555 Funston Place, 210-338-5100 sabot.org. Read the story here.
Kuriya @ Cherrity Bar: Tonkotsu ramen
Even before Kuriya reopened for dining in, its takeout game powered through with a bowl of tonkotsu ramen with rich pork bone broth, pork belly, ajitama egg and shiitake mushrooms. 302 Montana St., 210-598-0496, kuriyasa.com. Read the story here.
La Sorrentina: Lasagna
Not much bigger than a family dining room, La Sorrentina makes lasagna with big, complex flavors from beef, sausage and a trio of Italian cheeses. 3330 Culebra Road, 210-549-0889, lasorrentinasa.com. Read the story here.
The Magpie: Chicken liver mousse
This small Korean cafe refuses to be pigeonholed, with an ever-changing menu that touches frequently on chicken liver mousse all rich and brassy over house-baked bread. 1602 E. Houston St., Suite 106, 210-389-1584, magpie.us. Read the story here.
Maria’s Cafe: Puffchilada
Part puffy taco, part cheese enchilada: Meet the foldable, cheesy, comforting enigma machine that is the Puffchilada, proof that no idea is too big for this tiny Tex-Mex cafe. 1105 Nogalitos St., 210-227-7005, no web presence. Read the story here.
Ming’s: Osaka curry bowl
Chef Ming Qian fell in love with Osaka curry bowls overseas, and the rich curry gravy, rice and fried kabocha squash will make you fall in love, too. 914 E. Elmira St., 210-600-4083, mingsthing.com. Read the story here.
Mr. A Ok’s Kitchen: Meatloaf
Stretching from one end of the platter to the other, this soul-stirring meatloaf arises from a recipe chef Steven Harris got from his mother, finished with peppered brown gravy. 4403 Rittiman Road, 210-642-4181, Facebook: @Mraokskitchen. Read the story here.
Richter’s Antler Cafe: Chicken-fried steak
At this country cafe, the breading’s knobby and irregular the way only a proper hand-breaded chicken-fried steak can be, wearing a cowboy jacket of pepper-cream gravy. 1 Sun Valley Drive, Spring Branch, 830-885-6328, antlercafe.com. Read the story here.
Sichuan House: Garlicky cold noodles
Sichuan House is my favorite Chinese restaurant in San Antonio, and they proved it all over again with noodles layered with toasted chiles, chile oil and Sichuan peppercorns for fire and flavor. 505 Wurzbach Road, Suite 102, 210-509-9999, sichuaneats.com. Read the story here.
Tony G’s Soul Food: Fried chicken
The breading on this fried chicken holds close in thin, well-salted sheets, keeping the meat moist and pull-apart tender, while sides like yams and greens threaten to steal the show. 915 S. Hackberry St., 210-451-1234, Facebook: @TonyGsSoulFood. Read the story here.
Vegan Avenue: Brekkie Tacos
This Monte Vista cafe proves that Mexican food can be vegan-friendly, especially with this trio of overstuffed corn tortillas with scrambled tofu, soy chorizo and a garden of garnishes. 2512 N. Main Ave., 210-332-9284, Facebook: @VeganAvenueSA. Read the story here.
Mike Sutter is a food and drink reporter and restaurant critic in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Mike, become a subscriber. [email protected] | Twitter: @fedmanwalking | Instagram: @fedmanwalking