“Rather than stick with the typical growth pattern,” explains SA restaurant pioneer Chef Johnny Hernandez, “San Antonio’s food industry has cultivated in ten years what most cities do in thirty.”
He isn’t exaggerating. From Southtown’s eclectic concept restaurants to the Pearl District’s sparkling wealth of up-and-coming venues, the San Antonio food scene is humming with newly-realized potential.
So...why such explosive growth? What’s next for the San Antonio food scene?
To find out, we sat down with one of its original pioneers: Chef Johnny Hernandez, both the brains and the brawn (and the color-driven design genius) behind classic SA restaurants like LaGloria and The Fruteria, as well as shiny new ventures like Villa Rica and Burgerteca.
Image Courtesy of Johnny Heranandez's Website
Q: You grew up on the West Side of San Antonio, then moved away to start your career. What made you come back to San Antonio? What do you love about it?
“What brought me back to San Antonio?” Johnny mused thoughtfully for a moment, as if the answer were almost too obvious. “Well...San Antonio is where my family is. It’s home.”
He went on to explain that his move to New York and travels to-and-from culinary hubs were always accompanied by the underlying assumption that he would return with better food and a higher degree of talent.
“Home is where you’re born and raised,” he explained. “I always knew that the end of the road for me was San Antonio...when I traveled, it was always to come back.”
Q: What are your favorite parts of San Antonio?
This one was easy. Johnny walked me through his San Antonio migration patterns, noting his stops with affection along the way. About twelve years ago, he made the residential leap from Central San Antonio to Downtown. According to Johnny, “There wasn’t a lot of development [downtown] yet...the main development was the Majestic towers on Broadway.” He chuckles, remembering the scrappy beginnings of San Antonio’s now-flourishing growth.
Eventually, though, he settled happily in Southtown. “To me,” he explained, “It’s what I enjoy,” as he went on to describe the eclectic vibes that have bemused San Antonio residents for years. “Southtown has always been so eclectic and interesting. You drive down the street and there’s a warehouse, an artist, a bar, some train tracks, a school, a tire shop...and I’m just so comfortable with that. It’s not...it’s not curated. It’s authentic.” We agree. Click her e to take a tour of Johnny’s art-filled apartment (courtesy of Texas Monthly).
Q: How have you seen San Antonio’s food culture change over the course of your life?
To answer this one, Johnny takes us on a trip down a particularly greasy section of Memory Lane. “If you’ll remember,” he chuckles, “for a long time, parts of San Antonio were just fast-food...and a lot of Mexican food.”
This is no longer the case. Chef Hernandez notes that the people of San Antonio are the spark behind the wildfire growth of San Antonio’s foodie. “The customers themselves have been learning and growing, trying out a lot of new or different things...the consumer is much more informed and must more challenging and knowledgeable...Our food community has been evolving at a pace with [them].”
He also recognizes the impact of culinary giants like the Culinary Institute of America, St Philips, and the Pearl District. “The Pearl started as just a Farmers Market, introducing growers to guests and households...now, it’s a hub.”
Q: Do you see any rising trends when it comes to the food culture in San Antonio?
“I don’t think there will be a slow down in the theme of ‘locally sourced and locally grown,’” he says. “Consumers are shifting from national chains to local, from Starbucks to locally roasted.
[On the Mexican food front], things will continue to evolve down the path of what’s authentic...handmade, fresh, and seasonality will continue to be at the forefront.”
Sounds tasty. He also noted a trend that extends beyond “just the food” restaurants are serving these days. “Right now, I feel like the next push of restaurants is trying to create experiences [beyond just food].” According to Johnny, the “experience” encompasses ambiance, music, service, a top-notch beverage program, etc...the art is in “creating a restaurant that speaks to [and connects with] the audience.”
Q: How is your approach to Mexican food different?
“We’ve really worked hard to go down the path of authentic interior Mexico,” he says as he explains their philosophy. “We’re looking to create unique spaces. [In every aspect], Mexico is our inspiration...I’m really into design, and I love working with artisans out of Mexico to make our spaces unique and different...I love color and vibrant textures, so we’re really trying to hit all the senses when somebody walks into our restaurants….lighting, music, decor, space, location, everything!”
Q: How does restaurant culture mix with the neighborhood culture? Do you take the neighborhood vibe into account when you build a new venture?
He laughs when I ask this question. “Well, when you don’t [think about the neighborhood], you pay for it. You’ve got do your homework.”
He explains that the recipe for a new restaurant location is equal parts risk, research, and (quite honestly) the patio view: “You have to pay attention to the neighborhood, your curb appeal, who’s on either side of you...what does the customer see when they look out the window? We have to be very aware of our surroundings, and we’re very particular about site selection...I Iove locations that offer al fresco dining.”
But not each of his ventures’ locations has been an obvious buy: Johnny explains that, in trying to stay a step ahead, he’s taken a few risks on relatively undeveloped locations he hoped would prove to be up-and-coming. So far, it’s paid off.
“The Fruteria was a pioneer on Flores. I bought my property five years ago, and don’t think I could afford it now.” The same thing happened with The Dominion. “I bought the Dominion property four years ago, and the prices have skyrocketed since.”
Q: Non-profit, community, and philanthropic work have always been important to you. Are you currently involved with any local projects you’re particularly excited about?
Among numerous projects that are serving to advance culinary education and innovation in San Antonio, Johnny elaborated specifically on a program he founded two years ago: Kitchen Campus. “We are in the design stages…[Kitchen Campus is] an after-school mentorship program for culinary career paths...we want to teach wholesome food and nutrition to the community-at-large.”
The motto is: “Financial success through culinary arts.” Students will have the opportunity to explore careers in the culinary industry through hands-on cooking classes, lectures, field trips and guest chef workshops.
“We want to leverage technology...so we can make the world a little smaller and the neighborhood a little bigger”
To taste the flavors and concepts Johnny has innovative, visit one of his eight restaurant locations in the San Antonio metro area!
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