When I lived in Austin my favorite city to venture to for day trips was San Antonio. I’d gas up my Kawasaki, drive out through the hill country then head down 281 south til I hit Bexar County.
Now that the super-highway exists, I gladly pay the tolls on my visits home so I can go 95 (and still get passed regularly) on a virtually deserted roadway.
Those toll roads are a godsend.
Mendez Cafe has long been my favorite Mexican restaurant in San Antonio.
After the big kerfuffle between Austin and the Alamo City erupted over taco primacy, I immediately booked a flight to central Texas so I could get my boots on the ground and take the measure of both towns’ taco greatness.
For 30 years Mendez Cafe has been quietly putting out top-drawer Mexican food in USA’s best city for Tex Mex. And by quietly I mean just that. They content themselves with feeding the immediate neighborhood; outside of that only a handful of hardcore eaters know of this tiny mom and pop.
Walking in on a recent Monday morning the house is packed and on a wait.
Normally that means doing an about face and heading to a different restaurant but Mendez is the lover you can’t say no to.
So wait it is.
A cowboy removes his hat and gives benediction over his huevos rancheros.
After a few long, anxiety-filled minutes where I gazed longingly at each table’s plates and platters heaped with breakfast tacos, fried eggs, chorizo, potatoes, panqueques, and other staples, I’m beckoned to a table that’s been freshly cleared and is ready for more business.
Mendez is home away from home for most of the diners as they joke with the waitresses, drink endless cups of coffee and eat their same favorite dishes every time they walk through the door. I briefly wonder what life would be like if I lived in a nearby house where I could walk into the restaurant every single day til my pants had busted all their seams and I’d grown into a haystack of a man.
Bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast tacos are roundly ridiculed as being ‘white folks’ tacos. And they are. Ask any taquera who deals with a white clientele and she’ll tell you that is her most popular taco; but in the proper hands this humble, common meal can be transcendent.
Like the hands of Dolores Mendez, the doña of her family’s restaurant.
San Antonio is famous for hand-rolling their tortillas. Just as Austin is widely mocked among taco lovers for the city’s penchant for store-bought tortillas, San Antonio is lauded for pursuing the craft of the taco from the ground floor up.
Yes, you can make a good taco with a plastic bag tortilla but if you want to make a great one you need to get out your rolling pin or press and channel your inner tia. It’s hard to find a non-handmade tortilla in San Antonio.
Mendez Cafe makes my favorite flour tortilla in town. No shrinking violets, these beauties have considerable heft and chew with a malleability that should be the goal of every taquera in San Antonio. Oh, and they’re also fluffy. They are the ne plus ultra of flour tortillas in South Texas.
Venturing back and into the kitchen I’m warmly greeted by Lupe and Dolores, the husband and wife owners of the cafe.
Mrs Mendez explains that every thing on the menu is made from scratch and there are no shortcuts allowed in her kitchen. A lady stands off to the side patting out dough balls. She’s covered in flour and is the engine in the production of the handmade tortillas.
The stove top is crowded with pots and kettles brimming with sauces, stewed meats, gravies, beans and other traditional foods. There is no US foodway that is as diverse as Tex-Mex. The kitchen is abustle with activity so I make my way back to the front of the house.
Mendez Cafe opened on June 19th, 1986 in the neighborhood hard up against the eastern flank of Kelly Air Force Base. Vanessa, Dolores’ daughter, happily answers all the questions a traveler could dream up whilst also ringing up patrons and greeting all the regulars as they stream in.
We say our goodbyes and walk out into a clear Texas day. Boxing clubs, Baptist churches and brake repair shops dot the neighborhood. A railyard sits nearby lending emphasis to the thought that only fine food comes from near railroad tracks.
I give benediction to this notion.
A steady stream of Mexican restaurants pass by on the way back toward downtown, and I silently wonder how they stay in business in the company of such a giant of Tex Mex cuisine.
201 Bartholomew Ave
San Antonio, Texas
Hours of operation