I was in San Antonio on a business trip a week or so ago, during which time I visited a few restaurants that I either had never been to (Ácenar) or hadn't been to recently (Jacala and La Fogata). Since I don't see much written about these places on the Texas board, I though I'd post a chow report.
It's a shame that good off-the-beaten-track restaurants, like Jacala, don't get much attention. This restaurant caters to Tejanos and non-Tejanos and has all the middle-class family/chain-restaurant amenities: English menus, a "family-friendly" atmosphere, staff who sing on one's birthday, free drink refills. And the food, while not always amazing, is solidly better than average.
I didn't get to take detailed notes, so I'll just give overall comments on dishes. Pretty good dishes included the beef puffy tacos, which were more like thick, gordita-like tortillas rolled around a taco filling than tacos made in the style of Henry's Puffy Tacos, which are lighter, fried-until-puffy corn tortillas; the [chicken] enchiladas verdes, which had a decent filling and sauce, but didn't stand out amongst other pretty good versions in town; the refried beans, which were more liquidy and had less lard/pork fat than I prefer, but were still compelling enough; and the fairly spicy, housemade, red table-salsa. The bean-and-cheese nachos were most noticeable for the extremely large hunk of cheese that covered them. At least it was cheddar cheese, and not Velveeta, but I could barely taste the beans or the fried corn chips. A bowl of decent-quality pickled (from a can or bottle) jalapeño slices accompanied the nachos. However, the best main course by far was the carne guisada, which was truly slow-cooked in a sauce that made judicious use of tomato (after all, this dish is not supposed to be like a spaghetti sauce) and Mexican spices. I try this dish everywhere and love few versions of it, but I scraped up every last bit of sauce off my plate at Jacala. It was all I could do to keep my dining companions away from it, too.
The flour tortillas at Jacala are thinner than is the norm at other places in town like Panchitos, Bedoy's, Bandera Molino, and even Mi Tierra. These lighter tortillas still had good flavor and are made from fresh balls of masa by a woman manning the rolling machine, which you can watch if you're seated in the back room (where the cash register is located.) The packaged corn tortillas are acceptable, but they are not as good as the flour ones. The tostadas [corn chips] that come with salsa are quite good, though, as they seem to be fried on-site from cut-up packaged corn tortillas. They only needed a little salt to be addictively crispy and greasy just on their own. Jacala's Mexican rice was bad; the coffee was just drinkable; and the flan was standard-issue in flavor, though the menu claims it's made on site. They don't serve any aguas frescas or fresh lemonade, so other than iced tea, the only non-alcoholic choices available for purchase are sodas and a couple of juices.
On a busy weekend night, we got a table right away and had a solid, satisfying, and pleasant meal. I have relatives in the area who like to eat close to home, so I often frequent Cha Cha's, which is more or less in the same part of town. Cha Cha's has a better source of beef, so they do a good milanese, fajita plate, and puntas de filete, but their tortillas are awful; plus, many of their other dishes are just mediocre. I'm looking forward to exploring more of Jacala's menu. Something tells me that they will do a decent job with breakfast fare.
This place is run by Lisa Wong, one of the owners of the incredibly popular Rosario's, and Bruce Auden, of Biga on the Banks. They style themselves as a "modern Tex Mex" restaurant, which can also be thought of as fusion or Nuevo Latino. This restaurant is located on the Riverwalk. Thus, outside dining is a popular seating option, but our party opted to stay inside on two different visits. I should warn you that the acoustics in the smaller of the two downstairs dining rooms is not at all conducive to conversation. In fact, the effect that Ácenar seems to be going for is loud-bar-like restaurant, which seems successful at attracting conference attendees and other tourists staying downtown. As a matter of fact, our party was with a visitor from out of town. Although a few of my colleagues who are based in S.A. consider this is one of their favorite spots, I don't think I'd return for the food unless I were again entertaining someone who wanted to be on the Riverwalk.
Appetizers are often the more interesting menu choices at bars, but the only appetizer I got to sample at Ácenar was the made-to-order guacamole. Though it was good, their version did not stand out from similar made-table-side versions. Just one word of warning: The one night that we asked for it "spicy," it came out very spicy. I preferred the spiciness on that occasion as well as the texture (it had more body and was less creamy). The housemade tostadas were tasty: slightly thick, fried triangles of corn tortillas. They only come with the table-side guacamole, if I'm not mistaken, and are much better than the standard-issue packaged tortilla chips that come free with salsa. (The fried tostadas at Jacala are better, though, and they're also free.) Ácenar's much-admired table salsa was not very exciting, in my opinion. It seems to be made from roasted poblano peppers, which give it a smoky undertone, but the salsa in general lacked brightness or complexity. It almost tasted watered down, as did my blood-orange mojito. Oddly, the same drink tasted better the second night, while the guacamole tasted worse. I can only hope that Ácenar's are not the best mojitos in San Antonio.
I was advised by one of my colleagues to try the fish tacos, which are considered to be one of the best items on the menu. The tacos were pretty good, as promised, especially after the previous night's negative experience with the shrimp tacos, which had a filling like a wet, bland, stir-fry of cabbage and tiny shrimp of the type from the freezer case at the supermarket. The fish tacos' flavor combination of more-sweet-than-spicy jalapeño-honey mayo, cabbage "slaw" (which may have had some apple in it), and sweet pickled red-onions can be made less one dimensional by adding some of the thin salsa that comes on the side. I ordered these tacos with fried fish, but grilled is also available. Their rice—which is not the typical Tex-Mex style but basically a white pilaf—was nothing special. I was also very disappointed in their refried beans. Many small, inexpensive Mexican restaurants get at least one of these two side dishes right. Since the tacos themselves are also on the small side, I left hungry both nights.
As for their desserts, I only managed to got a few bites of tres leches cake, but it was quite compelling—and much better than I expected. They describe as a "moist orange cake layered with sweet milks & served with cajeta and seasonal berries & melons." Instead, some pretty unripe and unattractive fruit instead came on the side. What was most interesting about this cake, however, was that the cajeta [Mexican goat's-milk caramel] was not served on the side but soaked into the cake. I'm guessing that they just melted cajeta and used it as—or with—one of the three milks in which the cake is traditionally soaked. A similar use of cajeta and orange liqueur is a recipe variant in _Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen_.
I have long been of the opinion that La Fogata was incredibly overrated by the mainstream media and even some posters on this board. I'm afraid that this assessment was confirmed on my visit. Of the chow served at these three restaurants, La Fogata 's food was by far the most disappointing. Their chips and table salsa are boring; their guacamole tastes like they put sour cream in it; their corn tortillas were mediocre and the flour ones downright bad. For the prices they charge, they ought to be able to buy good-quality chips and tortillas from one of the many local sources. Whatever they use tasted almost as bad as Sysco tortilla product. For main courses, I usually stick to the beef dishes (like the carne asada tacos with beef, which are basic but fine). This is one area in which relatively expensive local Tex-Mex/Mexican restaurants shine, since they spend more money on their meat. This time I went with the chile en nogada ($11.95), which is a poblano pepper stuffed with beef picadillo, almonds and green olives, and covered in what their menu calls a "deliciously unique pecan sauce." The nogada sauce is usually a walnut-cream sauce, but pecans are, after all, a Texan delicacy. Unfortunately, La Fogata's chiles en nogada suffered from a common problem: a too-sweet sauce. From the flavor and relative thinness of the sauce, I'm guessing that they just used a standard, packaged sour cream instead of the crème fraîche, goat cheese, or even cream cheese that is sometimes the basis. Their overly-sweet sauce was made worse by another basic blunder, a too-sweet picadillo. Picadillo, like Thanksgiving dressing, should be savory-sweet (from savory meat and onions balanced with dried fruit and nuts), not predominantly sweet. Thus, the entire flavor combination was off-putting. My main dish was served with bland, dry Mexican rice and a "green salad" (shredded iceberg lettuce) with avocado slices. The perfectly ripe avocado slices were the best-tasting thing on the plate.
Colleagues ordered the carne adobada [pork], which consisted of a huge serving of chunks of roast pork in what seemed to be a red-chile-based sauce; the mole enchiladas, which were not finished; and the "poquito de todo" combination plate. This was not the sort of familiar business dinner in which the parties shared food, so I didn't get to taste anyone else's selection. I will say that no one seemed thrilled with what they ordered; plus, the plates did not look so tantalizing that I would order them myself on future visits. One colleague totally enjoyed a strawberry margarita that was made with real pureed strawberries. I would suggest that you definitely not order a huge goblet of "sangria wine" on the rocks, which turned out to be a huge mistake. (It tasted like wine from a box and it also packed quite a wallop, especially the next day.)
I figure that something about La Fogata's roving mariachis and "gracious hacienda" atmosphere must lull a lot of diners into overestimating the food quality. It gets a lot of hype, but this is not the first time that my meal there was just plain bad. In my opinion, chowhounds who care more about the chow than the ambience will be much better off elsewhere. Furthermore, even those 'hounds who care a lot about ambience will find better chow at restaurants that cater to a similar clientele, such as El Mirador.