By JOHN DeMERS
I went deep into Mexico today and ate my fill of incredible regional street foods.
Yes, that meant I paid substantial visits to places as far afield as Oaxaca, Jalisco, Michoacan and Yucatan, with a quick foray to Veracruz for super-fresh seafood. And even if I’d traded my traditional Mexican public bus for some sort of private jet, I wouldn’t have been able to go all those places in one day if it weren’t for a chef named Johnny Hernandez, whose business card bills him as “El Mero Mero” (head honcho, grand poobah) of a place called La Gloria. Right on the newly extended Riverwalk. Right in the reborn Pearl Brewery complex. Right in the heart of San Antonio.
To hear Hernandez tell the tale, he’s spent much of his life traveling through Mexico tasting food on the streets – though the research for La Gloria began in earnest about five years ago. The guy was born to be a chef, it seems, growing up in and around his family’s San Antonio catering business. Yet when it came time to open his own place, it wasn’t French or Italian he wanted to cook, though of course he knew how. What he wanted to cook was all those unknown little platefuls he’d sampled just down the street and around the corner.
“I always tried to have somebody local take me and introduce me,” Hernandez told me this afternoon as we sampled our way through the many-splendored thing that is La Gloria’s menu. “Otherwise, I’m just this guy from America coming in and trying to steal their recipe.” He smiles. “I think they felt better when they realized I wasn’t going to open a place right next door.”
La Gloria is a constant and delicious contradiction: authentic Mexican street food, often the lowest of the low, the simplest of the simple, prepared under the watchful eye of a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America and polished at posh addresses like the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara. Many foods here are familiar in concept – tacos with a wide selection of fillings, for instance, tostadas (which the double-sided menu patiently explains are known as chalupas in San Antonio), even the ever-popular tortas y mas. Emphasis, I’m sure, on the “y mas.” Yet a host of regional names and exotic, melting-pot techniques follow fast and furious at La Gloria after that.
There are tlayudas, described as “Mexican pizzas,” and sopes and molcajetes, that last a bowl carved in volcanic stone that transports all kinds of queso, beef and pork to your table. I particularly enjoyed the panuchos, even though the word sounds like an off-color Sicilian nickname. What I experienced was Yucatecan cochinita pibil that came shredded atop a gordita stuffed with mashed black beans. It was nothing short of glorious. And even a simple taco showed up with bright orange anchiote-marinated pork, learned from Lebanese immigrants to Mexico (said Chef Johnny) and tasting for all the world like a Mexican gyro. The world needs a Mexican gyro!
In the six months La Gloria has been open, Hernandez has come up with quite a slogan – and he posts it almost everywhere: NO HACE FALTA MORIR PARA LLEGAR A LA GLORIA. For me and the rest of the gringos in his restaurant’s crowded dining room, that means: You don’t have to die to go to heaven. And that, as you’d expect, is good news indeed.