South San Antonio’s food restaurant scene is heavily focused on Cajun and Louisiana Creole flavors

About four years ago, a wave of southern-infused restaurants swept through San Antonio like a tidal wave of sweet tea. Suddenly, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, and cooked collard greens could be found all over town.

Fast forward to today, and many of these properties have closed, with some managing to keep the lights on for just a few months. The majority closed before the pandemic, shifting the city’s southern scene from the Lowcountry to Louisiana and its rich, heavily spiced dishes that spread along the Gulf Coast to Texas.

These bayou flavors sound familiar to San Antonians. Thanks to our Mexican roots, spice racks across the city are stocked with more potent herbs and spices than many parts of the South – with the exception of Louisiana, where Cajun and Creole cuisines rely on many the same flavors as our Mexican and Tex-Mex favourites. .

Dave Saylor, owner of the venerable Acadiana Café on the city’s West Side, has been working with these flavors for the 35 years the restaurant has been open, serving up countless bowls of okra and jambalaya, and countless servings of red beans and rice, and fried catfish.

A selection of Louisiana-inspired classics at Acadiana Café, including (clockwise from front) grilled catfish, Cajun nachos, fried catfish with cooked cabbage and a sampler platter with bowls of okra, red beans and rice, crawfish stew and jambalaya

Paul Stephen / Staff

“San Antonians love flavor in their food,” Saylor said. “While we’re always looking for new menu items and flavor combos, and embracing some of them, we keep coming back to those traditional roux and recipes.”

2018 saw the opening of classic Lowcountry comfort restaurant (butter, y’all!) Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen in The Rim, which closed in 15 months, and Deep South spot Hoppin’ John in downtown , which closed after five months. The following year, Fontaine’s Southern Diner & Bar opened just north of the city center and closed after six months, and Eastside Kitchenette opened at Government Hill and closed after 17 months.

What survived the wave were long-running South African spots like Acadiana Café, Ma Harper’s Creole Kitchen on Government Hill and NOLA Brunch & Beignets just off the St. Mary’s Strip. And several new spots that opened up when that first wave crashed are letting the good times roll all over town.

Pieter Sypesteyn, chef and owner of NOLA, isn’t surprised that San Antonio loves the Cajun and Creole cuisine of his native Louisiana. He operated several other Southern restaurants here, including Cookhouse and Bud’s Southern Rotisserie. Sypesteyn closed Cookhouse, which served a gourmet version of New Orleans cuisine, in 2020 and Bud’s, a more pan-Southern concept, in 2021 to focus on NOLA, a fun brunch serving dishes that Texans and Louisianans can appreciate.

While NOLA’s menu includes many faithful New Orleans-inspired dishes, such as po’boy and muffuletta sandwiches, crawfish stew and more, several options marry these flavors with Texas staples. . Chilaquiles, for example, are made with blood sausage and chipotle sauce, and an avocado tostada can be topped with blackened shrimp.

Grilled brisket and grits, left, Uptown Eggs Bennie, NOLA burger and Cajun boudin flautas from NOLA Brunch & Donuts

Grilled brisket and grits, left, Uptown Eggs Bennie, NOLA burger and Cajun boudin flautas from NOLA Brunch & Donuts

Mike Sutter/Staff File Photo

This hybridization, Sypesteyn said, makes sense given the histories of San Antonio and New Orleans, both of which are over 300 years old. Trade routes between the two cities have allowed ingredients and cooking techniques from both cities to mingle for centuries, he claims.

“There are a lot of foods from here and there that may have different names but are very similar,” Sypesteyn said. “Guisada and grilled meats are almost identical. It’s basically the same dish with a few different ingredients.

While NOLA Brunch & Beignets takes a contemporary take on Louisiana cuisine, Acadiana Café is more of a totem of tradition and something of a relic of a bygone era in restaurants. The enormous building it sits in along the 410 loop near Texas 151 can accommodate up to 350 patrons inside, though that number is closer to 200 with social distancing protocols in effect.

“Acadiana Café is an anomaly,” Saylor said. “They don’t build food spaces like this anymore.”

The restaurant’s menu has barely changed since the doors opened in 1986, and Saylor said that’s one of the company’s main strengths. Saylor, who has served as president of the San Antonio chapter of the Texas Restaurant Association in the past, said the average national restaurant concept will revise its menu every seven to 10 years.

“I’ve seen people come back 20 years after their first visit and say your catfish, your chicken, your dumplings, and your stew are exactly the same, and that’s a good thing,” Saylor said. “Acadiana customers know what to expect when they walk through the door.”

And at this time of year, with Lent kicking off next week, those diners largely have one thing on their minds: catfish.

“During Lent, we traditionally sell a ton – 2,000 pounds – of catfish a week,” Saylor said. “There would be a riot if we took it off the menu.”

Fried fish, okra, po’boys and other New Orleans traditions can also be found at Ma Harper’s Creole Kitchen in San Antonio’s Government Hill neighborhood. Owner Alice Harper has served her version of these iconic classics since opening her business in 1990.

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo with Rice from Ma Harper's Creole Kitchen

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo with Rice from Ma Harper’s Creole Kitchen

Mike Sutter/Staff File Photo

Ma Harper’s cozy dining room is decked out in lots of purple, gold, and green, along with other Crescent City-evoking decorations, and Harper visits almost every table for a quick chat – that’s a lot of talking because the place is usually crowded.

New restaurants specializing in Louisiana-style crawfish and seafood have also proliferated rapidly in San Antonio in recent years, with brands like Smashin’ Crab opening multiple locations, national chain Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood & Bar opening one location. near Leon Valley, the Houston-based Crawfish Cafe with a location along Interstate 10 near De Zevala Road and others.

Sean Wen, co-owner of Pinch Boil House, is one such restaurateur. He opened Pinch in downtown San Antonio in 2017 and moved the business to Alamo Heights last year.

Pinch serves a different kind of fusion cuisine, with deep roots in Louisiana and the Texas Gulf Coast. At Pinch, the menu shows a strong Southeast Asian influence – a style of cooking often referred to as Viet-Cajun that migrated with immigrants to Louisiana and found a firm foothold in Wen’s hometown of Houston. .

The Boiled Seafood Feast with Snow Crab, Shrimp, Mussels, Sausage, Corn and Potatoes with Pinch Boil House OG Garlic Butter

The Boiled Seafood Feast with Snow Crab, Shrimp, Mussels, Sausage, Corn and Potatoes with Pinch Boil House OG Garlic Butter

Mike Sutter/Staff File Photo

For Wen, whether it’s Viet-Cajun dishes or classic Cajun and Creole dishes, he’s not surprised to see those flavors taking hold and proliferating here.

“Well obviously we’re familiar with things because they’re so close to us,” he said.

And more New Orleans flavors are on the way to San Antonio. Emily and Houston Carpenter recently announced plans to open Claudine’s restaurant on East Grayson Street near the Pearl. With the restaurant more than a year away from opening and the menu still taking shape, Houston Carpenter said diners can expect flavors from across the South with a French twist.

While some dishes at Claudine’s restaurant will ring true to the Lowcountry towns of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, Carpenter said he will offer Louisiana-inspired items such as blue crab cakes.

“We want to keep it very accessible,” Carpenter said. “We’ll be serving a lot of cool stuff with a French twist, but you’ll still feel like you’re eating at Grandma’s.”

Whether Grandma cooks collard greens or crawfish, as long as there’s sweet tea, it’s still Southern food.

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