It was definitely love at first bite. Settled in front of my plate at Mi Tierra in San Antonio – taking up an entire city block on the city’s Market Square, Mi Tierra is a culinary juggernaut and one of the best Mexican restaurants in the United States, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with its own tortilla factory on site – each and every one of foods that I consumed, from enchiladas overflowing with cheese to tacos so delicious that my mouth still waters at the memory, felt like the best thing I’d ever tasted in my life. And, typical of a state where every meal seems to come with a story, I’m told that the restaurant has been an integral part of the Mexican-American community in San Antonio – a city that feels like it’s equal parts Tex and Mex – since its founding back in 1941, with a giant mural on the wall that depicts important figures in that community throughout the 20th century.
In Texas, food isn’t just about sustenance – it’s a passion, and it’s something that often has a fascinating backstory. Take, for example, the Texas Barbecue Trail – truly a great itinerary for a tasty summer road trip. Slicing through the heart of the state, which also happens to be the heartland of Texas’ best barbecue, an area settled by Eastern and Central European immigrants in the 19th century, who brought along their meat-smoking techniques, the Trail takes in four rural towns – Taylor, Elgin, Luling and Lockhart. Two great spots along the way: Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, a James Beard Award-winner that serves its brisket in butcher paper in a smoky room decorated with neon beer signs (authenticity at its best), and Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, where the food is so good, the line usually stretches right out the door.
But this state also has a taste for the finer things, including a good glass of vino. The Hill Country near San Antonio features a great wine trail, and the area boasts more than 30 wineries, many of them with tasting rooms, set among its rolling hills and picturesque towns. At Grape Creek Vineyards, visitors can take a cellar tour and enjoy tastings in their Italian Villa tasting room (the winery bills itself as “Tuscany in Texas”). At Fiesta Winery, set along the banks of the Colorado River, a family-owned ranch that dates back six generations has been converted into a winery, but vestiges of the old homestead remain, including a display of family cowboy boots and a historic outhouse. And at Becker Vineyards, their Bordeaux, Burgundian, and Rhone-styled wines are paired with delectable fare (it’s also noteworthy that their wines have been served in the White House).
And if you’re looking for a little fine dining, Texas has plenty. Take an elegant dinner cruise along the San Antonio River, or stay on dry land and visit one of the city’s many excellent Mexican and Tex Mex restaurants (San Antonio is, after all, the birthplace and home of Tex Mex cuisine). Or dine at Congress in Austin, which was recently named the best new restaurant in the state by Texas Monthly magazine, a secluded spot that serves up locally sourced, nose-to-tail meals. And what’s more typical of Texas than a tender hunk of beef? For that, head to Pappas Bros. – with locations in Houston and Dallas, it’s often regarded as the best steakhouse in the whole state.