Street food vendors are a tradition the world over. Sometimes operating with little more than a pot over a pile of rocks, these seat-of-the-pants salesmen not only provide cheap meals on the run, but they also serve as a cultural touchstone, a kind of resistance movement against the encroachment of McD and other culinary colonialists.
In a truly global city such as Manhattan, everything from franks to falafel can be found — sometimes on opposing street corners. Even unlikely-seeming places such as Portland, Ore., have encouraged vendors, with the result that the city can boast 600 carts and counting, and now calls itself the No. 1 Street Food City in the world. Some of these carts are doubtless incubators, stations on the way to a more permanent restaurant home. But others are way-of-life statements, content to do no more than compete on the basis of unique foods and reasonable prices. Despite the example of the yearly orgy that is NIOSA, and the long and colorful history of the Chili Queens and their court, serious street foods have been a long time coming to San Antonio. But come they have. And we’re not just talking tacos; culinary luminaries the likes of Andrew Weissman have entered the fray (the opening of his trailer compound across the river from SAMA has been delayed by city regulations and permitting — the very thing that killed the Chili Queens over 60 years ago), and the boys at G&G Mobile Bistro are serving up the likes of grilled pork loin skewers with chimichurri and arugula salad with walnuts and blue cheese on the South Side.
So it’s more than a little ironic that the most ambitious exponent of street foods — from the country we would have expected to supply the lion’s share of them here — has skipped the Airstream stage altogether and vaulted directly into a full-blown restaurant. At the city’s citadel of fine cuisine, the Pearl, at that. Yet that’s just what Johnny Hernandez, CIA degree and all, did. And if the lines and crowds are the indication they seem to be, the response has been overwhelming. Who knew San Antonio was dying to pay $5 for a trio of tiny tacos topped with grilled fish? The street foods of Mexico, the focus of Hernandez’s operation, should have been a part of our cultural DNA for generations (and to a degree many have been — just not usually on the streets), but the fact that a glossary explaining terms has had to be created only emphasizes how narrowly focused our viewpoint has been. Are we familiar with panuchos? No. (They’re a kind of gordita filled with black beans and further topped with cochinita pibil, pollo negro or aguacate.) Or Tlayudas? Tampoco? (They are translated here as a “Mexican pizza” and consist of a large corn tortilla topped with queso Oaxaca and more.) We could go on. Cemitas, anyone?
We admit to having had issues with La Gloria’s take on some of the offerings in the past. The pescado zarandeado, a seaside specialty, is one of them; as served on the beaches of Mexico, this grilled fish preparation can get very inventive. La Gloria chooses a simpler tack, and though the preparation may not have changed substantially since first encounter, the recent rendition I sampled with constant Dining Companion, appropriately (for the sea, not the street) attired in vintage pearls, at least seemed to have more going for it. The chicharron quesadilla with queso blanco is similar to another item that raised issues previously — the same subbing a tomatillo sauce for the cheese. The chicharrones have much improved since then, and though cheese dominates, that green table sauce again comes to the rescue, lightening up a potentially quite heavy experience. Moving from surf to turf, the taco al pastor, a classic preparation of pork shaved from a large, vertical rotisserie, packed a vinegary punch that was nicely complemented by chunks of sweet piña. Yes, the serving was small, but the taste tended to compensate. Add some smoky/fruity red sauce to this one.
Vinegar also figures in traditional escabeche preparations, with fish, chicken and even vegetables subject to a simmering with it and onion. La Gloria’s sopes of pollo en escabeche have also come around, with at least a touch of tartness complementing the chicken and some queso blanco adding a good finishing touch.
Some of the more ambitious (read: expensive) preparations have been hit-and-miss. We have never had a satisfactory rendition of the molcajete (large, lavastone mortars that arrive sizzling hot) of beef skirt in tomatillo sauce, but one with pork and chiles rojos has been quite good, with the presentation equally as impressive as the contents. La Gloria’s way with seafoods comes to the fore in these elaborate dishes as well. The camarones aguachile (translated here as “shrimp in fire water”) has been consistently rewarding, the cucumber, red onion and a touch of serrano adding interest and texture to the plate. There are versions with more punch — and more shrimp — elsewhere for about the same price, but for elegant (relatively — we’re talking “street food,” remember) presentation and consistency, this is still a good choice. A serving of the pescado del día, in our case, drum, came in two different preparations. We chose the simpler chile/limon and were pleased with all aspects of the well-cooked fish and bright sauce but the price: At $18, we might have expected a little more. The something more, however, came in the form of very fast and quite friendly service, an added bonus after having stood in line to order.
Dessert many will order later, and here the waiters are happy to subvert the order system by coming to you. It’s likely to be noisy inside, so we recommend sitting outdoors when the weather is at all amenable. Even in winter, with some patio heaters and a horse blanket or two, it’s bound to be pleasant on the bank of the newly expanded River Walk — and you can count on being located close to a suspended cherub. La Gloria, after all, does refer to heaven. For a taste of it closer to home, order the coconut (not the standard) flan.