Our favorite place in San Antonio used to be The Liberty Bar back when it was on East Josephine and located in what looked to be a 100-year-old abandoned building leaning precariously about 10 to 15 degrees from decades-old flood damage. The inside was no better, stripped raw and caterwamped. After a glass (or two) of adult beverages, walking from one spot to another felt like being on the Titanic in a hurricane just before it hits an iceberg.
Despite its appearance and location next to the highway in a warehouse district, the Liberty was a high-end restaurant serving really good food (the bread! the bread!) with great service to boot. Tommy Lee Jones loved the place (he was there one time we were) as did we (and were heartbroken when it moved). The food was good, but the juxtaposition of good food with the worst building we’ve ever eaten in was magical.
Gabriela’s is something like a Liberty Bar experience (although not quite as caterwamped). Perched on seventh street overlooking I-35 and downtown, it’s a stunning location, but the building–inside and out–has seen better days with well-worn surfaces and exposed electrical outlets. Gabriela’s house could easily exist south of the border in some dusty town.
We looked around and at each other surprised that Texas Monthly gave the place two stars let alone reviewed the joint. The gorgeous koko-like glamour shots of the dishes on their web page don’t match the lack of glamour of the space. But when the food arrived, we were quickly reminded of the old adage “you can’t judge a cookbook by its cover.”
I don’t normally order drinks in pineapples, but for you, dear readers, I make sacrifices (The Bride: “Nooooooo!!!!!” Me: “Yeeeessss!!!”). The Piña Para la Niña ($14; strawberry frozen margarita served in a pineapple) is quite the extravaganza, both in price and presentation, but it was quite delicious with fresh strawberry flavor and not too much sweetness. The anti-pineapple bride chose Gabby’s Margarita ($8; house-made tamarind syrup, house tequila, orange liquor, lime, and agave served with a chili powder rim) which, despite the long list of ingredients, sported balanced flavors.
For appetizers (bocaditos), we chose the Trio Salsas ($4; their three specialty salsas served with handmade tortilla chips) and the Choriqueso ($8; melted jack cheese with spicy chorizo, and guacamole drizzled with chipotle and green sauce and served with handmade corn masa tortillas). Many folks are morally opposed to paying for chips and salsa, but these were worth it (and actually came with four dips). The salsa aren’t listed on the menu, but wethinks they were chipotle, a tomatillo green sauce, and something orange, which all did their job, although none were Earth-shattering. The choriqueso, a Pollack of ingredients artfully splattered into an iron skillet, was quite good with the masa tortillas.
For our main, the Sopecitos de Tinga de Pollo came calling ($9; masa cup with refried black beans, shredded chicken in a tomato and chili chipotle sauce with caramelized onions topped with red cabbage, sour cream, avocado, green tomatillo salsa, and queso fresco). Besides being gorgeous, they were delicious with the right amount of crunch, flavor, and texture.
Started by siblings Gabriela and Arturo Bucio, Gabriela’s serves up comida inspired by their Michoacán family recipes using fresh ingredients, which really makes the difference in their food. Similar to The Liberty Bar, this is a lo-fi dive serving hi-fi food giving it all an unpretentious down-home vibe. We ate inside, but there are patio spaces at the front and back of the property. There’s no onsite parking, but there’s a small paylot right next door.
We were sufficiently impressed that we will be back (with friends) for the location, the vibe, and the food.
about our scale:
– meh [think twice]
* OK [it’ll get the job done]
** good [solid neighborhood joint]
*** damn good [we’ll be back]
**** holy sh!t [transcendental]
$ for each $10 of cost; cost is for a typical entree + appetizer
Sopecitos de Tinga de Pollo
Piña Para la Niña
The Liberty Bar in the good ole days…
Repeating this photo ’cause Facebook grabs the bottom shot for the post…