by Andrew Chalk
At a recent restaurant media event in San Antonio I wondered: when does a restaurant transition from just a restaurant to become an institution. You know the difference. An institution you have to visit when you are in town. A restaurant…is just a restaurant. Dallas closest approximations to an institution may be Sonny Bryan’s (at the original location), and the Mansion on Turtle Creek (talk about two ends of the spectrum).
In San Antonio, one unequivocal institution is La Fogata Mexican Cuisine. It began 35 years ago with a converted ice cream stand with seven tables but has expanded to a catacomb of interconnected buildings and patios that spans (including parking) three city blocks. It has a seating capacity of 450 and serves around 6,000 diners each week. Such daunting numbers might make you expect a faceless machine, but nothing could be further from the truth. Owned by the same family, Dwight and Marilyn Lieb, since 1997 and divided up into small cozy areas, La Fogata makes you feel like you are dining somewhere very approachable. Sure the menu has all of the Tex-Mex crowd pleasers but it also has true Mexican staples. Highlights include ceviche (made with fish fillets marinated in lime juice), chicken mole, guacamole made tableside (always a show worth watching) and Tacos de Discada (corn tortillas filled with beef, pork and pork sausage, cilantro and onions, with a side of frijoles borrachos and avocado slices).
Dishes and ingredients that have acquired signature status are the fire-roasted salsa, green enchiladas, salsa verde de tomatillo and La Fogata Flan (homemade coconut flan). General Manager, David Dominguez, notes that some of the popular dishes were on the original menu 35 years ago. Our group was also treated to a dish in the prototype stage. A carne guisada (beef tip stew) served in banana leaf wrappings. This may hit the menu by the time you read this.
The beverage list contains a large beer selection (including nine Mexican) and a large number of variations on La Fogata’s margaritas.
When he bought La Fogata, Dwight Lieb realized that his real estate background was not a linear route to restaurant management so he attended class at Disney Institute. One outcome of that experience was his creation of a mission statement for the restaurant. It is concise: “Create Happiness”