San Antonio—San Antonio is a city unlike any other in Texas. The Alamo, the Riverwalk, and the missions are some of the most popular stops, but when it comes to places to get a taste of Tex-Mex cuisine, Mi Tierra has been on top of that list since 1941.
“Tex-Mex food in San Antonio, it’s really kind of where it started and culminated,” explained Cariño Cortez, part of the third generation of Cortezes to care for this San Antonio staple.
Cariño grew up within the walls of Mi Tierra because her grandfather, Pedro Cortez, is the one who started it all. Over 75 years ago, Pedro purchased a small restaurant for $150. That original restaurant is at the center of the sprawling eatery that has expanded over time to make Mi Tierra what it is today— a destination for a bunch of really hungry Texans.
“It’s over a million…” Cariño commented on the number of customers they receive each year, “It’s nuts.”
How can they cram in that many meals in a year? They NEVER close.
“The sign outside literally says, ‘We never close,’ and people still ask, ‘What time do you all open?'” she said, “24/7, 365, we’re here.”
At Mi Tierra, it all starts with the comida, a culinary creation that combined chili con carne merged with Mexican influences.
“Tex-Mex—it’s not trying to be Mexican food; it’s not trying to be Texas food. It’s really its own cuisine,” Cariño explained. “It’s the Mexican guiso and stews that your grandmothers made from Mexico, but it’s also crispy tacos that came out of a certain time and era… that’s what’s really special about it. So, we are one of the founders of Tex-Mex cuisine.”
Being the third generation of Cortezes to care for this San Antonio institution is no easy matter.
“I think it’s a lot of pressure just on our third and fourth and fifth generations and so on… We’ve got a lot of work to live up to, and it’s also something that you can’t let go by the wayside,” said Cariño. “It’s definitely pressure, but I think it’s the right kind.”
That being said, there are a few benefits.
“I’ve never had to wait here for a table, so that’s one thing,” she said.
The rooms of this restaurant have seen all sorts of history and to celebrate their story and the heritage of San Antonio, a sprawling mural was commissioned.
“After my grandfather passed away, my dad really wanted a way to commemorate the American Dream, so this mural’s named ‘The American Dream,’” explained Cariño. “You’ve got my grandparents in the middle…and then around them are their five children…and then you’ve got all these different Latino figures who’ve contributed either to our community, our family, or society, to help preserve our culture and help move us forward.”
Most of these actors, icons, and pillars of the Alamo City have eaten at Mi Tierra and that includes some presidential company.
“So, when [Bill Clinton] was president, he put us in his book… It’s the only place he’s ever eaten all three meals at,” she said.
Then there’s the bakery, another iconic San Antonio stop that always earns 100 percent of the popular vote.
“There’s a reason we put the bakery right up front when people walk in,” she said “It kind of gets your appetite going.”
No matter what kind of Mexican pastry makes your mouth water, it can be found in the bakery’s massive case. Some of which include a few original offerings that put the dulce in the pan.
“Our original baker…made this pan dulce. It’s a sweet bread…stuffed with vanilla custard… topped with cajeta, which is goat’s milk caramel, and then topped with pecans. So, he had made this, named it after himself,” continued Cariño, “then his wife, whose name is Sylvia, was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to name something after yourself. What about name something after me?’…So, the daintier version, he made…for her. So…They’re always next to each other.”
Mi Tierra has found itself as a national landmark and a cornerstone of San Antonio culture.
“We feel really blessed to be able to share this legacy from not only my grandparents, but also to the second generation, third generation. We now have fourth-generation family members working here,” said Cariño. “It’s a huge responsibility, but at the same time, it’s a lot of fun.”