Texas Living

Tex-Mex Success: Chef Johnny Hernandez

By Jennifer Chappell Smith 12.9.16

The menu at La Gloria looks different than San Antonio’s classic Tex-Mex joints and represents more than a decade’s worth of dreams — along with a few risks.

“There’s nothing more difficult than going against tradition,” says Chef Johnny Hernandez, who opened his San Antonio restaurant, La Gloria, in 2010. “I understood our local traditions and cuisine very well growing up here.”

Hernandez is a successful caterer and chef-turned-maverick restaurateur in this hotbed of Tex-Mex eateries, thanks to his devotion to the most authentic of cuisine — Mexican street food. It’s a success story that started with humble roots.

Hernandez has used La Gloria to spotlight food-stall fare from Mexico’s mountain and coastal towns by preparing it with the freshest ingredients in the most traditional ways. He’s made street food chic, presenting it authentically in hip, urban spaces that appeal to local folk and tourists alike. Guests see elaborate sculptures, colorful paper banners fluttering from the ceiling, and, at the newest location, a cluster of tin angel wings that provide a fun photo op before a meal.

“I opened it six and a half years ago, but I thought about it for 10,” Hernandez says. “There were so many different conversations and so many thoughts, trying to make a very calculated decision to introduce something new to a community that is very grounded in Tex-Mex tradition.”

Feeding the masses

resized_body_dsc_7940The restaurant has been lauded in the pages of Bon Appétit, Southern Living, Travel + Leisure, and other high-profile magazines. Hernandez was named a Top 5 Hispanic Chef in America by Siempre Mujer magazine and served as a guest judge on Bravo’s Top Chef. Now he has two other La Gloria locations in San Antonio and one in Las Vegas, along with his catering business and two other authentic Mexican restaurant concepts in the Alamo City. He was even invited to the White House earlier this year to cook dinner on Cinco de Mayo.

One thing you won’t find at La Gloria: enchiladas drowning in cheese and refried beans. Sure, Hernandez feels the love for such Tex-Mex classics. He was raised on them. But he longed for Texans to experience more authentic Mexican cuisine. Inspired by travels through Mexico and charmed by stalls dedicated to serving ceviche or sopes alone, he wondered how Texans would react to a Mexican eatery that deviated from the typical fajita-taco-quesadilla mix. He loved the idea but had doubts.

“As a chef, you get all excited, thinking, ‘I’m going to introduce different styles and ingredients and spices,’” he says. “But you think, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done it?’ You think, ‘Well, maybe it won’t work.’”

La Gloria, however, worked from opening day, probably because its chef fully committed to the concept, even incorporating “Street Foods of Mexico” into the restaurant logo.

“I ultimately said, ‘I believe it’s the time to do it. I’m really going to embrace the theme of street food,’” Hernandez says. “La Gloria speaks of my journey through Mexico. It’s a story from the heart.”

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The art of home cooking

Hernandez, 47, learned to cook from his dad, who owned a neighborhood Mexican café on San Antonio’s west side. “My sister was at the register. I was always kind of behind the scenes in the kitchen with Dad,” he says, recalling daily stops by the restaurant before each school day.

His father, the son of Mexican migrant farmhands, gravitated toward cooking himself, staying behind in the kitchen with his grandmother when his parents traveled to different cities to work. “Everyone loved my dad’s food,” Hernandez says, adding that catering gigs became part of how the family spent weekends.

After a job cooking at a downtown hotel during high school, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., with his dad’s encouragement. His instructors seemed impressed by his skills. “Where’d you get your training?” they marveled. 

 

“Chopping, peeling, sautéing — those are things I grew up doing,” Hernandez says. “I wasn’t doing French food, but I could apply those skills and pick up quickly.”

Although he’d had limited exposure to other types of cuisine, Hernandez got more experience than most growing up. He was selected to help with the opening of The Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and worked at the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore in Santa Barbara, Calif., before he returned to San Antonio. His father had passed away, and he felt the pull of familia. “My mom needed my help and support,” he says.

Building an empire

With help from his family, he started True Flavors in 1994. The catering business got him started, but he nursed the dream of one day owning his own restaurant. An investor befriended Hernandez through True Flavors and encouraged him to open his Mexican restaurant at his new development — a remarkable complex along the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River Walk on the site of the historic Pearl Brewery.

resized_body_dsc_7479La Gloria’s riverside vibe served as an early cornerstone of the revitalized complex, dubbed Pearl, now home to shops, condos, restaurants, and the dazzling new Hotel Emma, not to mention the third location of the Culinary Institute of America. The CIA’s presence has invigorated the food scene in San Antonio and provides talent to fuel its culinary renaissance.

Hernandez is one of several innovators based at Pearl: Chef Steve McHugh of Cured — which specializes in farm-to-table American dishes — was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award as Best Chef: Southwest last spring; and longtime San Antonio-based chef Andrew Weissman dishes up Italian favorites at Il Sogno Osteria and serves seafood at The Sandbar.

“La Gloria has been such a success that it’s challenging. I don’t think I left that kitchen for a year and a half, two years,” he says, “It took us a good while to configure a kitchen to do street foods efficiently and to execute as if you were at a taco stand in a city in Mexico — or as if you were a vendor that sells sopes. It took a lot of thought and fine-tuning to deliver that.”

Hernandez made sure the menu starts with a taco section to help first-timers expecting Tex-Mex to feel comfortable, but his tacos come in 11 varieties — from bistec (chopped grilled beef) to potosinos (cheese with chili sauce). And farther down the menu, diners find tortas and ceviches.

“There was a lot of conversation,” Hernandez says. “How authentic do you go? I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to be 100 percent grounded and rooted in tradition, and that’s going to be our hallmark.’” 

With help from his brother, Hernandez still runs his catering company, which also operates a hacienda-like venue called Casa Hernan near downtown San Antonio. In trendy Southtown, The Frutería draws on traditions of Mexican fruit stands and serves innovative tapas. El Machito, which opened in 2014, features mesquite-grilled meats in traditional Mexican styles, including the chef’s signature cabrito asado, a special preparation of goat meat.

Coming full circle in a sense, Hernandez recently partnered with a farmer to grow corn that will be stone-ground for use at La Gloria and his other restaurants. Corn stalks grow in a field located about 20 minutes from where his dad’s old café once stood.

“It’s a beautiful sight,” he says.

Does all this Tex-Mex talk have you in a cooking mood? Check out the Texas Heritage for Living Pinterest page to find some inspiration for your next meal!