El Jarro was the first place I came to eat alone as a newly single woman,” revealed Dining Companion when I announced our destination. “I must have eaten here a hundred times after the divorce,” she later said, indicating the table she usually had occupied, with only a book for a companion of her own. “Arturo always treated me like a queen, despite the couples atmosphere,” she added.
Arturo, in this case, was her regular waiter, and it was old-home week when she arrived after a several-year absence to find him still there. (DC was again treated like a queen, I feel obliged to add.) But owners Arturo and Sandy Cerna have clearly developed the skill of treating all their customers like royalty; the place was jumping inside and out on a Friday night — with couples and entire families, the jack-of-all-genres band was in fine form, and there was a feel-good hum in the air.
No defensive book-reading was necessary — or even possible, for that matter. True, it did take at least 45 minutes to get seated, Arturo’s intervention notwithstanding, but that was just enough time to consume one of the house’s seriously stout margaritas: Silver Patron Tequila, Cointreau and fresh lime juice — just as I like them.
El Jarro’s menu has expanded since DC’s post-divorce days — and since my last visit, too. The tortilla lady in the kiosk, a local first, is still there, of course, turning out Maria’s hand-patted corn tortillas to be served with cheese and salsa ranchera. There is a full range of Tex-Mex dinners and tacos — puffy, crispy and floppy. And the obligatory nachos, fajitas and enchiladas are also front and center.
But Arturo Cerna has developed a reputation as a chef who will push the standard Mexican and Tex-Mex envelope beyond its expected boundaries, and, accordingly, we started with light and delicate chicken empanadas served with a cilantro pesto dipping sauce. (I found the sauce a little oily, but the flavor was just assertive enough for the empanadas.)
Appetizer No. 2 was a brace of anticuchos, but not the standard beef or chicken variety (though these are available). No, these were tuna — meaty, medium rare and magnificent. As is apparently necessary with Northside San Antonio-Mexican cuisine — a very specific subset of the usual Mexican genre — the plate was a study in baroque excess: tomatoes, yellow cheese, lettuce, pickled jalapeno slices, pico de gallo, guacamole … all good, but the tuna could have stood on its own with a minimum of garnish.
Service is leisurely enough of a weekend evening that there’s time for a good dance number or two between courses, and at first we shared the floor even with kids, testimony to El Jarro’s family-friendly atmosphere.
Returning to the entrées we found these plates, too, to be studies in voluptuous presentation and super-generous portions. Though we had been tempted by the tipped-in (and locally atypical) special of rolled salmon with spinach, mangoes and feta cheese with cilantro pesto mashers, grilled asparagus, fried spinach and Gorgonzola tomatoes (I’m already full just writing this), the more modest pork tenderloin cascabel had been selected, and it came with the comparatively discreet accompaniments of a corn and chicken enchilada with tomatillo sauce and molded Mexican rice.
The enchiladas I could eat all day, and I also liked the tart and fruity cascabel sauce. As is often the case with today’s lean pork, the tenderloin was a little dry, but its flavor, too, was fine. Carnitas and a grilled pork chop with a honeychipotle glaze are other pork options.
From the regular menu — measuring a full 16 by 21 inches when open — we had selected the chicken pipian “with spicy Indian mole.” My first thoughts were of a green pipian made from pumpkin seeds, but Arturo’s is red and coarsely nutty — and an equally good variation on this mole-like theme. The chicken breast was huge and generously sauced, but there was also room on the plate for some intriguing, tempurafried chayote slices, and these I’d like to see more of. Black beans drizzled with cremita were the other major players, and they were impeccable.
Time for another dance or two before dessert, and by this time the floor was nearly all ours. Some exercise was a good idea for its own sake considering our choice: eschewing flan, sopaipillas and the like, we had selected Bananas Foster. Okay, not flambéed table-side, admitted Arturo, but still good, he claimed. And characteristically over-the-top, he might have added. Served in a giant schooner, it is decidedly to be shared for its huge scoop of ice cream, its lush and caramelcoated bananas and the unexpected slivers of almond. No flames, but no lack of drama nonetheless.
At the last dance we did have the floor to ourselves. Make way for the queen; I was just tagging along as consort.
EL JARRO DE ARTURO
13421 San Pedro, (210) 494-5084
Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.,
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Author: Ron Bechtol
Photographer: Janet Rogers