Mexican Specialties & Seafood with a French Flair
If you are a first-time diner at Ernesto’s Mexican Specialties and Seafood, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Owner Ernesto Torres infuses French cooking techniques throughout the menu to create continental versions of familiar Mexican recipes. The menu’s nine specialty sauces are prepared by hand, rather than whirred in a blender. And their French cooking technique means the sauces are butter-based and addictively luscious. “I take the Mexican sauce Veracruz of capers, olives, and tomatoes that is typically blended into a watery sauce, and instead we make it by hand and use butter,” Torres said. “The mojo de ajo is usually melted butter with garlic, but ours is a French butter emulsion that gives the dish a smoother, creamier taste.”
The unusual combination has worked well for Torres since he opened his first restaurant, Ernesto’s Seafood Corner on West Avenue. His food proved popular enough to prompt him to move in late 1981 to a much larger space, where Ernesto’s is located currently on Jackson Keller Road. Torres came to San Antonio in 1960 and worked 12 years at the St. Anthony Hotel’s private dining club, which then featured elegant French cuisine. After the St. Anthony Hotel, Torres was assistant director of gastronomy and taught French cooking classes at Handy Andy, a leading supermarket in San Antonio at the time. He left Handy Andy to work with his St. Anthony mentor and former boss, William Ardid at his restaurant, Chez Ardid.
“Before I came to San Antonio, I was working in the Gran Hotel Ancira in Monterrey when I was 17,” Torres said. “I have always been interested in fine cuisine and wanted to offer San Antonio a taste of the food I knew so well.”
The family-run restaurant includes Ernesto’s wife Graciela, sons Esteban and Sergio, and daughters Maribel and Belinda, as well as grandsons Ernesto III and Sebastian.
The Shrimp Tropicana is one of Ernesto’s most popular dishes, an off-menu special diners may request. The cold salad comes with avocados and shrimp served on a bed of lettuce, bathed in a warm butter sauce flavored with pineapple, coconut, and orange liqueur. Another off-menu entrée is a combination plate featuring beef tenderloin garnished with a generous helping of crab meat and Veracruz sauce, accompanied by two grilled shrimp dressed with an almond sauce.
Diners may order seafood and meat entrees with one of the nine sauces on the menu. One of the special combination plates includes a kabob of shrimp and lobster tail with the lemon and garlic butter-based mojo con ajo sauce. Snapper arrives stuffed with lump crab meat, ready for the diner’s choice of French-style Mexican sauce, while Steak San Antonio is beef tenderloin with an avocado butter sauce accompanied by a green-sauced chicken enchilada. All desserts, dressings, croutons and bread are prepared in-house. Torres enjoys experimenting with new recipes and being the first to offer local diners dishes from Mexico that are now commonly recognized.
“I was the first in 1979 to offer tortilla soup,” Ernesto said. “I was also the first to have on my menu cold avocado soup, ceviche, crab meat and shrimp nachos, and fried oysters appetizers served with cocktail sauce.”
The family patriarch shows no signs of slowing down. Torres turns 80 in February and has watched his family grow and learn the restaurant business over the course of his career. “My daughter Belinda was only 14 when she and my wife Graciela were our first chefs,” Torres said. “My grandsons now work here. I don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.”
By Iris Gonzalez
Photography by Janet Rogers