A chef’s mission to revolutionize San Antonio's food scene
With 62% of its 1.3 million residents being of Hispanic heritage, you would think that San Antonio would have always had a food scene bustling with authentic Mexican restaurants.
But before acclaimed Chef Johnny Hernandez introduced dishes from his mother’s hometown of Nahuatzen – about 350 miles southeast of Puerto Vallarta – at his popular restaurant, La Gloria, San Antonio residents were mainly focused on Tex-Mex food. Hernandez's family even owned and ran a popular Tex-Mex café in San Antonio for years when he was growing up.
How did Hernandez transition to cooking authentic Mexican cuisine while changing the culinary landscape of San Antonio along the way? And how did he bring a taste of Mexico to a U.S. airport? Read on to learn more about how he became a chef, his journey to discovering Mexican cuisine and the development of his San Antonio culinary empire.
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Hernandez got his start in the business in 1976 at the tender age of 8, working in his family’s restaurant, where his passion for cooking began.
He sold candy at school starting at age 9, which evolved into selling breakfast tacos from his family restaurant. His first official restaurant job was at the now-closed Karam’s Mexican Dining Room at age 15. He was told he needed to be 16 to work there, but the owner took pity on him and gave him a job as a dishwasher.
“I would go in and organize the pots and pans area. Then I would help the cooks and prep cooks to show them that while I was young, I had some skills,” he said. By age 16, he had become a prep cook.
While in high school, Hernandez took a home economics class where he told his teacher he wanted to become a chef, adding that he wanted to work at a hotel. That led to a stint at the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk.
That set Hernandez on a course that led him to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1990. After graduating, he worked at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara, Calif., before returning home to San Antonio in 1994 to realize his dream of launching a catering business.
Hernandez initially wanted to differentiate himself from other catering companies in San Antonio, so the business he launched took advantage of his classic French training and focused on different international cuisines instead of doing Tex-Mex or Mexican food. After 10 years, Hernandez’s business, True Flavors Catering, was successful.
Discovering Mexican cuisine
In the early 1990s, however, Hernandez also had begun traveling down to Central Mexico to help his mother run a voluntary missionary camp, where he was tapped to run the kitchen.
“That’s when I was introduced to authentic Mexican food,” Hernandez said. “I had never seen or experienced it because we grew up only going to [U.S.-Mexico] border [towns]. That was kind of the extent of my travel to Mexico, which felt like Texas,” he said.
The program had 300 kids and 100 volunteers, but no one could figure out how to feed that many people, said Hernandez. After his mom volunteered his services, he worked a few weeks a year and every summer.
“I enjoyed the work, but I also enjoyed the travel and getting to know Mexico. So I started traveling to all the regions (of Mexico),” said Hernandez. “My training was French. I love German and Japanese food. But I wanted to do something different since those trips really started to open my eyes to all the regionality of Mexican food.”
Growing up, Hernandez said that his family never had a reason to go to more distant parts of Mexico like the central part of the country.
“I took additional trips because I was so fascinated by the food. I learned so much from the ladies in the (camp) kitchen. (I would tell them) 'I'm going to show you how to make a barbecue sauce, but I want you to show me how to make salsa,'” he said.
Opening La Gloria
Hernandez went back and forth to Mexico for a few years to study the cuisines of Guadalajara, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Merida and Baja. After his travels, he decided it was time to introduce authentic Mexican cuisine to San Antonio.
“I still had the catering business, but I always wanted (to open) a restaurant. So I started thinking about my concept and saying it's time for me to do it,” he said.
Thanks to his great network of clients and customer accounts, Hernandez was able to get his restaurant financed. He had a particular angle in mind.
“I wanted to find a very approachable way to begin to introduce authentic Mexican food to San Antonio. And that's where the street food concept came about,” he said.
The strategy was to be at the center of every food conversation related to Mexican food. “And I wanted to be an authority on it. That's when I dedicated all my time to reading, researching and traveling,” he said. “When I opened La Gloria, if you look at my first menus, there was a glossary in the back that described every dish.”
The menu also broke down the regions of Mexico where the food came from.
“I knew that the level of understanding of authentic Mexican food was very limited, and we wanted to manage that,” he said.
La Gloria opened on May 5 – Cinco de Mayo – in 2010. Even with all of his preparation and research, Hernandez was still surprised that San Antonians so readily accepted authentic Mexican cuisine.
“No one had ever presented Mexican food in a more contemporary way,” said Hernandez. “What I was most surprised about was that the Latino community was the one that was most accepting of it. It was like, ‘What's this Mexican food that we're tasting? This is not how we grew up with Mexican food.’”
La Gloria was an overwhelming success.
“When something is successful and you get some great press, word of mouth travels fast. The lines formed and people just continued to pour into our restaurant,” said Hernandez. “I continue to be amazed at the amount of customers that come through our restaurant.”
Landing at the airport
In the summer of 2010, Hernandez was invited by concessions operator HMSHost to bring the La Gloria concept to San Antonio International Airport (SAT). An airport is the most challenging place to operate a restaurant because of the security, he said.
After six months of wooing, HMSHost wanted to franchise the concept. “I don’t have a franchise, but I wanted to take this on as a challenge and as a way to further share our food,” he said. “So I said, 'These are my conditions. I need to operate it. I don't have a lot of money, so I'm gonna need help. These are my recipes and my decorations. If you can give me an agreement that says I can be in control of all these things, we can talk. If not, go to somebody else.'"
HMSHost was already working with other chefs, including Todd English (Bonfire Steakhouse) at JFK and Rick Bayless (Tortas Frontera) at Chicago O’Hare (ORD). “Rick and I are on Culinary Institute of America’s Latin foods advisory board, so we shared a few emails so I could see how his relationship was going,” he said. “He told me to just be careful, make sure you have everything in writing and make sure your brand is protected.”
The airport La Gloria opened in November 2010. “What was amazing is that once we got past all the difficult parts and opened, people were amazed and couldn’t believe they could get good food in an airport,” said Hernandez. “It’s now one of the most successful restaurants in the country for HMSHost. I feel it’s because we demonstrated that it could be done and it could be done well.”
Since the launch of the original La Gloria in downtown San Antonio, Hernandez has opened an outlet in the tony Dominion neighborhood on the northwest side of the city. He’s also opened two Burgertecas, which serves hamburgers cooked with indigenous ingredients, The Frutería, which serves contemporary Mexican-style tapas and craft cocktails, and Margarita Truck, all under the Grupo La Gloria and True Flavors Inc. banners.
Other traditional Mexican cuisine restaurants also have popped up all over San Antonio, including Tlahco Mexican Kitchen, Guajillo's - The Shortcut to Mexico, La Perla del Pacifico and Sabor CocinaBar, to name just a few.
Hernandez was named one of the top five Hispanic chefs in America by Siempre Mujer magazine. In 2017, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designated San Antonio a Creative City of Gastronomy, making the city part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. Hernandez also cooked at the prestigious James Beard House alongside San Antonio chefs Steve McHugh and Elizabeth Johnson in celebration of San Antonio’s 300th anniversary in 2018.
In 2020, the food industry news site Chef’s Pencil named San Antonio as the most popular place in the country for Mexican cuisine. That's thanks in no small part to the efforts of Hernandez introducing the authentic tastes of Mexico to his hometown city.