Mi Tierra: An Unforgettable Restaurant in San Antonio

by Gray Cargill on March 6, 2013

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As you walk through the entrance of Mi Tierra, you pass by the bakery, which smells so divine it nearly brings you to your knees. Mexican music playing in the background sets the mood for what you are about to experience. But more than anything, you should brace yourself for the visual feast you’ll find inside. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a more highly decorated restaurant in my life. Mi Tierra sprawls across several rooms strung with thousands of Christmas lights, pinatas, small Christmas trees and angels, and framed photos. One room has nothing but green lights, reminding me of Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. It’s enough to make you dizzy.

Mi Tierra

Founded by the Cortez family as a three-table cafe in 1941, Mi Tierra Restaurant & Bakery in El Mercado (Market Square) now seats 500 and is universally lauded one of the best Mexican restaurants in the state of Texas. Naturally, given its reputation, I had to see what all the fuss was about when I was in San Antonio. I can’t say it was the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, but I blame myself for ordering a taco salad. (I heard other guests raving about the enchiladas—after I ordered, naturally). Still, Mi Tierra is a feast for the senses in every way and should be on every visitor’s “must-see” list.

Mi Tierra

My server, Gustavo, was very sweet. The restaurant was quite busy with large groups and families, locals and tourists. The hostess told Gustavo to bring me to a seat at the counter (presumably because I was a solo diner), but when I saw that I would be eating with my back to the amazing décor of the restaurant, I asked if there were any two-tops available. There were not, but he gestured to a nearby table for four and said I could sit there if I wished.

I hesitated, because the restaurant seemed busy to me, and I hated to take up a table for four by myself. I said as much to him. Gustavo insisted “No, it’s all right. This is my section. You can sit here if you like.” So I did, gratefully.

The Mariachi Bar

I soaked up the atmosphere of the restaurant as I sat there and increasingly fell in love with it. I was struck by how many large families–two or three generations–were dining here all at once. It all felt so warm and homey to me. Some people might find the overabundance of decorations tacky or kitschy, but to me, it felt more like embracing culture in a big ol’ bear hug.

The waitresses wore dresses in the colors of the Mexican flag–white, green and red–while waiters dressed in black trousers and white shirts, wearing maroon aprons. Tables were draped with linen white tablecloths covered with glass–classy, yet easier to clean and practical. Strolling troubadours with guitars serenaded guests with traditional Mexican ballads for $5 a song. While I sat there, a grey-haired man in jeans and cowboy hat walked through the restaurant silently with a smile, displaying a caricature he had drawn and a sign: “$10 – caricatures.” He was very low-key, not pressuring anyone, just available if anyone were interested.

After I paid for my meal, I didn’t want to leave. If I hadn’t been so full, I might have stopped to indulge in some pastries from their bakery. If it had been later in the day, I might have slipped into the Mariachi bar to have a margarita. Instead, I lingered to take photos of the restaurant. Gustavo saw me and approached. He told me I should take a picture of their mural. Then he brought me back to a large empty dining room that he said was usually full, but today they weren’t using it because they “weren’t that busy.” When I walked into the room, I hardly knew where to look first.

Mi Tierra

Gold streamers criss-cross the ceiling from chandeliers. A large mirror covers the entire back wall of the room, behind the bar. The bar itself is made entirely of mosaic tiles, with a two-headed serpent on it and a marlin hanging above it. The curtains are red, white and green, and the chandeliers let off a golden glow that reflected off the ceiling streamers. It’s dazzling.

Mosaic Bar and decor

On one side of the room, in a corner, is an elaborate shrine in front of a portrait of Selena, the young “Queen of Tejano Music” whose potential was tragically cut short with her murder in 1995.

Selena Shrine

Across the room is a huge mural that curves around two walls honoring major figures from San Antonio, Texas such as the late US Representative Henry Gonzalez, as well as activists such as Jaime Martinez and Cesar Chavez, and Hispanic celebrities like Carlos Santana, Eva Longoria and Cesar Milan (“The Dog Whisperer”). This “pictorial history of San Antonio” has been a work in progress since the 1970s and features over 100 people at the moment. I couldn’t identify most of them, but it would be fun to learn who they all are.

Mural

Mi Tierra is one of a kind. It is more than a restaurant. It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in Hispanic culture, to feed your senses, and to soak up the atmosphere of family and community that is so palpable here. So take your time when you visit. Look around, listen, pay attention to how it makes you feel. I guarantee you’ll find it unforgettable.

Mi Tierra Restaurant & Bakery is located at 218 Produce Row, San Antonio, at the El Mercado shopping area. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sharon R Checkosky July 27, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Hi Gray, I found your post when I saw Cesar Milan’s picture of the Mi Tierra mural of fame on Twitter/Instagram. I was trying to find out more about who was in it and to see more pics. I recognized quite a few people from his pic.I am still searching for more info though.
I thoroughly enjoyed your pics and commentary. I think what you are doing is great and I perused your site. Very informative and fun at the same time. You are very talented. Thanks and keep up the good work.
Sharon 072713

Gray Cargill July 27, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Thank you very much, Sharon. Good luck finding what you’re looking for.

Teresa Vincent March 8, 2013 at 6:44 pm

EXCELLENT description AND pictures of a true San Antonio classic! You are right about it not necessarily being the best for mexican food. It’s all about the ambience here and you really captured it! I take every guest that comes to San Antonio for the first time here as part of the “must see” San Antonio attractions. Thanks for sharing your beautiful vision of a truly magical place.

Gray March 8, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Thanks, Teresa! I consider that high praise since you are, after all, a local. 🙂

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