Monday, October 24, 2011

My Happy Place: Guanajuato hildebrandensis

El Rafas Cafe
1535 West Hildebrand
(between I-10 and West Avenue)

Last city inspection: October 2010
15 demerits
I've often expressed the opinion that there are more good Mexican restaurants on Hildebrand Avenue than in all of San Antonio outside Loop 410. This is not mere hyperbole, but Hildebrand is, by local standards, unremarkable in this regard. All of the major streets, from here to Mission Espada, are lined with mom-and-pop operations that put the O in San Antonio. Hildebrand just seems to be the northernmost outpost of that thick carpeting of taquerías. Get beyond it heading north, and high-quality tacos grow increasingly rare and precious, until, when you can hear the traffic on the Loop, you have reached the taco equivalent of Death Valley.

I don't know why that is. All those people who grew up on the West Side and the South Side — before the people known locally as "Anglos," decades ago, discovered the Joy of Breakfast Tacos — now live on the north side, many outside the Loop; you'd think they would patronize places that make tacos como Abuelita hecha, yet those places seem not to have found their way successfully out to Loopland with the population. Maybe they eat at home?

Fortunately for me — and that is, of course, all that really matters — Hildebrand Avenue is close to home.

One of these many good Mexican restaurants is El Rafas. It's a little out of the main Hildebrand culinary cluster, being west of Interstate 10, but as it's right up there with the best of the best on that stretch of city street, it's worth the short extra drive. My friend Rick and I went there the other day for a late breakfast.

Jardín Unión, Cd. Guanajuato
photo by Gorgo
One of the things I like best about El Rafas is that the people who run the place are Guanajuatense. My love affair with comida tipica mejicana began decades ago with a plate of chilaquiles con huevo in a tiny, crowded restaurant that spilled out into Jardín Unión. Most of my good friends in Mexico live in Guanajuato, or are from there; all of them went to school there, and no matter how much they move around, when I think of going down to Mexico, Guanajuato is the place I think of. (Sadly, none of my pictures from there are digital, but I'm thinking of getting a scanner. It's just a shade too much technology for me now, though. Meanwhile, I have to use somebody else's pictures.)

Anyway: when I need a dose of memory, El Rafas is the place I go. The food is food that I could get at any of the thirty or so restaurants I know in Guanajuato (even if I can never remember the names of them: the place in the jardín; the place on the road to Dolores Hidalgo; the place that looks like a church; the place down the street from some other place ... you get the idea). If I had an abuelita to make tacos for me growing up, this would be the food I'd've grown up with. It's delicious, it's familiar, it's good quality. It's like another home.

But there's something else I particularly like about El Rafas: the feel of the place. No matter what time of day I go there, it always feels like it's full of family. Not that I get involved in the conversations going on around me; it's just that the place is always full of unusually chatty people.

Go to most decent taco houses, and you'll find people talking sotto voce, consciously keeping their conversations among themselves. Or people sitting by themselves, reading books or newspapers, or sitting silently with companions. But at El Rafas, it seems somewhat de rigueur for people to speak, not loudly, but in their happy voices, and the conversations are distinctly animated. Everybody's talking cheerfully and sincerely, like a TV family around the dinner table on a show from before Seventies Angst took hold of our culture. It all makes you glad to be a part of it. Even I, the laconic curmudgeon, tend to talk more, and more cheerfully, at El Rafas. (This may or may not be a good thing, but it certainly feels good.)

Otherwise, the restaurant features reliably good service and good prices. I almost hate to say such nice things about it, because it's already a challenge to find a table there, some mornings.
El Rafa's Cafe on Urbanspoon


  1. I will definitely check this place out. I lived in Guanajuato for about a year and a half and had the best time in my life. Many fond memories. I miss the quesadillas at the Plaza del Baratillo behind El Jardin. Hope the cartel crap settles down by the time I'm ready to retire there.

  2. I hope so too. I don't expect to retire to Mexico, but I would like to feel safe again in visiting there.

    I remember a restaurant called, I think, the Agora, in the building that has Jardín Unión on one side, and Plazuela del Baratillo on the other; right by the post office. I only ate there once, & don't remember the food so much as the company. I wonder if that's the place you mean?

  3. No, this was a family selling tacos, tortas, quesadillas, etc. from an open air food cart, and were only open in the evenings. If you enter the Plazuela from the Jardín, the yellow cart would have been to the right of the fountain in the opening of a callejón. And honestly, I was generally never too crazy about the food in Guanajuato (nor in Irapuato, where I spent much time), EXCEPT for late-night fare (pozole, tacos al pastor, etc.), my suegra's home cooking, and the wonderful breakfasts. I also love the Gto-style chilaquiles, and have despaired of finding any reasonable equivalent here in S.A. - the only place that has come close is Guajillo's.

  4. The chilaquiles I've had in Guanajuato are of two sorts. Most places there, that I've been to, serve what my friends refer to as chilaquiles a la moda potosina; I posted the recipe on this blog in October 2009 ( Chilaquiles in this style -- good ones -- are available all over town inside the loop. (My own favourite places lately are Linda's, on McCullough just below Oblate, and Carmelita's, on Broadway.)

    The other style, which were in fact the first chilaquiles I had, are more a simplified Mexico City style, basically the fried tortilla pieces with veggies and sauce, sometimes served with eggs but usually without. The best I've found of that style are at Marioli Food to GOurmet, off Stone Oak. (Reviewed last January, at


Add your own two cents here.