Editor’s note: Even the most devoted Thanksgiving turkey enthusiast eventually needs a change of protein. To that end, Rivard Report staff roamed the city to find hidden gems, longtime local favorites, and other independent eateries that serve slices of San Antonio’s manifold cultures. For more stories in our Escape the Turkey series, click here.
Her gray-streaked hair pulled back in a ponytail, Maria Beza eases into conversation with her customers as they rise from their seats in the 600-square-foot restaurant Maria has operated for more than 30 years.
“Maria, muy sabrosa, gracias,” a white-hatted customer says as he heads toward the door and Maria and the guests bid adios, pecks on the cheek punctuating their embraces.
Maria’s Cafe’s mom-and-pop shop on Nogalitos Street has drawn some of the same diners for decades, their special orders with names like “Drewpy Drawers” scrawled on a whiteboard. Known for taking custom orders on the spot, the restaurant has a secret menu of customer creations.
“If we have it, we’ll make it,” Maria said.
The simple Tex-Mex fare never fails to satisfy the comfort food cravings of James Cobb, a long-time customer who has known Maria since her days waiting tables at the now-closed Lupita’s restaurant in downtown San Antonio.
“We in San Antonio are lucky that there are still a lot more mom-and-pop businesses” than in other cities, Cobb said. “Given that, this seems like a more special mom-and-pop. It just seems quintessentially San Antonio to me – no pretense at all, it is what it is.”
But patrons have recently come “from further afield,” Cobb said, as word has spread about Maria’s home-cooked offerings and Cheers-like hospitality. The restaurant has a 4.8-star rating on Google, 4.5 on Yelp, and a near-perfect 4.9 on Facebook.
The cyberlove comes from all corners of the web and national publications, such as the Wall Street Journal, which cited Maria’s as a local favorite in an article that proclaimed San Antonio as the “best under-the-radar food destination in the U.S.”
The menu features an assortment of Mexican and American offerings – tacos, breakfast and lunch plates, pancakes, omelets, nachos, hamburgers, and menudo – but perhaps the most striking attribute is the pricing. Breakfast tacos are $1.50 to $2 but cost 69 cents on weekdays from 6-10 a.m. Breakfast also includes a $4.99 plate featuring potatoes, eggs, beans, and tortillas. Lunch plates run as low as $5.50. The business also caters weddings, parties, and other special events.
On Friday, smoked turkey was on the menu for Maria’s annual cookout. Every year before Thanksgiving, her husband Tom, whom Maria calls the “brisket whisperer,” smokes turkeys, served with all the fixings. The atmosphere resembles a block party, drawing hundreds of guests who stick around in outdoor tents for free beer and music.
Before she hosted the first smoked turkey lunch at Maria’s Cafe, Maria was a teenage Guadalajaran transplant washing dishes at Southtown restaurants, eventually working her way to the front of the house. She saved money until she had enough to open her own restaurant.
Now her daughter is set to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Leslie Beza expects to open a restaurant in Falls City, about 45 miles southeast of downtown San Antonio. The 34-year-old grew up at Maria’s Cafe and remains a constant presence. Under her mother’s tutelage, Leslie learned how to manage the business’ finances and inventory, but she also emulated Maria’s warm personality, getting to know her customers well.
“We are just so close to the people,” Leslie said. “It’s just so fun to serve them. When they come in here it’s like welcoming them into our home.”
But Maria can’t run the restaurant forever. She hopes to retire in a few years so she and Tom, who’s 66 and retired from the military, can travel and live the good life.
Before that happens, Maria wants to ensure business is steady at her daughter’s restaurant in Falls City and recruit someone reliable – likely her son James – to step into her role at Maria’s.
The lure of retirement might not be as strong as the close bond with her customers: Maria said she gets attached to regulars like Cobb, who comes for more than just the cheese enchilada plate and huevos rancheros.
“It’s not just the food, it’s not just the atmosphere, it’s Maria herself,” he said. “She’s just absolutely engaging and everybody just likes to come in here and get her experience, too.”