Generations of San Antonians have celebrated and tourists made to feel welcome in the family-owned Mi Tierra Restaurant that has thrived for 78 years in El Mercado and spun off other restaurants in the downtown area.

On Tuesday, La Familia Cortez Restaurants is opening its fifth restaurant, but this time far outside its longtime neighborhood.

Mi Familia de Mi Tierra opens Tuesday in the Rim shopping center at 18403 Interstate 10 West. Dedicated in memory of founders Pedro and Cruz, the matriarch who passed away in May, Mi Familia is the restaurant group’s first full-service venture outside of Market Square, outside the Zona Cultural.

Yet once you step inside the far Northwest Side establishment, which has taken its place among the usual fast-food eateries and big-box stores in the former limestone quarry, you’re transported, you’re suddenly con mi familia.

Bringing that sense of family and culture to the new restaurant was a well-thought-out effort, said Pete Cortez, chief operating officer at La Familia Cortez. “There’s a lot of Latinos living all over the city, a lot of Mexican nationals as well, but it’s not as steeped in the history we have downtown,” he said. “For us, that was one of the biggest challenges because one of our missions is to promote and preserve culture. If we are leaving Market Square, how do we do that if we’re somewhere the culture is not already existing in that area? But that’s all part of the growth.”

A name for the new restaurant was easy to come by. “It is the next step in our journey,” said Deborah Cortez, a member of the third generation of Cortezes and the group’s interior designer and cultural curator. “When you step back and think about why our grandparents started Mi Tierra to begin with, it was because of their family.”

(From left) Third-generation Cortezes Deborah and Pete with fourth-generation family member Elijah Cortez

During a tour of the restaurant for the Rivard Report on Friday, which began outside near a massive fountain and beneath a statue of the patron saint of San Antonio, she spoke about the history of Mi Tierra and her family’s tradition of hospitality.

Familia, cultura, and comida, in that order, because it’s always family first,” Deborah said during a soft opening on Friday when old friends and loyal customers were invited to visit the new restaurant for the first time. “He [Pedro] did it through the comida, and he always knew he was going to uphold the cultura because the culture was the thing that became the glue that stuck him there to that area.”

Deborah spearheaded the interior work on the restaurant, which occupies a building previously held by another local operator. By design, much about Mi Familia is familiar to those who have dined at Mi Tierra. Davis Sprinkle was the lead architect.

La Familia’s decor showcases the family’s rich cultural traditions including altars in memory of the deceased, sparkling Christmas lights and papel picado, colorful piñatas, and hundreds of family photos spanning the history of Mi Tierra. Along one side of the main dining room, the panadería’s glass case holds trays of tempting pan dulce and Mexican candy.

“This room is actually a hybrid [of two areas at Mi Tierra] because when you go into the lobby, the first thing you see is the bakery, the piñatas, and the blinking yellow gold lights,” Deborah said. “But when you go to the main dining room, you’ve got all the Christmas lights. So we blended it to create the magic.”

In other dining rooms, bold contemporary art by local artists and from Mexico adorns the walls, and artist Roberto Ytuarte has begun work on a mural featuring images of the faces and places in Zona Cultural. It will take more than a year to complete.

“We’re almost 20 miles from downtown and the Market Square and what we refer to as Zona Cultural, which is something the family has been working on for many years,” Pete said. “What you’re seeing now, in the beginning of this mural, are all the significant and cultural elements of Zona Cultural. … We also want this mural to be reflective of this new community we’re serving on the North Side.”

There’s an outpost of Mi Tierra’s Mariachi Bar as well, with the walls featuring framed photos and the suits of famous mariachis, from “Sol de Mexico” José Fernández and Divas de Cindy Shea to Chepe Solis, who performed at Mi Tierra for 60 years, and Mariachi Los Paisanos of UTSA.

Mariachi Bar at Mi Familia

Because the restaurant sits within close proximity to many of San Antonio’s major corporations, Pete said, they converted an outdoor patio into a private dining room where businesspeople can meet or where families can hold celebrations. A new patio, the work of Mexican landscape architect Mario Schjetnan, features a reflection pool made in Puebla, Mexico.

In a departure from the 24/7 tradition of its El Mercado predecessor, Mi Familia will be open only for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. The menu features some old favorites from La Familia Cortez’s restaurants as well as a few new entrees and family-style offerings.

“We were wowed! As soon as we walked in, we said, ‘Deborah did this,’” said Becky Barrera, emerging from the restaurant after lunch last week and greeting Deborah outside. Barrera is a longtime member of the women’s version of the “Snakepit Club,” a group of men who have been meeting at Mi Tierra for many years. “You did a fabulous job. It feels like Mi Tierra downtown, but it’s Mi Familia uptown.”

Merri Gutierrez also bubbled over with gratitude and enthusiasm for the new restaurant. “You feel special when you’re here,” she said to Deborah. “So thank you.”

Following a ribbon-cutting Tuesday, Mi Familia opens to the public at 11:30 a.m. The restaurant will be open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.