From left: Diana, Louis, and Teresa in front of a portrait of their mother, Viola. Image courtesy of mysanantonio.com
The restaurant industry is a tough, yet rewarding one. Businesses come and go, but those that stay – those that endure - find a winning combination in creating great food and serving happy, loyal customers. For the Barrios family of San Antonio, their customers are more than just diners and patrons - they are an extension of the family.
Los Barrios, San Antonio’s beloved Mexican restaurant, began in 1979 with Viola Barrios, the matriarch of the Barrios family. After her husband passed away in a car accident, Viola needed to find a way to support herself and her three children, Teresa, Louis, and Diana.
“She always loved cooking,” said Diana Barrios of her late mother. With $3,000, she started her restaurant in a rented boat garage in downtown San Antonio before buying an old Diary Queen building on Blanco in 1980, where the restaurant remains today. When she first started, she had to do everything and the kids got involved from a young age. “Los Barrios became our home,” said Diana, who admits she and her siblings have always been surrounded by food. For Viola, the restaurant became her passion.
Frozen beverages await at the Viola's Ventanas bar.
Today, the family has added two more restaurants to their name, La Hacienda and Viola’s Ventanas, which were added in 2004 and 2013, respectively. At each of the three restaurants, one of Viola’s kids can always be found, a familiar face in an inviting home. “We are still there on a daily basis, still very connected to the business,” she said adding, “We are owners and operators.” Between the three children are eight grandchildren, the latter of which are lovingly called “The Board of Directors”; they’ve all worked in the restaurants at one point or another. It’s a family establishment through and through, and because of this, customers dining there feel like they're home.
On the Los Barrios family website, this quote greets visitors: “Eating together is how San Antonians celebrate family,” and indeed, San Antonio's family-friendliness – from sports to arts to entertainment and food – is one of the many things that makes it unique.
San Antonio has always had a warmth, charm, and rich cultural texture to it, all of which combine to create an atmosphere of inclusivity – something best witnessed at any of the Barrios family restaurants! However, over the years, San Antonio has often remained in the shadow of other Texas cities, such as Dallas and Austin. Thankfully today, the Alamo City is on a path of great growth with well-deserved recognition in all arenas, including the food scene.
Viola's Ventanas at sunset.
“Finally, San Antonio is being recognized for the great food it’s serving up on a daily basis, in all quadrants of the city,” said Diana of the "Tex-Mex capital of the world." And just as every region in Mexico produces different styles of Mexican food, so too does San Antonio. After all, Texas was once a part of Mexico, and the collaborations created here were entirely unique, an influence of French, Spanish, Vaquero, and Native American. “San Antonio’s style (of Mexican food) is habit-formingly delicious!” said Diana, who is a popular fixture on many national television outlet, including Food Network. Be sure to check out Diana's Puffy Taco Throwdown with Bobby Flay! (Can you guess who won?!)
The menus at the Barrios family restaurants are extensive, but all of them are reflective of the family’s emphasis on casero-style cooking, which is essentially Mexican home style cooking. It’s not fancy food, but it’s quality driven, authentic, and simple, and it’s served in a homey, attractive setting. This style of cooking is best encapsulated in The Los Barrios Cookbook, which has become a seminal piece of Mexican food literature.
The Los Barrios Family Cookbook.
“I like to say it’s the perfect gift for any homesick Texan you might know,” said Diana of the book, which compiles the best of their casero-style recipes, all of which are fun, easy, delicious – not hard. These recipes are for novices, to be loved and enjoyed as family favorites, much like the ethos of the restaurant.
For a first timer to Los Barrios, Diana recommends the cheese enchiladas, a dish people have come back for since Viola started the restaurant thirty-six years ago. The business is a safe haven for family traditions, and often, the employees share their own talents. Enrique, a Los Barrios waiter who has worked with the family for over thirty years always makes secret salsas, something different and delicious that keeps people guessing and craving more.
Kitchen Action: A peek into the back of the house.
What's next for the Barrios family? In the months and years ahead, they will continue to do what they do best, and no doubt, their family of customers will continue to come. “We will continue to do like we’ve done for the last thirty-six years, offering our guests a wonderful dining experience and a great meal in an environment that makes you feel like you’re at a friend’s house.”
As the brand has grown over the years, Viola's spirit lives on through the lives of her children and all those who come back to Los Barrios year after year. The family's greatest accomplishment? Keeping the customers that they’ve had since their mom started the business. Now, they see 2nd and 3rd generations coming in on a frequent basis. Keeping her memory alive is a priority for her children and in recent years they’ve started the ‘Viola’s Huge Heart Foundation’ which gives high school scholarships to young ladies with great potential.
Next time you find yourself in a Mexican food mood in San Antonio, be sure to stop by one of the Barrios family restaurants for warm hospitality and a memorable casero-style meal. Thank you to the family for chatting with us!