The sign outside Adelante probably stands guilty of false advertising, or at least faulty geography. “Where Heaven and Health Meet,” it proclaims, as if heaven were not in itself healthy and health not itself divine. But the neat old eatery in Terrell Heights, a few blocks north of the McNay museum, is a hell of a lot more salubrious than most other cocinas where Tex and Mex meet in a sloppy embrace. If other local restaurants plagiarized Adelante’s recipes, San Antonio might cease to be Fat City. Lard, which ought to remain on the haunches of hogs, would no longer be thickening frijoles and clogging arteries. Adelante cooks with heart-friendly canola oil and omits menudo from its menu. Without mariachis or margaritas (it does offer wine and beer), the popular restaurant continues to fill its booths and tables with diet-conscious clientele.
As an imperative, ¡adelante! means come in!, and we came in from the cold of a glacial January night to bask in the warm ambience of a space that could pass for a gallery of whimsical folk art — hand-painted lamps, pastel globes, merry skeletons, grotesque masks, the giant likeness of a watermelon suspended from the ceiling. Mexican movie posters adorn the walls. Adelante has been in business for more than 20 years, but its funky spirit reaches back farther, to the 1960s, before credit cards became universal tender; this place takes only cash or checks. Dedicated to the proposition that wholesome Mexican cuisine is not an oxymoron, or an incubator of obesity, diabetes, and stroke, Adelante seems untroubled by the ethics of eating flesh. Meat is on the menu, though when I asked about the borracho bean soup, routinely made with bacon, the discerning waiter volunteered, “It’s vegan.” A hungry vegan can find several options here, though not as many as a vegetarian fond of cheese. Portobello and spinach are prominent ingredients. Specialties of the house include fresh tamales, sweet-potato fries, and flan.
My carnivorous companion was pleased with her order of chicken fajitas and fixings — a bowl of borracho-bean soup, brown rice, and black beans. Though tempted by the veggie fajitas, which I have enjoyed here before, I settled on a serving of tofu enchiladas — two tortillas rolled around a filling of bean curd, carrots, and broccoli and bathed in mild salsa. Brown rice and refried pinto beans accompanied it, as well as a splotch of guacamole on a bed of indifferent lettuce and tomato. Offered a choice between whole-wheat and corn tortillas, we grazed on fluffy, savory maize.
Located within a fashionable stronghold of Bexar County’s privileged bourgeoisie, Adelante is a countercultural provocation dispensing simple peasant fare. To the affluent, overfed, and undernourished, it says: “Let them eat beans.” The chow at Adelante would never pass for haute cuisine, but neither does it demand high finance. None of the entrées will set a frugal diner back as much as $10.
One of the motives for dining out is to indulge in the fantasy of communing with exotic cultures. In this, Adelante, for all its gaudy folk décor, would probably disappoint. It is less likely to impress Aunt Ethel, a gringa visiting from Minnesota, than any of the kitschy establishments that crowd the River Walk and Market Square. Though the staff is courteous, knowledgeable, and efficient without being intrusive, none is noticeably Tejano. If serapes and corridos are prerequisites for Mexican culinary authenticity, Adelante is an impostor. Jalapeños are served as condiments, not blistering testaments to the valor of la raza. You probably won’t find much Spanglish spoken here — and if not English, only the purest textbook Spanish. But Adelante is what it is: a friendly, honest fonda from which a conscientious diner can emerge back out into the cold void of bloat, debt, or guilt.
— Steven G. Kellman