You can see Piedras Negras de Noche from the highway, where the exit from I-35 South leads to Cevallos and Laredo streets. It's a big, two-story restaurant with its name painted at highway height. Given the easy accessibility, it's a wonder that I didn't visit years ago — it took a friend's recommendation to motivate me toward the South Side destination.
While I waited for the other members of my party (Piedras Negras doesn't seat you 'til they all arrive), I watched in amazement as the joint filled up fast on a recent Thursday night. Families, couples, and two birthday parties filed past me to what is clearly a favorite neighborhood haunt. The interior is refreshing: decorated more toward a Mexican ranch than a fiesta motif, it advises you right off that this food is devoted to classic norteño fare. The menu, heavy on the steaks and beans, confirms it.
Piedras Negras features an extensive menu, which ranges from seafood and classic Tex-Mex favorites like nachos and fajitas to the aforementioned steaks. We settled into a corner booth and ordered items that aren't offered at every Mexican restaurant in town. That includes cabrito, sweetbreads, and carnitas de puerco, three classic norteño dishes that would test the mettle of this straight-up home cooking.
We also ordered beers and margaritas, staples in my usual Mexican food night out (it helps to lighten the heavy food I know I'm going to indulge in), only to find that Piedras Negras doesn't serve any alcohol. Sadly, I turned my choice to homemade lemonade, which arrived a bit too sweet. But clearly it was made from fresh lemons, which is a good thing.
We also decided to check out an appetizer none of us had heard of before, the deep fried avocado (yes, I know: vegetable fat deep fried in animal fat — mmmmm, good). It was good, although I won't be trying it at home. Chilled slices of avocado are breaded and deep fried, and served with a warm and spicy dipping sauce. Although the appetizer is unusual, what makes it great is the avocado, which was refreshing, delicious, and beautiful. I'd have been happy with the avocados even without their crusty encasing.
The food, which came quickly and courteously from the kitchen, made up for the shortage of drink. Bowls of beans, seasoned with tomatoes and pork, accompanied each meat, as well as rosy Spanish-style rice and a lettuce and tomato salad.
The servings were generous. Cabrito and carnitas were judged to be tasty, while the sweetbreads — a delicacy in Europe, and much-maligned peasant fare in the U.S. — were absolutely delicious. Sweetbreads are common in Mexican cuisine, but pretty rare in its San Antonio translation. They are the most versatile of offal meats, usually the throat or stomach glands of veal or lamb. I don't know what animal originated the delicate, flavorful sweetbreads we dined on at Piedras Negras, but the preparation could not be faulted.
Desserts looked to be amazing: sopapillas and tres leches cake were only a couple of the many delights that awaited us. Unfortunately, the over-sized dinners defeated our average-sized appetites, leaving us unable to contemplate any of the promising items on view.
Throughout our early (6:30 p.m.) dinner, the crowd around us had continued to build, diners settling in for what looked like a packed evening. None of them seemed to be tourists, none of them had the look of the '09ers, and not one was a chic artiste or hip young thing. That promising detail helped raise Piedras Negras in our esteem, a place that serves good, basic cuisine according the norteño tradition, and that does it supported by neighborhood clientele in a corner of San Antonio that seems to be off the trend radar still.
Do you want to treat a friend to dinner, but not have him drink you into bankruptcy? Dinner for three came in at $35, a very reasonable figure that might easily have doubled if we had downed a handful of margaritas.