From the 1860s until the late 1930s, both visitors and locals enjoyed the food and entertainment offered in the plazas of San Antonio by the Chili Queens.
These women served chili con carne and other Mexican American foods from dusk until dawn at the San Antonio plazas — setting up tables and benches and bringing pots of food to cook or reheat over mesquite fires and to serve by the light of oil lanterns. Wandering musicians and singers provided a festive air.
Visiting writers such as Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, were charmed by the Chili Queens. He recalled in 1895 that “upon one of the plazas, Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades — chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles.”
O. Henry, who visited San Antonio in the 1880s and 1890s, wrote in his short story, The Enchanted Kiss, that “the nightly encampments upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land.”
Originally, diners found the Chili Queen tables in the city’s first marketplace, Military Plaza, but only until City Hall was built there in 1889. The Chili Queens moved to Market Square and, after the city built the Municipal Market House in the square in 1900, they moved west to Haymarket Plaza and Milam Park, near Commerce and Santa Rosa streets.
The chili stands were closed by the City Council at various times over the years for sanitary reasons, but public outcry would soon cause them to reopen. Slowly, the number of Chili Queens dwindled, and finally, in the early 1940s, the City Health Department closed their stands permanently because they deemed the dishwashing methods unsanitary.
If you want to try “a bowl of red” visit either Pico de Gallo in Market Square (where the Texas Trail Roundup will be hosting its Saturday night dinner) or at Mi Tierra in El Mercado. Both are with walking distance of the event hotel.
But the REAL heirs to the Chili Queens are San Antonio’s food trucks. And a chili delicacy invented in San Antonio is the Frito Pie. You can combine both traditions at the Chamoy City Limits, a food truck parked at Lion’s Field (2809 Broadway, at the intersection of Mulberry) on Saturdays from 1:00pm until 7:00 pm. They also serve raspas (flavored shaved ice) that included Chamoy (a sour/sweet/spicy/salty condiment derived from pickled fruit, chili peppers, sugar and citrus.)
Some other places to get your Frito Pie fix are the B&D Ice House (1004 S Alamo, in the King William District); The Esquire Tavern (155 E. Commerce, near the Alamo) or Sam’s Burger Joint (330 E. Grayson, near the Pearl.)
So what is a Frito pie? It’s Frito corn chips (d’oh) topped with chili, shredded cheese and usually onions. The “authentic” version is served out of the Fritos bag but it’s fine to eat it out of a bowl.