I confess: I’m at La Gloria several times a month, for work-related reasons or patio parties or just when I get a hankering for tacos potosinos. Because of this, I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend Chef Johnny Hernandez since he opened his riverside ice house on Cinco de Mayo in 2010.

During one lunch occasion, he brought out this stunning platter of sauteed shrimp in salsa ajillo, a special of the day. As soon as I spotted it, I was eager to ask questions, but even more eager to dig in. I always love asking him to describe his dishes because he when he does, he becomes an animated storyteller about the food and its origins. That’s why each dish at La Gloria fascinates me. He weaves in tales from his frequent excursions to Mexico–saying it with a Spanish accent–making him all the more alluring and credible.

Chef Johnny said he first had this dish at a restaurant called La Pigua (it means prawn in Spanish) in the city of Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, which happens to be one of his favorite food cities in Mexico. He was beaming. “That’s where I had it for the first time, and it was incredible!” he exclaimed. “A wonderful, wonderful seafood restaurant.” The preparation varies slightly depending on where it’s eaten in the country, but the salsa ajillo left a lasting impression on him. So, when he tried it in Veracruz later on, he asked his friend Johann, a chef in Veracruz, to teach him the recipe.

The dish’s official name is Camarones en Salsa Ajillo. On the day I went to La Gloria, the shrimp were a unique special, as he had just received a small batch from a shrimp farmer friend of his near Castroville, west of San Antonio. His friend ships the shrimp to elite restaurants in far flung places, and had some extra to give his friend Johnny that day. I could tell they were something special; they were smaller and had the heads on, a sure sign they were ultra fresh since only fresh shrimp remain intact. To celebrate this rare procurement, Chef Johnny prepared them this way, honoring their natural sweetness. Salsa ajillo is a sauce consisting primarily of some white wine, garlic, and chile guajillo peppers. These peppers are mild, so you don’t have to worry about them overpowering the dish. The shrimp–tender, delicate (almost like prawns), were sweet and succulent with every last bit of sauce–and some of the best I’ve tasted anywhere.

Chef Johnny shared his recipe with me, which is versatile enough for shrimp or fish. He said this sauce will go well with a wide variety of fish; at La Gloria, they use Black Drum and Red Snapper. They prep the fish on a flat griddle with olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Note: If you’re making this with shrimp, cook by sauteing them first in a little olive oil. Then add the shrimp to the garlic and liquids to finish cooking in the sauce and absorb its delicious flavor. 

I’m grateful to Chris Bartlett and Stephen Fries from On the Food Scene in New Haven, CT, for allowing me to share a demo of this dish, which they took during a recent trip to San Antonio. http://www.youtube.com/user/CookBooksLive?feature=mhee

Snapper en Salsa Ajillo

Recipe from Chef Johnny Hernandez, La Gloria, San Antonio

4 ea. Fresh Snapper Filets, 8 to 10 oz average, grilled

4 oz olive oil

6 ea dry Chile Guajillo Peppers, thinly cut with scissors

Fresh garlic, thinly sliced

4 oz white wine

2 oz butter

8 oz fish stock

Salt to taste

Method: In a sauce pan on medium heat, add olive oil. Just before it reaches a smoking point, add garlic slices. Once garlic is toasted, quickly remove from hot oil. Next, in the same oil, add the Guajillo Peppers, and lightly brown being careful not to burn (this step will go quickly). Once the peppers are lightly toasted, add the liquids to avoid burning the chiles, return garlic back to pan and simmer for 10 min. Adjust with salt. Serve over grilled filets.