SAN ANTONIO — My good friends Ariela and Elliot are longtime New Yorkers who fled the Big Apple for Austin two years ago, got priced out and ended up in San Antonio. It’s a common story these days.
When I meet up with them in San Antonio, along the hipster-y St. Mary’s Strip, I begin to understand why they chose this city 80 miles to the southwest.
Those hoping to “keep San Antonio lame” — a play on Austin’s “keep Austin weird” moniker — seem to be losing the battle, as quirky new bars and restaurants give Texas’ capital city a run for its money.
The three of us sip small batch mezcal and dine on jackfruit tacos at Chisme, then sit under the pink glow of neon lights at nearby Cullum’s Attagirl drinking Texan craft beer and eating gourmet fast food. There’s a fried bologna and pimento cheese sandwich, and also tender fried chicken topped with Parmesan cheese, preserved egg and chives. We cap off the evening with late-night tacos (al pastor for me) from El Regio’s mustard-yellow taco truck.
This certainly isn’t the San Antonio of River Walk revelry and theme park ballyhooing you see in brochures. Instead, it’s the city an increasing number of non-Texans have discovered in recent years, as San Antonio sheds its families-only veneer and opens its arms to both millennials and cultural travelers.
Texas, as we know it, began in San Antonio, which is home to the (surprisingly modest) Alamo and four other Spanish missions that, collectively, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015. Though it was historically the Lone Star State’s largest city and top tourist draw, it long ago passed those crowns over to Houston and Austin, respectively. But San Antonio is revving up for a second coming, and there are plenty of reasons to visit in 2018.
For starters, San Antonio is celebrating its 300th birthday this year with a packed calendar of activities, including a weeklong tricentennial event the first week in May. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the 1968 World’s Fair at Hemisfair Park.
Preparation for the city’s moment in the spotlight began last year when the botanical garden completed an 8-acre expansion, the Witte Museum poured $100 million into renovations, and the city launched a new fleet of colorful electric river barges. Two new riverside parks will open to the public in 2018, as will the much-hyped Maverick Whiskey distillery in the restored Lockwood National Bank downtown.
I’ve come for yet another reason: to find out how such an inconspicuous city was just crowned a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy (one of just two in the U.S., including Tucson, Ariz.).
Hometown chef Johnny Hernandez was instrumental in putting San Antonio on UNESCO’s radar, so we meet up to discuss the new designation over Sunday brunch at his new Veracruz-style seafood restaurant, Villa Rica. The brightly hued eatery lies in the historic Southtown neighborhood on the edge of a hip warehouse-cum-shopping complex known as Blue Star Arts.
“San Antonio has this great culinary history, but for years, we’ve been trying to figure out how to make people take us seriously,” Hernandez explains as we devour a crab taco, octopus tostadas and arroz a la tumbada, a paella-like bowl of rice and seafood. “There is so much focus on Tex-Mex and margaritas that I think it overshadows all the other efforts of the broader food community here.”
Hernandez, who has seven casual restaurants in town, says San Antonio is now pivoting from Tex-Mex to Tex-Next. “We’re working tirelessly to understand the roots of not only Mexican cuisine, but other cultures and influences that have shaped our local food,” including the area’s indigenous inhabitants, early Spanish colonizers and more recent German settlers.
If there’s one place that’s been instrumental in changing the city’s culinary landscape, it’s the Pearl. This German brewery complex, built in 1883 on the northern edge of downtown, has completely transformed over the last decade into a 22-acre, 18-restaurant-strong dining district helmed by the third outpost of the Culinary Institute of America. There’s also a sprawling weekend farmers market and, in the old bottling department, San Antonio’s first upscale food hall (think miso ramen, elderflower doughnuts and gluten-free mac and cheese).
At the heart of the Pearl — occupying the former brewery’s brick shell — is Hotel Emma. It’s easily the most soulful upmarket hotel in town and a treat for foodies, offering culinary classes in its test kitchen and literary readings (with dinner and wine pairings) in its two-floor library. Chef John Brand is Emma’s culinary director, and his American bistro, Supper, is a master class in restraint. It’s also refreshingly approachable.
“Unlike Austin, in San Antonio you can’t write your menu for your ego,” Brand tells me of his no-nonsense approach to cooking. “People appreciate it here when you’re honest and straightforward.”
Brand’s simple, honest flavors shine in minimalist dishes such as the (four-ingredient) salt and vinegar Brussels sprouts, which are crisp and tangy, and the smoked Texas quail, whose crunchy morsels are served atop pickled corn relish.
Brand started his cooking career as a dishwasher in Wisconsin and moved to San Antonio as an in-demand chef 10 years ago. He thinks the Pearl complex has given the city a culinary core, while the UNESCO designation offers it global recognition.
“I hear a lot more accents in the dining room now,” he says.
Just around the corner from Supper, in Pearl Brewery’s old administrative offices, is the restaurant Cured, where I meet up with three-time James Beard Award nominee Steve McHugh. The name of his restaurant feels appropriate as I walk past cured meats hanging from hooks in the entryway. But there’s a hidden meaning.
“I’m a cancer survivor,” McHugh divulges over a lunch of charcuterie, noting how the disease informs the way he sources his products. “If I know where each animal comes from and I know that they’re being raised the right way, then I’m ingesting a healthy, happy animal instead of one that was grown in a barn, raised on concrete and injected full of hormones.”
McHugh uses every part of the animals he butchers at Cured (including a surprisingly palatable pig’s face). As we slather pickled cactus and spreadable salami onto a PBR-infused flatbread (McHugh is also a Wisconsinite), he explains that every culture has its own form of curing, storing, fermenting or pickling. “What we’re doing is taking those techniques and putting them back in the forefront of a restaurant.”
I’d planned to avoid the famed River Walk, which my friends, the New York transplants, had called San Antonio’s Times Square. (“Locals don’t go there!” they insisted.) But on my final night in town, the lure of chef Michael Sohocki’s Restaurant Gwendolyn proved too difficult for the three of us to resist.
Sohocki cooks highly seasonal multicourse meals using only items available before the Industrial Revolution. That means no mixers, deep fryers or anything with an electrical plug. We slurp a sweet and savory strawberry gazpacho, graze a plate of beet carpaccio in grapefruit vinaigrette and attack a charred tomahawk pork chop.
After a post-dinner walk through the streets of downtown — where two multimillion-dollar urban renewal projects promise to yet again reshape San Antonio’s identity — my friends ask what I make of their new home.
I tell them that it feels like a city on the move.
(Mark Johanson is a freelance writer.)
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