Celebrating the San Antonio at Christmastime
By Sonja Stark
If ever there was a town where the Texas identity coexists in perfect harmony with indigenous Mexican traditions,
San Antonio is it.
Multicultural experiences can be found in the art, history, religion, and music but the Tex-Mex heritage is most evident in the food. Prepare for a delicious welcome when you visit in December.
Winter Ice Storm
I touched down during a freaky winter ice storm walloping the Midwest but, thankfully, only mildly assaulting San Antonio. I stayed warm with a smorgasbord of sizzling culinary treats at tables throughout the city.
From sweet tamales to tender prime rib to spicy mole sauce, much of the food scene in San Antonio owes its success to three staples — tradition, organic farms in nearby Hill County and, not far from the San Antonio River Walk, the Culinary Institute of America. The campus churns out some of the finest executive chefs in the state and several of my restaurant picks include their graduates.
Below you’ll find my five-day exploration of Texan flavors at several unique establishments and one savory festival. Lets hit the ground running at a tamale festival with “Masa” appeal!
“Tamales at Pearl”
Festival Pearl Grounds
303 Pearl Parkway
San Antonio, Texas
There’s a reason that the tamale is wrapped like a gift. Inside the steamed cornhusk is a mouthwatering present that few have the patience to wait for: a savory filling of masa (corn dough prepared from hominy) chopped or shredded meat, spices, and veggies.
The feeding frenzy for the 4th annual “Tamales at Pearl” festival includes 40 restaurant vendors rolling out their handmade surprises from noon until 6 pm.
Tamales require time and effort, a labor of love really and every bite-sized morsel is made of unique ingredients – many from cherished family recipes. Holiday classics include turkey, pork, chicken, and beans but some vendors add wildcards to their mixes like duck, quail, or seafood. It’s rare to find tamales on a restaurant menu so customers wait all year for this.
The festival is held at what was once home to a historic brewery called Pearl. Today, the gathering place has kept the name and welcomes farmers’ markets, retail shops, and creative kitchens. Space is also home to the world’s premier culinary college – the CIA.
Instructors hold baking, pastry, and world cuisine cooking classes in several of the restored 19th-century buildings. Under dozens of colorful booths, vendors split up into two parking lots. Growing queues of anxious locals suggest which tamale is best.
Lola and Paco
Costume-wearing mascots Lola and Paco of “Delicious Tamales” entertain a long line of brave stomachs hungry to sample their hot and spicy Atomic Tamale. A roving group of performers, stage musicians, and storytellers offer fun for those that have reached their limit. Heat lamps and warm-up tents provide refuge from the cold.
Instead of the Atomic tamale, I load up on a heaping pile of beer cheese stuffed Papusa with crisp pork, pickled cabbage, and green salsa. “Is this still a tamale?” I wonder. Regardless, the flames from the outdoor grill warm my mitts as I carefully fork the beer cheese into my shivering gums.
“Muy delicioso!” I declare. For a beverage, I order a cup of Yuzu-coconut aqua fresca (sans the ice cubes). “Excellente!”
CURED at Pearl
306 Pearl Parkway, Ste. 101
The old and the new commingle at Chef Steve McHugh’s gastro-pub many months in the making called Cured.
Cured sits inside a 100-year old structure re-purposed into a cozy dining room and bar. During a recent visit, McHugh proudly pointed out the penny tile work, the pressed tin ceilings, the bank vault with beams, and the glass-enclosed charcuterie display at the front.
The smallest of historical details have been preserved including the legendary triple-X insignia. No, there’s nothing pornographic about it. The XXX Roman numerals once symbolized a rating system used in 16-century Europe to determine which inns poured the best beer.
In 1952, the Pearl brewery adopted the tertiary mark as part of their label. A half-century later McHugh continues the tradition. Two years ago, McHugh’s determination to pursue his dream of opening Cured was fueled by a diagnosis of and recovery from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
He credits his recovery and survival to wholesome cooking. Therefore, his menu is built on a foundation of pure, unadulterated cooking methods and all-natural ingredients.
Some of the nutrient-packed samples we enjoyed (also on the Cured menu) include carrot marrow, duck eggs, mussels, okra, black-eyed peas, pumpkin, and for dessert, rich in Omega-3 fatty acids – tapioca.
219 E.Houston St.
Rightfully lauded as one of the best in the country, Bohanan’s formal steakhouse is a compassionate carnivores paradise. Perfectly cooked prime steaks, sumptuous seafood and, holy cow — a filet of Wagyu beef (a type of Kobe) that sells for $95 and gives critics reason to salute Chef Mark Bohanan.
If the refined restaurant sounds familiar, that’s because Food Network aired an episode of “Glutton for Punishment” with host and author Bob Blumer learning how to sear a steak at rush hour in Bohanan’s kitchen. The host was relegated to shining shoes after failing to brown beef to Bohanan’s high standards.
The succulent red Wagyu Akaushi (pronounced Ah-ka-oo-shee) beef comes not from Japan but, rather, a grass-fed cattle farm called HeartBrand, only 65 miles away. Strict handling standards assure that the herd is raised with the least amount of stress for the tastiest cuts. The tender marbled beef is high in monounsaturated fats and low in cholesterol and studies have shown it to control diabetes and reduce the risk of heart disease. Well, even if this may be questionable, it’s damn good meat!
Did I get to sample or even sniff a bite-size morsel of Akaushi? Sadly, I’m afraid not. Our reservation party of 15 or more was much too big for splurging to that degree. But I can vouch for the taste from the discerning cowboys at a nearby table. Dressed in their best bib and tucker, they sunk their chops into the buttery breed that seemed to render them speechless for the rest of the evening.
Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia
218 Produce Row
Night owls love this place. The 24-hour, world-famous hot spot provides an energetic menu for staying awake and if not the food, a frenzy of paper flags, memorabilia, twinkling lights and strolling troubadours will perk up sagging eyelids.
I stopped by for lunch on a rainy day and the place was slammed. The energy was exhilarating.
Three large dining rooms catered to both hometown regulars and curious gringos, here not for plain-Jane tacos but fresh flour tortillas and soupy cowboy beans.
Yes, the bulk of visitors here are tourists (many with children) and some argue the food is just formula. But the portions are generous, the service is solid and the prices are reasonable. And, to my surprise, celebrities like Cesar Milan, Carlos Santana, and Eva Longoria have paid the Mural room a visit.
The 70-foot, three-dimension wall painting honors roughly 200 faces, many community activists (including Major Julian Castro), and Café family members. The restaurant opened in 1941 and the mural made its debut in 1975.
Before leaving, I sample some sweetness from the glass-enclosed pastry display. The variety is extensive but I finally decide on a piece of Leche Quemada, a Mexican caramel candy made from goats milk and topped with pecan halves.
La Fruteria Botanero
1401 S. Flores #102
Don’t call them tapas, canapés or finger food. La Fruteria pronounces them ‘botanas.’ The tasty snacks are flaunted in small portions but together generate a filling meal. The botanas pays homage to Chef Johnny Hernandez’s Mexican culture and traditions, specifically the colorful fruit stall.
I’ll never forget this restaurant because, first off, my cheap black heels fell apart under the table (big chunks of black sole – truly embarrassing) but more importantly, Hernandez actually found time on a busy night to entertain his guests.
While we indulged on regional dishes with funny-sounding names: Chilapitas, Cuzelitas, and Gorditas, a passionate Hernandez described his visits to Mexico for unique ingredients like Epazote, a stinkweed that acts like an organic Beano for the digestive system.
We soaked in the secrets to the small organic dishes complemented with repeat cocktails. If I had known there would be so many snacks served – a total of 15 varieties, I would have paced myself better.
My last libation was something called the El Huevón; a fusion of muddled mango, orange, and pineapple juice frothing with egg white and TequilaMe Silver. While leaving, I diverted the attention of the staff and scooped up the remains of my shattered shoes.
Was it the pan-fried Anaheim peppers that caused them to explode? I was leaving barefoot but my stomach was stuffed – a fair trade in my opinion. Small colorful plates called botanas include the best ceviche in the city!
Boudros Texas Bistro at The Vault
421 E. Commerce
San Antonio, Texas
The Boudros Texas Bistro enjoys prime real estate on the River Walk but location doesn’t mean they can rest on their laurels. Gulf Coast entrees like blackened fish fillet and smoked shrimp enchiladas with grits still garner high marks on Yelp, Tripadvisor and Urbanspoon.
And, even with brisk temps, the restaurant offers customers the option of al fresco dining with heat lamps and Mexican serapes. Rather than dine on the patio, our large party enjoyed a catered Boudros dinner at a private event space called the Vault.
The venue was once the lobby of a restored 1902 Alamo National Bank. Massive arched windows, coffered ceilings, and an original marble bar – once a bank teller station, create a unique space to share a prickled pear margarita with ripe gauc.
Minnie’s Tavern & Rye House
328 E Josephine St
San Antonio, Texas
Don’t let the name fool you – this is more a Michelin-level French brassiere than a local watering hole. With only a few hours to spare before my flight home, this was my last chance to share a fusion of Texas-centric ingredients with frites, foie gras and country pâté.
San Antonio native Restauranteur/Chef Andrew Weissman, an ambitious graduate from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park opened the reincarnated slanted building in the summer of 2013.
It’s not the red wine but rather the crooked ceiling beams and slightly sloping hardwood floors that might incite a temporary bout of vertigo.
Fear not, it will disappear when your waiter, tailored in a white apron and crisp white shirt, presents you with un-French like portions of Duck Confit or Frog Leg Fricassee.
The Westin Riverwalk
420 West Market Street
San Antonio, Texas
Recently honored as one of the World’s Best Places to Stay by Conde Nast, the Westin Riverwalk is cheek by jowl with the renowned “Venice of America.”
I stayed in a deluxe room on the 11th floor with a riverside balcony, a refreshment center with Starbucks coffee and a marble bathroom. Down cushioning and spa-like showers helped me wind down the evening and dismiss the party dwellers on the floor directly underneath.
Because I was prone to consuming beyond my daily calorie count I used both the fitness room and outdoor heated pool every morning. The calamari appetizer was tempting but I only had time for a tall glass of Italian vino at the rustic Zocca restaurant on the first floor. In between busy shifts, Chef Jeff Foresman frequently appears on a local cooking show on CBS-affiliate KENS, channel 5.
IMPORTANT LINK: Visit San Antonio” CVB Website: Includes options for shopping, attractions, lodging, events, dining and transportation.