North America
San Antonio Sizzles

  Jeff Heilman explores the culinary side of Alamo City and finds a Texas table set for success.

Boasting a $12 billion hospitality industry, San Antonio is focused on enhancing its already considerable visitor appeal, with plenty of recent activity. For starters, the ever-charming River Walk has been quadrupled in length to span 15 miles, including an extension that reaches the four 18th-century Spanish missions outside of town. Opened in October 2013, the Briscoe Western Art Museum occupies the former San Antonio Library, while the recently unveiled $205 million Tobin Center for the Performing Arts marries the former WWI memorial Municipal Auditorium with striking new architecture, advanced acoustics and a revolutionary seating system.


The culinary arts are also key ingredients in the mix, as the city’s chefs and restaurateurs use their own irresistible flavors to entice visitors. Leading the way is local son Johnny Hernandez, whose journey to culinary stardom began when he was just five years old and already working in his father’s café on San Antonio’s West Side. After growing up and graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, he returned home and launched the acclaimed catering company True Flavors in 1994.

“So much has changed here since then,” said Hernandez as he showed me around Casa Hernán, his art-filled, otherworldly abode deep in Southtown, a place where he also hosts cooking classes, private dining experiences and various events. As culinary ambassador for the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, Hernandez has a great deal of influence in shaping the city’s image as a foodie paradise. “We are forming an advisory council of local chefs, brewers and distillers focused on curating our food and beverage story to attract visitors, while also making San Antonio an inviting place for young chefs. These are definitely exciting times for our food scene.”

That exuberance was manifest the following day, when, at Hernandez’s invite, I served as a judge in his fifth annual Paella Challenge cook-off. Benefiting scholarships for local high-school students interested in the culinary arts, this public event featured some 40 chefs interpreting the quintessential Spanish dish. Contestants included a veritable who’s who of local talent; their close-knit camaraderie and energetic devotion to both the day’s cause and the city of San Antonio itself were clear to see. Needless to say, the food coma that ensued after fulfilling my judicial duties was well worth it.

Representing some of the city’s leading culinary destinations, winners included Tim Rattray of Granary ’Cue & Brew, which sources humanely raised, no hormone/antibiotic, quality meat for its barbecue; Michael Sohocki, who uses only circa-1850 equipment, methods and ingredients at his Restaurant Gwendolyn; David Gilbert, who specializes in Asian street fare at his laid-back Tuk Tuk Tap Room; and tapas master Jordan Mackey, executive chef of Las Ramblas at Hotel Contessa.

Significant, too, was the cook-off’s setting: the historic Pearl Brewery complex. Founded in 1881, the site was once the largest brewery in Texas before closing in 2001. That’s when local businessman Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury (the man behind salsa giant Pace Foods, prior to its 1995 sale to Campbell’s Soup) committed to redeveloping the 22-acre site, including the creation of a new CIA campus devoted to Latin cuisine and the advancement of Hispanic chefs.

With its own Latin-themed student-run restaurant, NAO, the school anchors a diverse restaurant collection that includes Il Sogno Osteria and Andrew Weissman’s Sandbar Fish House (Weissman’s dreamy Le Rêve, while no more, is credited with putting San Antonio on the national dining map in the late ’90s).

Showcasing the street foods of interior Mexico, Hernandez’s flagship restaurant, La Gloria, is also on site, along with Boiler House (industrial chic, plus smart VIP space); Cured (divine charcuterie, salumi and farm-to-table dishes); vegetarian- and kosher-haven Green; and more.

Set to crown this mixed-use triumph is Hotel Emma. The 146-room Kimpton boutique hotel, slated to open in early 2015, will revive the legendary Pearl brewhouse itself—with “culinary discovery” infused throughout. “This will not be your typical hotel experience,” explained Executive Chef John Brand. “Designed from a culinary perspective and geared to today’s ever-savvier traveler, the hotel will extend its kitchen throughout the property and—via the culinary concierge and other services—out into San Antonio itself.”

For our farewell, Hernandez and I dined at The Frutería - Botanero, his colorful interpretation of a Mexican fruit stand by day, casual tapas-and-cocktails joint by night. Over handcrafted margaritas, premium mezcalos and lick-the-plate dishes, such as puerco en mole blanco (pork belly with chile and white-chocolate sauce), Hernandez spoke about the deep sense of responsibility that he feels towards this community. I couldn’t help but think about how much fans of innovative Latin fare, like myself, stand to benefit from his commitment. As he continues to invest in San Antonio’s food-fueled future, we’ll be standing by, forks at the ready, happy to feast upon the fruits of his labor.

Where to stay:

• Hotel Havana
1015 Navarro Street
Tel.: (210) 222-2008

Where to eat:
Chef’s Corner

Insider Tips from Jordan Mackey, Executive Chef at Las Ramblas: BBQ is an often contentious and highly debated topic among chefs, but the stellar menu at recent newcomer Smoke Shack has truly captured the attention of chefs around the city. Another industry favorite is Erick’s Tacos, where the food is authentic and delicious; with a food truck outside, the restaurant stays open late into the night (something that chefs love). The cheeseburgers at Sam’s Burger Joint have turned this restaurant into an institution, which, with the addition of an amazing music venue, is a favorite hangout.

• Hotel Contessa
306 West Market Street
Tel.: (210) 229-9222

• Restaurant Gwendolyn
152 East Pecan, #100
Tel.: (210) 222-1849

• Mixtli
5251 McCullough Avenue
Tel.: (832) 520-8928

• Umai Mi
555 West Bitters
Tel.: (210) 496-0555

• Feast Restaurant
1024 South Alamo
Tel.: (210) 354-1024

• La Gloria Ice House
100 East Grayson
Tel.: (210) 267-9040

• The Frutería – Botanero
Steel House Lofts Building
1401 South Flores, #102
Tel.: (210) 251-3104

• The Granary ’Cue & Brew
602 Avenue A
Tel.: (210) 228-0124

• Cured
306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 101
Tel.: (210) 314-3929

• Boiler House Texas Grill
& Wine Garden
312 Pearl Parkway, Building 3
Tel.: (210) 354-4644

* * * * *
San Antonio , Texas , Destination
Posted On: 01 November 2014    Print    Email
Author: Jeff Heilman

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