SAN ANTONIO — This vibrant city — which speaks with a Spanish accent yet wears the mantle of its Lone Star history proudly — has long been one of my favorite destinations.
It started during visits with my grandfather. Our itinerary was always the same: a pilgrimage to the Alamo, followed by lunch at the Menger Hotel, in whose bar Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders.
In later years, I spent most of my time frequenting the Riverwalk (although in homage to my grandfather, I visited the Alamo). I also spent considerable time indulging in Tex-Mex cuisine; the hotter and spicier, the more I liked it.
With that in mind, what better time to pay a visit than during Culinaria, the annual food fiesta held every May. The eclectic festival has something for everyone — from marquee events like the lavish brunch at the hacienda of chef Johnny Hernandez to the popular food truck competition where kitchen road warriors whip up goodies for every taste bud. You're just as likely to find tikka masala as tamales.
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San Antonio has always been the Lone Star State's capital of Tex-Mex, but on this trip I discovered there are some new gunslingers in town, armed with Latin American, Asian, Mediterranean and New Orleans influences,. They are determined to prove there is more to the San Antonio food scene than Tex-Mex.
Steve McHugh spent 10 years working alongside John Besh at Besh's New Orleans restaurants, where McHugh had the Creole/Cajun thing down pat. Besh appointed him executive chef at his first venture here, Luke San Antonio.
Crossing the state line proved no obstacle for McHugh, who, after a stint at Luke, opened Cured Restaurant last year in a century-old building that was once the administrative office of Pearl Brewery. He keeps Texas-size appetites sated with dishes such as grilled beef flat iron and pan-seared quail, but he hasn't forgotten his Louisiana roots. Try smoked pork gumbo with andouille and okra, shrimp and grits, and a dish he calls "crawfish love letters."
Although the restaurant offers an epic selection of craft beers, you shouldn't miss the signature Cured cocktail: moonshine infused with lemon, ginger and thyme, and mixed with simple syrup and Champagne.
Dallas-based celebrity chef Stephan Pyles, whose passion for farm-to-table food is well-documented, has joined forces with executive chef Mike Collins to create an innovative menu at Sustenio, the flagship restaurant at Eilan Hotel Resort & Spa.
Sustenio, as the name suggests, is based on the idea of using local, sustainable resources, a concept well-suited to its predominantly Mediterranean-style menu, which features a ravioli trio (using all local ingredients), tagine-style lamb and tandoori-style salmon.
When I suggest that "tandoori-style anything" doesn't exactly conjure Mediterranean food, Collins says, "We go up the entire Spice Trail, which means that a lot of our dishes are from Turkey, Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean."
Sustenio's décor is sleek and modern, with candlelit niches for couples in a romantic mood and a communal table for the lovelorn or solo traveler. The wine list is impressive, and at least one satisfied customer proclaimed the bartender's Manhattan the best he'd ever had.
I didn't have the opportunity to eat at Tuk Tuk Taproom, a hole-in-the-wall café on the fringes of the Pearl District, well away from the tourist track, but after having attended a seminar led by the restaurant's James Beard-nominated chef, David Gilbert, I wished I had.
Gilbert, a scuba-diving travel enthusiast, made the trek to San Antonio from his hometown of Dallas by way of Southeast Asia, where he developed a love for its street food. At the Culinaria seminar, he demonstrated the nuances of Burmese, Thai and Vietnamese cooking through the use of a single product: green papaya.
We began with Burmese papaya salad, in which Gilbert used chickpea flour, chili oil, dry shrimp powder and fish sauce to give the fruit a mellow flavor. Next, we sampled a Thai green papaya salad called som tam, whose flavor palette was achieved by using fresh chili, palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, long beans and dry shrimp, making it alternately sweet and sour. Our final tasting was the Vietnamese papaya salad, in which soy, chili flakes, rice vinegar, dried beef and Thai basil contributed to the tart taste of the papaya.
I left thinking that if Gilbert could do all this with papaya, I'd love to see what he could do with a more complex food product.
I also didn't have a chance to dine at La Gloria, the wildly popular establishment of San Antonio culinary superstar Johnny Hernandez, but I was able to sample his inventive cuisine at a brunch for Culinaria attendees.
Hernandez, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is a devotee of the Mex sans the Tex. His focus is on the street foods of Mexico's interior, such as shredded beef tlayudas, a sort of Mexican pizza.
At the brunch, we feasted on a lavish spread that included chilaquiles, corn tortillas with pulled chicken, scrambled eggs, cheese, refried beans, and green or red salsa; pan dulce, a Mexican pastry; and what had to be the best mole sauce I've ever tasted.
Tricks of the trade
After all that eating, it was time to do some cooking, courtesy of a mini-boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America. (San Antonio is the third U.S. location for the school; the other two are in Hyde Park, N.Y., and Napa, Calif.)
Our four-hour session with instructor Sergio Remolina, a Mexico City native, was designed to take us on a culinary tour of South America, from Peruvian black bean tacu tacu to Argentine and Bolivian empanadas. The class was divided into four teams of five. I was assigned to a team whose dishes were Ecuadorean-style shrimp seviche; chayote salad with hearts of palm and oranges; and Peruvian lamb skewers marinated in aji panca, a paste made from mild red peppers.
My New Orleans background made me indispensable in deveining the shrimp — my only real contribution, unless you count dicing onions and peppers. Fortunately, our team captain, David Lyon of Cambridge, Mass., was adroit enough in the kitchen to acquit us well.
At the end of the class, we all sat down to eat what we had prepared, and while it's doubtful any of us will be appearing on Top Chef any time soon, we had great fun and learned a few tricks.