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San Antonio, Texas, a bigger-is-better world of food and fun

City boasts simple pleasures and a rich historical experience

By Marlise Kast-Myers, Tribune News Service
Published: January 20, 2024, 5:55am
6 Photos
San Antonio River Walk aglow year round.
San Antonio River Walk aglow year round. (Benjamin Myers/TNS) (Photos by Benjamin Myers/TNS) Photo Gallery

It was Nov. 5 when the switch from daylight saving time hit us with its annual reminder that the world can be a dark place. Not only was it creeping night into our day, but it introduced rain as if a switch had been flipped to turn off the sun.

My husband, Benjamin, and I were tired, both mentally and physically, from running three businesses out of our home. And so, we took advantage of Veterans Day weekend by booking a flight and running to the unknown.

In this case, it was San Antonio, Texas.

Neither of us had ever been, nor had we visited Texas in decades. When we started dating, we learned that our parents had attended the same college in Dallas. Ironically, we “knew” each other as toddlers and spent the next 30 years following one another around the world, from Washington and Germany to Spain and California.

Now married and nomadic, we would be returning to the Lone Star State as a drained duo looking for food, culture and, above all, a place to rest.

Hotel Emma delivered, especially on the last part, with a king bed, Frette linens and black-out curtains that defied jet lag. Yet it was the lobby that had me creating Instagram stories at check-in, lured by the industrial-meets-Texas-smokeasy style. Leather chesterfields and fireplace nooks dotted the foyer where towering machinery replaced bouquets on mahogany tables.

Back in 1894, the landmark property made its debut as Pearl’s Brewhouse, designed by Chicago architect August Maritzen. As San Antonio’s only brewery to survive Prohibition, the Pearl resurrected as “Emma” in 2015 after a 14-year closure.

Despite the passing of time, Maritzen’s blueprints are still trending, with the riverfront hotel serving as the flagship for Pearl’s culinary and cultural hub. The city has Pace Picante Sauce to thank for that … well, sort of. In 1994, Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury sold Pace Foods to Campbell Soup for over $1 billion in cash. Among other things, Kit invested his fortune back into his hometown of San Antonio with the development of the Pearl.

Not a bad move considering that growth was everywhere, with many developers following the Pearl’s pattern of restoring history to improve the future. As one Uber driver put it, “It’s like every developer in the city decided to start construction on the same day.”

Albeit true, it meant progress was on the horizon. For now, that horizon is made up of scaffolding, cranes and signs reading “pardon our dust.” After margaritas in the hotel library, we followed that dust to the historic San Antonio River Walk in downtown (also under construction).

As the leading attraction in Texas, the urban river was the brainchild of Robert H.H. Hugman, an architect who envisioned winding pathways skirting the channel. Not only would it navigate heavy rains, but it would serve as a pedestrian zone lined with shops and restaurants. Hugman’s proposal dating back to 1929 came to fruition, now drawing its biggest crowd during the holidays, when 100,000 Christmas lights illuminate the River Walk.

For now, we would settle for that year-round florescent glow of purple, blue, green and pink that bounced off the water, reflecting images of Parisian bridges and rainbow umbrellas. The scent of brewing storms and beef brisket took us to the Smoke restaurant, where we ordered Texas BBQ, baked beans, and mac and cheese. I held onto the menu, looking for something familiar and less colossal.

“They don’t have salad, if that’s what you’re looking for,” my husband said.

I was, and I didn’t find it. But that’s OK, because “y’all know everything’s bigger in Texas,” our server told us.

Ain’t that the truth. Not only is it bigger, but it might even be better. Well, at least that’s what the locals say, many of whom transferred from the “C” state to capitalize on affordable housing, low cost of living, conservative politics and open employment opportunities.

Understandably so. There’s a Texas pride and independent spirit that can almost be felt from the tips of your boots to the brim of your hat. After dinner, we hopped aboard GO RIO’s 35-minute San Antonio River Walk boat tour. Speaking over a microphone to beer-cozied passengers, our guide pointed out highlights along the 15-mile River Walk that connects Brackenridge Park to five Spanish missions.

With great gusto, he told us that Texas — once an independent nation — is the only state that can fly its flag at the same height as the American flag. The U.S. Flag Code would state otherwise, but hey, if the boat captain wants to spread his hometown love, who am I to complain if he “breaks his own arm patting himself on the back,” as the locals say?

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Texas had an authentic culture, one I envied just a bit, where loving your neighbor actually meant something; where terms like “ma’am” and “sir” were still heard; where football was a lifestyle, and the First Amendment was a priority; where a bootstrapping resilience and Texan pride had the power to withstand ridicule and opposing views in an ongoing fight for freedom.

We felt that patriotism, right there at the Alamo. Established in 1718 as Mission San Antonio de Valero, this fortress is where the Battle of the Alamo ended in 1836 with Mexico conquering Texas. Nearly 200 Texans were killed in their fight for independence, including Davy Crockett, making the 13-day battle a turning point in the Texas Revolution.

There was plenty of history to experience, including the Spanish-mission complex, the Alamo Church, the living-history encampment and the Alamo Exhibit in the new Ralston Family Collections Center housing hundreds of artifacts — many of which were donated by musician Phil Collins.

Less than a mile from this compound that had made history was a restaurant trying to join it. In 1992, Rosario’s was rescued from bankruptcy and reinvented as Rosario’s ComidaMex and Bar, serving from-scratch Mexican comfort food. Powerful margaritas, fire-roasted salsa and chips, and enchiladas gave us plenty of reasons to “walk it off” at the Spanish Colonial Missions.

The Alamo, Mission Concepcion, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada comprise San Antonio’s five missions — four of which are protected and preserved by San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

In 2015, the park’s collection of Spanish Colonial architecture earned it the title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first and only in Texas. Perhaps it was the rain or the darkness of the sky, but the missions felt somber and sacred, as if the walls wanted to cry out with stories of the Indigenous people from 300 years ago.

With its rich history alone, you could easily spend a day at the park, and many do. Bikes are available for rent at the visitor center, meaning you can pedal your way from mission-to-mission (via River Foundation Project, Confluence Park) along the 15-mile San Antonio River Walk Trail.

We Ubered.

One, because it was raining and, two, because we wanted to eat. And eat we did, this time at Silo Prime. Located at the Fairmount Hotel, the property made international news — and the Guinness World Record — in 1985 when it was lifted onto rollers and moved five blocks to its current location. Saved from demolition, the 1906 Fairmount is still one of the grandest structures in the city.

But it was the steakhouse inside that wooed us with its dim lighting, live piano and a menu by Chef Gary Boatman. From the open kitchen, flames were flying and skillets were flipping, leaving us with choices like BBQ shrimp, Texas quail and 14-ounce ribeye.

We took the server’s advice of “everything tastes better with bacon” and opted for the signature fried oysters with apples, bacon and Hollandaise sauce. My husband ordered the filet, and I got the sea bass with lobster knuckles and tarragon butter. The portions were Texas size, of course.

“Help me,” I begged, holding up my fork. I could feel my arteries clogging like a drain.

“Look at my plate,” he countered. “These shoestring fries are the size of telephone poles.”

After dinner, we loaded our bellies into an Uber, one of 16 trips we made in four days. When we asked about nightlife, our driver spoke of blue-collar workers who rise early and prioritize faith and family.

“We all shut down early around here,” he added.

And so, we adopted that mentality, sleeping deeply at Hotel Emma so we could rise early for the day ahead. But first, coffee.

The nearby Crème awakened our minds, teasing San Antonio on the brink of a boom. This emerging city had already grabbed our attention with the Pearl, and now even more so when we learned of The Creamery district. Dating to 1938, this former Borden Dairy facility is slated to be a mixed-use neighborhood with offices, restaurants, shops and apartments to work, play and live. For now, the Parisian-inspired Crème was the test project that had passed with flying colors; the place was packed with patrons who appeared to have the freedom to work, or not.

We followed suit, heading to San Antonio Museum of Art for our nonworking getaway. Spanning 5,000 years, the impressive art collection is housed in the former Lone Star Brewery. SAMA has the largest collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian art in the southern U.S., as well as works from Korea, India, Japan, China and the Americas.

That afternoon was spent getting lost in the right direction; first with a walk through Hemisfair Park, followed by a trip up the 750-foot Tower of the Americas. This 1968 World’s Fair site is being redeveloped into a walkable green-space neighborhood. From the observation deck, we pointed out landmarks to see just how far we had come, and where we had yet to go.

After powering up with lunch at The Good Kind (they have salad), we swung by Hopscotch, an immersive, interactive art space. And boy, did I interact.

“Look, a ball pit!” I dove in headfirst, while my husband closed his eyes in front of the light-therapy installation. I ran from room to room, pushing buttons and clapping at the outcome.

Meanwhile, Benjamin had written “I love Marlise” in flawless graffiti-style with laser spray cans on a brick wall. From a neon labyrinth to a cave made out of plastic bags, the child-like wonder continued at the bar with my cocktail rimmed with Pop Rocks.

That evening, the sky opened and the rain poured, but it didn’t matter. We had the best spot in the house at Camp Hot Wells. On the south side of town, this bath house has sulfur-spring-fed soaking tubs. Drinks and nibbles can be delivered at the push of a button, but we saved our charcuterie appetites for Cured.

Helmed by six-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist chef Steve McHugh, Cured greets you with penny-tile floors and a charcuterie case of signature meats. The tin ceiling and bistro chairs set the stage for handcrafted, farmhouse dishes that are made in house; jams, pickles, mustards, bitters, vinegars — all as homemade as it gets.

Chorizo, pork belly, tuna — about a dozen types of cured meats grace the charcuterie list, as well as local cheeses, which we tried and loved. Needless to say, we went out with a bang, adding Cured as one of favorite restaurants of all time.

Before our flight home, I swam laps in the pool while Benjamin explored the weekly farmers market at the Pearl. Clinging to the edge, I gazed up the brick wall of the 19th-century brewhouse-turned-hotel.

I guess sometimes you just need to run away to the unknown to find a “peace” of home.

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