Why Visit San Antonio Now?

Though the city is over 300 years old, in the past 5 years, San Antonio, Texas has had a major facelift. New developments in hotels, restaurants and events have made this city in the southern U.S. an attractive place for a family getaway. Here are a few reasons I discovered on a recent visit to San Antonio.

Hotel Emma lobby

There’s A Distillery Converted to a Luxury Hotel

If you love architecture, decor and a little funk, Hotel Emma is where you need to rest your head. Once a 19th century Brewhouse, the 146-room riverfront hotel incorporated some of the original machinery and stonework walls, balancing it Moorish chandeliers, modern and Southwestern furniture. Located at the newly developed mixed use space – The Pearl, the hotel is at the doorstep of chef-driven restaurants, trendy boutiques, green spaces and the Texas campus of the Culinary Institute of America. San Antonio’s first food hall and a popular weekend farmers market are also located here.

Mi Tierra bakery, bar and restaurant

San Antonio is a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy

With its confluence of cultures, San Antonio is one of only two cities in the country designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, honoring the city’s culinary history. This means, there are lots of local, family-run, and historic restaurants to eat at. Instrumental figures in obtaining the designation – Chef Johnny Hernandez (as seen on Food Network) has a dozen establishments; and Chef Elizabeth Johnson runs Pharm Table, a cozy cafe serving organic and vegan dishes. For delicious Tex-Mex in a vibrant setting, head to Mi Tierra; and enjoy the best pancakes and waffles in the gardens of an art nouveau-style home that was once home to the founders of Pioneer Flour Mills – The Guenther House.

Battle of Flowers parade at Fiesta San Antonio

There is a Lot of Fiesta

Forget Cinco de Mayo. Every April, San Antonio turns into a family-friendly cultural affair with over 100 events, including festive parades, patriotic observances, music concerts, lively fairs, creative culinary offerings and even, a pooch parade! Elaborate gowns are worn by Fiesta “royalty” and trading Fiesta medals is the norm in San Antonio during this unconventional festival.

Fiesta is a citywide celebration and involves all aspects of the community to organize, attend and host fundraisers. This year marked 127 years since the start of this annual party.

Mission San Jose

World Heritage Sites

Together, with The Alamo, San Antonio’s five historic missions form a UNESCO World Heritage site (the only one in Texas) and are the largest concentration of Spanish Colonial architecture in North America. 

The complexes were built by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century and illustrate the Spanish Crown’s efforts to colonize, evangelize and defend the northern frontier of New Spain. Here you can see archaeological sites, farmlands, residencies, churches and granaries, as well as water distribution systems. 

Casa Rio restaurant at San Antonio riverwalk

A Historic Riverwalk Runs Through Downtown

The Riverwalk is the most popular tourist spot, with hotels, shops and restaurants located along the San Antonio river. Take a cruise with Go Rio to learn about the important structures located here, or rent out a dining boat for a party or proposal. Grab a drink at The Esquire – the oldest bar on the San Antonio Riverwalk (1933), or tacos and margaritas at Casa Rio – the first restaurant to open on the Riverwalk (1946) and still in the same family. The Riverwalk is especially crowded on weekends, when local vendors set up shops along the banks, selling handmade arts, crafts, jewelry and unique items.

What originally started as a project to help alleviate the Great Depression, was later guided by engineers from Disneyland, and became the central hub for visitors to San Antonio.

Lucky fish

If you are a regular patron of sushi, keep your past notions and experiences aside when you come to dine at Uchiko. The restaurant describes itself as “contemporary Japanese dining” but I say it’s an entirely new cuisine waiting to be discovered.

2011 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southwest, Tyson Cole has married the finest ingredients from around the global to create a mouth-watering taste retreat in the heart of Austin. When my friend, Dianna and I pulled some strings to get last minute reservations at this popular eatery, we were in for an experience of a lifetime!

While waiting at the bar, I noticed they had an extensive list of sake and a few good wines. However, I was disappointed there weren’t any cocktails. Perhaps it’s not suitable to have a cocktail in a traditional Japanese farmhouse (that description lost me). The ambiance appeared to be more of contemporary and hip, than a farmhouse. Dark wooden panels and subdued lighting made it perfect for a date night, even though we were two girlfriends enjoying a gastronomical night out.

Our wonderful waiter, a young gentleman from Croatia suggested we order 5-6 plates to share. Each dish was handcrafted and took a while to prepare, especially when they were so busy on the Saturday night we were there. The menu is divided into different sections and we decided to try something from each of them. There are also specials offered that change daily.

We tried yokai berri from the cold tastings. It was the perfect blend of melt-in-your-mouth Atlantic salmon with crisp dinosaur kale, sweet Asian pear and yuzu sauce. We  devoured as we watched our neighbors playing with their order of the hot rock (sear it your­self wagyu beef served on a sizzling Japanese river rock.) An attention grabber for sure!

The tempura nasu were perfectly battered and fried circles of Japanese eggplant served with a sweet chili sauce. I could eat an entire bowl of these and still be wanting more! From their cooked menu, we had the suzuki yaki, pan fried scrumptious pieces of grilled Mediter­ranean sea bass in a bed of cherry tomatoes and tarragon. It came close to a seafood dish you would find at an American seafood restaurant. Note to self – don’t order cooked fish at a sushi place. 

The sushi rolls were perhaps the most disappointing section of the menu. We didn’t quote enjoy our selections of p-38 (Japanese yellow­tail, avocado, yuzu kosho, grilled negi, cilantro) or the crunchy tuna.  Our charming waiter brought us complimentary pieces of madai, a good luck charm traditionally served at festivals and special occasions in Japan.

Needless to say, every single item we had was number one in terms of quality, creativity and freshness. Uchiko swears by sourcing only sustainable and responsibly fished ingredients, which clearly reflects in the taste. Each piece of fish is given individual attention, making sure it is sliced and served to reflect the most optimal texture and flavor. You are a lucky fish to be served here…

What made my evening was the fried milk dessert. It was a piece of art that I hated to destroy but couldn’t resist it’s rapture in my mouth. Deep fried frozen custard was served with iced milk sherbet and thin layers of toasted chocolate. Dianna watched me as I finished the last crumbs. Yummm!!!

Tasting Austin in June

I am in Austin, TX for the IACP Annual Conference. I have come to learn of Austin as a city full of arts, music, clubs and food. Known as the “music capital of the world”, “home of Whole Foods” and “city for the creative class” and a lot more- all keeps Austin weird. The people here are friendly, eclectic and open minded, as I would discover over the next few days.

As this was my first time attended the IACP conference, I wasn’t sure what to expect. With over 700 attendees, I have obviously met a lot of who’s-who from the culinary world. Also, I got to taste some interesting food and drinks, showcased by chef’s, restaurateurs, and authors from around the world.

The opening night reception was a fabulous event that was held at the famous Bob Bullock State History Museum. We were greeted by bulls and armadillos waiting by the giant lone star monument. A few of us even raced the armadillos against each other inside the little barricaded area they were chilling at Well, not really raced, but gently nudged them to move along the cones in hopes of winning a bandanna!

Inside was a world of gastronomy to be explored against the backdrop of the museum’s rich history. Local vendors had set up tables of Austin’s finest creations for the most discerning patrons. Here is a brief synopsis of what was showcased…

Whole Foods Market presented an appetizer of cashew chive cream cheese with balsamic pickled fig on whole grain crostini and a sweet and spicy treat, smoked BBQ shrimp with carmelized ramps on a crispy flat bread. East to make and good hors devours one can make ay home for entertaining.

The heirloom tomato tart by Jeffrey’s had a good balance of crunch, cheese and tart. Again, easy to make for a cocktail party.

Ranch 616 put an interesting twist on the snack food-Frito chips, serving chilli, sour cream and pico de gallo inside the bag itself. I like the idea of serving everything in a bag with a fork especially when you are having a pool-side or backyard party. I bet kids would find it a novelty that can’t resists.

I wasn’t very impressed by Rosemary’s Catering. The combination of quail egg fry with bacon and soggy hard bread did not do it for me. I loved the Antonelli’s Cheese Shop presentations and would like to visit them to take a few things home. The freshness of cheese with off the beaten path combinations (blue cheese with strawberry jam), were a fiesta in the mouth.

Another interesting twist on the cheese balls was a corn flakes encrusted goat cheese ball. Your guests would keeping popping all through the night, forgetting the calories.

There was nothing to rave about the peach pie with bacon-pecan-maple sauce served with lavender ice cream. The peaches were undercooked and the ice cream “vanilla.”

For drinks, there were stations of tequila which ran out halfway into the evening. I managed with a peach iced tea. The ambiance of the history museum, along with a guest list, made the event even more special, in spite of the mediocre food. I was hoping to taste more local flavors with south-western influences. Perhaps I had bigger expectations from Austin’s culinary creators but I am sure they also had a challenge preparing for these many guests in 100F weather.

Let’s continue to explore rest of the food scene here…