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Monday’s Neighborhood: Pearl Brewery Complex, San Antonio

It’s fascinating to see the variety of old buildings who were thriving factories a century and now have been completely remodeled and spruced up for retail and often culinary purposes. You see your old steam powerhouses become nightclubs. Old carriage houses hold salons. Warehouses now seem to always become cozy bistros and artist ateliers, unless it’s the old B&O Warehouse in Baltimore, in which case it becomes part of the Major League ballpark in that city, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

How about old breweries? With the recent astronomical surge in craft breweries, it would seem to be common sense to replace an old brewery shell with a new brewery. That’s essentially what many of the world’s massive breweries have done, including Miller in Milwaukee, Budweiser in St. Louis, Guinness in Dublin, and Carlsberg in Copenhagen.

In San Antonio, they’re a little more creative with what they’ve done with the old Pearl Brewery, just barely north of the city center on a prime piece of real estate along the San Antonio River. Yes, the same river as the “river” in the Riverwalk. The Pearl Brewery is night and day from the endless tourist overload in the heart of the Riverwalk.

CIA Cafe

In 1881, the J.B. Behloradsky Brewery and the City Brewery were founded on the site, later becoming the San Antonio Brewing Association, whose signature beer was called “Pearl.” In 1952, the brewery changed its name to Pearl Brewing, later to be bought out by the giant cheap beer brewing company, Pabst. Then in 2001, Pabst closed operations and the company Silver Ventures bought the real estate, ready to gentrify the brewing area. The first result of this change was the Aveda Beauty School, very different than a brewery, that opened in 2006.

Soon various boutiques, offices, and institutes followed Aveda, along with the first major culinary addition, the area’s first Farmers Market in 2009.

Then came the restaurants and most importantly in 2010, the opening of the third Culinary Institute of America. Of course the first two are still doing just fine in Hyde Park, NY and St. Helena, CA. You’ve got near New York and the Napa Wine Country with those first two. San Antonio for a culinary school? Why not?

The CIA boasts a  cafe- bakery with coffee from the highly regarded Counter Culture Roasters in North Carolina. The espresso is average, but you’ll be delighted by the iced coffee, especially on any summer day here. Sandwiches and pastries inspired from Mexico and Latin America shouldn’t be passed up.

Besides the cafe and classes, the CIA now has a restaurant for the students to cook and serve at, NAO, drawing its dishes from Latin America. Having opened right before I arrived, the initial buzz is that NAO is the most exciting destination to dine at in 2012 San Antonio.

San Antonio’s main celebrity chef Andrew Weismann closed his beloved, formal Downtown institution Le Rêve and moved out to the Pearl complex with a pair of highly regarded, much more casual restaurants: Il Sogno Osteria and The Sandbar Fish House. Blue Box at the Pearl is the cocktail establishment for the complex and happy hour destination pre- dinner at Il Sogno or Sandbar.

A 2010 addition across the parking lot from the main complex was La Gloria Ice House from chef Johnny Hernandez, interpreting the street foods of Mexico in a colorful, festive space, with service faster than Usain Bolt. Don’t even think about pacing here. The margaritas were unfortunately dull here, especially when compared with others in San Antonio. The achiote rubbed al pastor tacos looked promising, the pork handsomely glistening, spinning on their rotating spit in the kitchen, brimming with pineapple juice from the fruit on top. Somehow the meat managed to be dry and the seasoning plain though when served in taco form. Grilled fish tacos were no more exciting and no less dry, crying for guacamole and salsa.  What happened?

Skirt Steak Molcajete at La Gloria

Instead, go for the ceviche verde, the fiery skirt steak in tomatillo sauce molcajete (enough for 5), the studly quesadillas and sopes, and load up on the excellent corn tortillas.

What a wonderful way to restore an old brewery and spend some time along the San Antonio River…worlds away from the Riverwalk. Now all they need at the Pearl Brewery is…a brewery again.

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