The final installment of “Greetings from…” heads deeper into the heart of Texas for some classic barbeque brisket in the Barbeque Capital of the State (which means by default possibly the Barbeque Capital of the World), along with a city that very soon will be on par with Austin, Dallas, and Houston when it comes to being a top tier dining destination.
Of course, when we think of San Antonio, we think of the Alamo and the Riverwalk. A visit to the Alamo is obligatory, as is the exceedingly touristy boat “tours” along the San Antonio River. How is this exactly a “tour?” It’s not as if the sights are really “sights.” Think of the Riverwalk a bit like a Disneyland meets modern Americana shopping mall with a hint of Texas cowboy and and a tablespoon of Bourbon Street debauchery thrown into the mix.
The mega restaurant corporation Landry’s (Bubba Gump, Chart House, Morton’s Steakhouse, McCormack & Schmick’s, Rainforest Cafe…) runs much of the Riverwalk. Unfortunately, many of San Antonio’s visitors are much more interested in the chain dining experience, rather than an actual dining experience. There is a Pat O’Brien’s, the New Orleans import, and home to quite possibly America’s most horrid cocktail. One food court near the dock for Riverwalk cruises nearly made me collapse from the aromas of sticky, greasy orange chicken.
While San Antonio is an enormous, sprawling city à la Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles, the core of the city is actually very small and walkable. The dining scene doesn’t quite rank up with those cities yet, but it is already inching closer and closer. Remember, this city has the third and newest campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Interestingly, what did I leave remembering from San Antonio? Excellent cocktails, just not at Pat O’Brien’s.
And in Barbeque Central, also known as Lockhart, an hour’s drive from San Antonio (halfway between the city and Austin), it was a slightly disappointing dual between Black’s and Kreuz Market. In the end, Kreuz Market was crowned the victor.
Outside the Riverwalk, Downtown San Antonio can seem somewhat sleepy and desolate, particularly on the numerous scorching hot summer days. Much of the action happens just outside Downtown at the renovated old Pearl Brewery complex. The Pearl Brewery is a gem, with two restaurants from the city’s leading chef Andrew Weisman, La Gloria Ice House’s Mexican street food specialties, and the Culinary Institute of America.
No, there is currently no brewery operating at the Pearl Brewery. Pearl was bought out by Pabst Brewing Co. years ago, but Pabst has since departed.
While the excitement of the new cocktail culture and the Pearl Brewery complex shows that San Antonio is certainly making terrific progress, the leader of the old guard, Biga on the Banks brought nothing except disappointments. Perched high above the Riverwalk, Bruce Auden’s twelve year old stand by still receives James Beard awards. The original Biga’s opened in 1991, away from the Riverwalk. Unfortunately, the experience recently at Biga fell more in line with a much more ambitious version of the Riverwalk’s restaurants.
Very little clicked. The service never could hit its stride. Pacing was too slow then too fast. Dishes would be taken too early or far too late. The head server proudly boasted of his being a “master” sommelier, yet couldn’t even pronounce the word “sommelier” correctly. He lectured us on Bordeaux wines as if we had never heard of Bordeaux. Is that in Italy? And the server was relentless and unsuccessful in his pursuit of convincing our party to go the tasting menu route.
Despite the clearly overpriced a la carte menu with entrees well into the high $30’s, the tasting menu is no better bargain or way to sample Auden’s creations.
Much of the cuisine faltered too, turning out to sound far better than its execution, with numerous dated and distracted dishes. Chicken fried oysters completely covered up the plump bivalves with its batter and a bland whole grain mustard hollandaise. Smoked salmon nachos received no zip at all from the chipotle cream cheese. And really, a dish called “smoky expensive mushrooms.” That’s more in line at a Landry’s restaurant.
The signature 11 spice Axis venison and grilled Texas quail had mixed results. The rare venison meat was superbly tender, while the quail was Mojave Desert dry, with meat the texture of sand paper. Fortunately, despite having an overwhelming assortment on the plate causing sauce to fall off, the accompanying parsnip puree, chestnuts, brussels sprouts, juniper sauce, and cranberry raisin chutney thrived with the meat duo. The same can’t be said for the overcooked redfish. Dishes have at least a half dozen components incorporated, drawing inspirations from everywhere: achiote roasted pork tenderloin to ahi tuna with toasted coconut coulis and English pea hummus. It’s like eating in 1995 again.
But, hailing from England, Auden knows sticky toffee pudding. It doesn’t get any better than the version here.
If Biga disappointed, so too did La Gloria with its nondescript margaritas (run away from the blue version), soggy tortillas, and dry al pastor meat tacos. At least the ceviche and molcajetes are worth staunch recommendations.
The Riverwalk seems like the only part of San Antonio to visitors. Do try to venture away for some culture at the city’s Museum of Art or the McNay Art Museum. A 15 minute drive from Downtown is the At&T Center, home of the NBA’s most consistent team, the San Antonio Spurs. Though yours truly did not pursue the famed puffy tacos like a true passionate food writer should, the city’s signature food can be explored with a day covering all over the city. Then again, the one puffy taco I once had in Los Angeles made me sick later that day.
San Antonio’s newspaper, The San Antonio Express-News, boasts one of the country’s best food section, led by the award-winning Edmund Tijerina. And the city’s mayor Julián Castro is one of the country’s politicians on the rise after delivering the key note address last month at the Democratic National Convention.
Just outside the Riverwalk is the Hemisfair Park, with its centerpiece the Tower of Americas from the 1968 Hemisfair. Neaby is the Alamo Dome, the former home of the Spurs, and now pretty much just used for one college football bowl game a year. Yes, it’s called the Alamo Bowl. Remember the Alamo.
Moving to Lockhart, a town smaller than the Riverwalk, it’s all about the brisket. The main landmark outside of barbequed meats is the city’s courthouse. Really, you’re here to eat of course. Brisket is king here, preferred with no sauce by the locals. The meat is barbequed at high heats in deep pits, providing a vividly tasting outer part and the potential for either very tender or very dry, overcooked meat in the center.
Kreuz Market is no frills, no nonsense barbeque. The institution is mammoth, the utensils are minimal. Order by the pound your brisket or the excellent plain and jalapeno-cheese sausages. Baked beans are worth tasting as well. It’s about the textbook brisket here, served on butcher paper with no forks and knives. if you’d like some Wonder Bread, go ahead and buy a slice. But why? As they say at Kreuz, the ends of your arms are your forks.
Meanwhile, the pork short ribs and jalapeno-sausage starred at Black’s, a much more intimate, cozy venue, oozing with character from the pictures of famous figures who have visited on the walls. Yes, alert Memphis, it was the pork short ribs that starred here in Lockhart, Texas. The brisket was not the star so much after being slightly dry. Pretty much everything in the buffet line had the same fate: dry cornbread, black eyed peas with less character than the cornbread. Black’s offers various sauces, including a hot one the same temperature as an August afternoon in Lockhart.
The verdict? Kreuz Market. Perhaps it was an off day for Black’s brisket. No matter, just go get some sticky toffee pudding for dessert at Biga on the Banks. There is truly nothing better.
Five Best Dishes of San Antonio and Lockhart
Biga on the Banks: Sticky Toffee Pudding
Anybody who likes caramel and über sweet desserts, pay homage to the King here. You shouldn’t, but you’ll eat one by yourself. Impossibly moist, the opposite of the quail here.
Black’s Barbeque: Pork Short Ribs
How the brisket got so dry escapes me. The same smoky flavor of the brisket gives these tender short ribs the enchanting nature of top flight barbeque, with the addition of superlative texture to the meat.
Black’s Barbeque: Jalapeno Cheese Sausage
Boasting a perfect taut skin that would fit right at home in Chicago, the sausage has just the right amount of cheese (not gushing out over your hands) and enough jalapeno to let you know it’s there.
Kreuz Market: BBQ Brisket
Eat with your hands and go for the slightly fatty pieces. With a wonderfully smoky initial taste, this is as brisket should be. Have some pickles too as a palate cleanser.
La Gloria: Ceviche Verde
The best dish at La Gloria, with the marinated snapper mixed with various green elements. They all share the same color and all add an exciting dimension to the fish and heavily lime influenced marinade: manzanilla olives, tomatillos, and avocado.
Concept of San Antonio: Re-Interpretation of Latin American and Mexican Cuisines
Over at the culinary centerpiece of the city in the Pearl Brewery, Nao and La Gloria’s Johnny Hernandez are putting their own unique stamps on Latin America and Mexican cuisine. Let’s just say, these aren’t Tex-Mex fajitas and burritos we’re seeing from these visionary chefs. They are leading the way. The city will follow.
Don’t just stop there, though. San Antonio does indeed have the best margarita in the country (yes, even better than Tommy’s in San Francisco). The duo of the bar at Bohanan’s and Esquire Tavern are a 1-2 punch à la Joe Montana to Jerry Rice.
New York’s Sasha Petraske (Milk & Honey) is responsible for the cocktail menu’s supervision and the version at Bohanan’s of Petraske’s most famous creation, “The Penicillin,” was even more impressive than the one I had at an actual Petraske owned bar. With its honey ginger syrup mingling with both Single Malt Whiskey and the smoky allure of Laphroaig, this is a cocktail that soon could be on the tier of Manhattans and Martinis.
The menu is divided into shaken and stirred, presenting numerous pre-Prohibition classics. Maybe you’re in an “Aviation” mood (I’m not) or much better, “The Left Hand” with Bourbon, Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and very noticeable chocolate bitters. It’s a spirit driven sipper that won’t hit you like a sledge hammer.
Bohanan’s is actually a steakhouse, tucked away from the Riverwalk, with a handsome gentleman’s club vibe. On the Riverwalk, yes I repeat ON the Riverwalk, you’ll drink just as well at Esquire. Either inside at the mile long bar or better yet, outside on the patio overlooking the river, be sure to sample “The Only Word,” a “Last Word” variation with Blanco tequila, Maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse, lime, Mezcal, and yes, celery bitters. It all works. Sweet, smoke, tart, it’s all here.
The “Sacrilage” succeeds too, perfectly mingling Chamomile Pisco with green chartreuse and honey syrup, followed by an alluring cracked pepper addition. A few too many cocktails are based on the homemade ginger beer. The highly recommended “Only the Besh” underwhelmed, tasting too much of the ginger beer, with nearly no Bourbon or allspice notes.
Beer or Wine?
Go for cocktails, but Bohanan’s boasts a top notch wine collection. The Esquire has a terrific beer list and San Antonio does have a Flying Saucer beer bar. Make sure to try local brews from Freetail, Blue Star, and Ranger Creek. It’s not Austin, but it’s getting there beer-wise.
Of course, you can also choose beer or wine with a view. The selections aren’t exactly Napa’s finest bottles or newest brews from San Diego, but The Chart House atop the Tower of the Americas has a terrific happy hour for $5-7 dollars a drink. Best of all of course, would be the view of the entire city. Or, that you pay $5 for a glass of sub-par wine for the view instead of twice the price, with a line for the elevator, to see the view from the observation deck.
It’s the hidden secret I discovered: cheaper price, wine or beer, and no lines. Why not?
Shall We Grab Coffee?
Sure, at the bakery-cafe at the Culinary Institute of America. With excellent pastries, the coffee (go for the excellent iced coffee instead of espresso) is roasted by North Carolina’s famed Counter Culture. Hot coffee tastes even better when it’s 100 degrees. The “Third Wave” coffee movement hasn’t reached San Antonio yet. Let me know if it does.
Symbol of San Antonio Dining: Esquire Tavern
Really, something from the Riverwalk has to be the winner here. Fortunately, one of the country’s leading cocktail bars can be found on the otherwise overly generic banks of the San Antonio River.
Symbol of Lockhart: The Kreuz Market
It either looks like a gigantic sausage factory or Midwestern barn. The seating looks like a middle school cafeteria. There are no plates, forks, or knives. The best beer is Dos Equis or Shiner Bock in a bottle. You order by the pound. You eat with your hands with sausages and brisket meat on butcher paper. Nothing else in the world matters for those precious moments when you dig into Texas’ premier brisket. Now that is a statement as grand as Texas itself.
Symbol of San Antonio: Remember the Alamo
Finally from San Antonio…