San Antonio a fiesta of local flavours
San Antonio may not seem as cool as its sister city Austin, but Alamo City can boast a world-class food scene worthy of UNESCO recognition.
While many know San Antonio as the birthplace of Tex-Mex, the city’s dining culture covers a broad range of cooking that encompasses and expands upon its rich Spanish, Mexican and German influences.
Bring in graduates from San Antonio’s Culinary Institute of America campus, and the city is brimming with fashionably hip places to wine and dine headed by numerous James Beard Award nominees.
It’s this mingling of cultural heritage and culinary creative minds that recently garnered San Antonio the distinction of being named UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
While the UNESCO recognition doesn’t mean San Antonio has more top restaurants than any other city, the designation does mean it knows how to sustain and share its culinary heritage.
Alongside must-sees like the Alamo and the four other Spanish missions, a visit to San Antonio isn’t complete without a trip up and down the famous River Walk for a sampling of the city’s diverse food scene.
For traditional Tex-Mex, a good place to start off downtown is Mi Tierra, a bustling, family-run restaurant in Market Square, where the atmosphere is fiesta-like.
Fresh-baked Mexican pastries, cookies and desserts greet guests in the display cases at the cafe entrance, while the 500-seat dining area in the back is — oddly enough — both warm and intimate under a cocoon of gold banners and twinkling mini lights.
Aside from the standard cheesy and meaty Tex-Mex fare such as enchiladas and fajitas, Mi Terra impressively serves five types of margaritas. It’s also one of the few places that is open 24 hours, 365 days a year.
To find San Antonio’s trendiest restaurants and watering holes, look beyond downtown and head to bohemian Southtown.
Best known as an arts district for its eclectic mix of galleries, cafes and indie shops, Southtown is also home to locally celebrated chef Johnny Hernandez’s most recent project Burgerteca.
Famous for introducing Mexican street food to the city with his La Gloria restaurant, Hernandez’s newest casual eatery gives the all-American burger a Mexican makeover.
Expect to dig into massive sloppy joes that taste like beef nachos sandwiched between house-baked brioche-style buns.
Mole fries are served with a sprinkling of queso and pickled red onions, resembling a more flavourful and vegetarian-friendly version of poutine.
Be sure to leave room for dessert as the eatery has a large selection of house-made Mexican ice creams and paletas.
In sharp contrast to Southtown’s funky converted warehouse buildings, a stroll through the area’s historic King William District provides a glimpse of the opulent homes of the wealthy German families that settled here in the late 1800s.
Be sure to drop into The Guenther House. The museum was once the home of Pioneer Flour Mills founder Carl Hilmar Guenther.
Its restaurant is a popular local brunch spot and serves signature comfort dishes — biscuits and gravy, fluffy sweet cream waffles, and champagne chicken enchiladas — on the covered back patio.
North of downtown, the 2-km Museum Reach extension of the River Walk leads to the city’s foremost museums. It also takes visitors to two places where remnants of the city’s brewing heyday have been revitalized into thriving cultural hubs. (San Antonio was once the beer-brewing capital of Texas).
The first is the San Antonio Museum of Art, which is housed in the complex of the old Lone Star Brewery. The former brewery’s high ceilings and industrial interior provide ample space to display comprehensive collections of Latin American, Asian and ancient Mediterranean art.
The second is the historic Pearl District, — once home to the sprawling Pearl Brewery. Spanning 16 city blocks, it’s now an epicurean wonderland of posh restaurants, craft brews, weekend farmers’ markets and the Texas campus of the Culinary Institute of America. The latter is a foodie adventure of its own as it offers boot camp vacation classes as well as regular chef training programs.
The Pearl’s architectural gem is Hotel Emma, where industrial remains of the old Pearl Brewery are beautifully integrated throughout the boutique hotel’s decor. Old fermentation tanks have been converted into cozy seating areas making the hotel bar — Sternewirth — an atmospheric spot for drinks.
As for food options, Pearl’s restaurants and eateries mainly focus on serving locally sourced, globally inspired dishes. One of the community’s most raved about dishes is the hand-crafted charcuterie spread at Cured. This nose-to-tail dining hotspot is where chef Steve McHugh, a James Beard Awards finalist, proudly showcases his selection of meats in a glass meat locker out front.
Throughout the summer, the Pearl District will host several Spanish-themed activities to celebrate San Antonio’s tricentennial this year.
Air Canada has daily direct flights from Toronto to San Antonio, aircanada.com.
The city center is very bike-and pedestrian-friendly. The bike share program, SWell Cycle, has stations at popular attractions near the River Walk.
The Mission Reach trail takes pedestrians and cyclists to the four historic Spanish missions outside of downtown and the Alamo.
Go Rio Cruises has a river shuttle from the downtown portion of the River Walk to Museum Reach.
While the River Walk has dozens of hotels to choose from, the Omni La Mansion del Rio is one of the few considered a local landmark and part of the Historic Hotels of America network. Built in the 1800s, the Spanish hacienda-style hotel was once a boys’ school before it was converted into a hotel for San Antonio’s 1968 World Fair.