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Exploring San Antonio’s Food Scene

Can you have your concha and eat it, too?
Photo Credit: Nicole Franzen

By Naomi Tomky

Sternewirth Restaurant San Antonio Hotel Emma

The Hotel Emma retains some of its industrial character as the former site of a hundred-year-old brewery

Photo Credit: Nicole Franzen

The smell of woodsmoke wafting around the outdoor fireplace at San Antonio’s Hotel Emma evoked the state’s famous barbecue. Fresh off the plane and hungry for my first taste of Texas, it charmed me, as did the vintage leather couches and warm light softening the exposed pipes in the lobby. The industrial equipment, purposefully and artfully left in situ, exuded just enough rustic allure to remind guests of the building’s century housing Texas’s only brewery to survive prohibition.

Later, I learned that the enticing scent came not from the fireplace but a custom-designed fragrance called “Recuerdos,” sprayed by the hotel’s staff. The best hotels reflect their location, and the Hotel Emma exudes its idea of San Antonio impeccably, if exaggeratedly, like an animated Disney version. As in so many Disney cartoons, the hotel’s origin lies in the main character rising to success after the tragic death of a loved one: Emma steered the brewery to success after its founder, her husband, was murdered by one of the two women with whom he was having an affair—both also named Emma.

Lalas Gorditas Beef Puffy Taco San Antonio

Thick, puffy gorditas like those served at Lala’s are a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine

The fascinating story momentarily distracted me from my mission to eat through San Antonio. Here, in the capital of Tex-Mex cuisine, I was concerned about the absence of refried beans on either of the hotel restaurants’ menus. Shiny new developments rarely benefit homegrown cuisines or the people who cook them. It crushed me that relishing Hotel Emma’s immaculately designed luxuries could come at the cost of queso, carne guisada, and the cultures that created them.

Hotel Emma anchors The Pearl, something between an outdoor mall and an urban village, with restaurants, shops, and offices, centered on a public plaza. The 22-acre Pearl Brewery complex, the physical embodiment of San Antonio’s glory days and headquarters of its one-time largest employer, seemed destined for dust after production ceased in 2001, until a private equity firm purchased the land. Led by local billionaire Kit Goldsbury, formerly the president of Pace Food—whose commercials famously mocked salsa from New York City—the development preserved the iconic architecture. It drew on the brewery’s history for design inspiration.

Recuerdos Candle Hotel Emma

Hotel Emma guests can bring the scent of San Antonio—or, at least, The Pearl’s take on it—home with “Recuerdos,” available in a spray, rollerball, or candle

But the closest restaurants to the Emma serve modern American, French, and hearty Texas cuisine. I imagined Parisians seeing me tear off pieces of baguette at Brasserie Mon Chou Chou until one gasps in horror, “This stuff’s made in San Antonio!”

I grabbed an electric bikeshare and peddled off the polished plaza of The Pearl, following the Riverwalk south to Lala’s Gorditas for the uniquely San Antonian specialty of puffy tacos. Instead of cooking tortillas on a comal, Lala’s Gorditas fries the masa, then fills it with crisp iceberg lettuce, juicy chopped tomatoes, and ground beef, crowned with curtido and crema.

That night, I ate fluffy pita drawn through spicy feta dip, leeks in olive oil with kohlrabi greens, and Wagyu beef tartare at Ladino in The Pearl. The restaurant traces the culinary journey of Sephardic Jews from pre-Inquisition Spain through the Balkans and onto Israel. It is not Tex-Mex, but it is one of, if not the only Sephardic restaurant in the United States.

Pearl Park San Antonio

A billionaire investor transformed the 22-acre Pearl Brewery complex into a busy town square full of boutiques, residential units, offices, and international eats

Photo Credit: Nick Simonite

The money Goldsbury’s group poured into The Pearl brought in unique, excellent restaurants. But if people got too comfortable waddling from cocktails at Cured to mochi hush puppies at the Chinese-American, Best Quality Daughter, I worry it will be at the expense of the flavor of San Antonio found in the spit-roasted sirloin at El Pastor Es Mi Señor or breakfast tacos from Original Donut Shop.

I called up my most trusted source on all things tacos and Tex-Mex, José Ralat, the taco editor of Texas Monthly’s “Taco Trail.” He guided me to many of my best bites in town and assuaged my concern that The Pearl represents anti-taco gentrification. “I don’t think it really has any impact on the immediate area,” he says. “If you cross the highway, you have more affordable places to eat right there.”

He gave me a quick lesson in Tex-Mex geography: Much of it originated on the city’s West Side, where plumbing and sanitation services arrived only in the 1960s—around when the diner-like Garcia’s opened. About half the breakfast tacos there still cost $1.99. I upgraded, paying $3.89 for avocado and brisket wrapped in soft flour tortillas, and washed them down with sickly sweet, candy-apple-colored Big Red soda, a combination that embodies South Texas.

Feliz Modern Pop Interior San Antonio

Many of the gifts and homewares at The Pearl’s Feliz Modern Pop draw upon classic Tex-Mex and Mexican aesthetics.

“The land on the West Side was only valuable when it became a tourist destination and when politicians came into power who had grown up there,” Ralat explains, describing a long process of local leaders and residents reckoning with the city’s prejudices. “It came out the other end embracing it as a Brown city with a very proud Mexican heritage, and I think that San Antonio is a model for the rest of Texas.” He illustrates this with something that a big-name Mexican chef whispered to him at a food festival: “I love coming to San Antonio because here all the customers are Brown and the servers are white.”

The next day, I took the 35-minute Riverwalk “cruise” past day-drunk tourists on patios shaded by boldly colored umbrellas and painted concrete buildings. The Hard Rock Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and Harley-Davidson store gave the mile-and-a-half Riverwalk loop Tex-Vegas vibes. I disembarked, knowing little more about the city, a lot more about the art of terrible tour guide jokes, and wary of my lunch options. “I would not recommend anyone eat Tex-Mex or any Mexican food in Downtown unless the restaurant is original and has been there for 50 years,” Ralat advises. I went to La Panadería for a croncha, which merges the classic sugar-topped concha bun and a croissant into a pastry that rivals its inspiration, the cronut.

Alebrije Conchas San Antonio

Is the smell of Alebrije’s conchas the true fragrance of San Antonio? Jury’s out—but the fluffy pan dulce is certainly worth inhaling

The Riverwalk is San Antonio’s most prominent attraction, and if there was so little Tex-Mex worth eating there, I struggled to fault The Pearl for the same. San Antonio’s best came from every direction: the vintage West Side taco shops and manufactured luxury of The Pearl, but also the flow from one to the other, much like the river that connects them or the multilingual fluency of so many residents.

On a recent visit to The Pearl, Ralat says he watched high school mariachi bands play through malfunctioning microphones in the plaza and got the coffee with horchata in it that he loves. “I couldn’t think of a more San Antonio thing.”

I stopped into Feliz Modern Pop, one of the shops on the plaza, and admired the colorful Tex-Mex tchotchkes, like catnip tacos, before settling on a concha-shaped phone grip. Before going up to my room, I sat in the leather chairs by the fireplace and took a few deep sniffs of “Recuerdos.” Hotel Emma describes the scent as, “Rich, smoky, and evocative of sun-warmed South Texas stone and wood,” selling bottles of it for $55. In the morning, I walked a mile east across sun-soaked South Texas pavement to get a real—and really good—concha from Alebrije Bakery. It smelled like butter, sugar, and San Antonio.

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