Or… What’s a San Francisco guy to do when he’s stranded in San Antonio and can’t cook?
The first week of June each year, Carol has a National Association of Educators of Young Children (NAEYC) Professional Development Institute with 4 days of workshops “second tier cities,” last year in Miami Beach, this year in San Antonio. She’s been going for many years and the last two years I’ve gone along for the ride. The characters are wife Carol, Sarah of San Francisco and Fran of San Jose, among others.
San Antonio River Walk
Since I didn’t do cooking and writing for this short week, I did eating and writing. This is a site of experiments and this post is more of a travelogue than a cooking thing; there are lots of pictures. So I’m going to experiment with this link to a slide show, rather than paste the pictures in here. Let me know how you like it.
The flight to San Antonio was uneventful. We were on a United flight, but the plane and crew is one of a smaller carrier. The plane is pretty small; we’re in row 11 out of 17 rows of window-aisle-aisle-window arrangement. The seats are leather, so it’s okay if they’re a little narrow. There’s drink service, but they don’t even mention food… not for free (those days are long gone), not for sale. I took the opportunity to make ham and cheese sandwiches with endive and thin sliced cucumber in pita bread pockets to munch on during the flight. I will say that they were pretty good.
I met Carol and Sarah and Fran in the room after their opening reception and we repaired to the lobby to find a taxi to take us to the Liberty Bar, a place that I’d picked out of the Moon Texas Guidebook. It’s an old building with sloping wooden floors, crowded when we arrived around 7 o’clock. There are two rooms, seating about 24 folks each, with a bar along the wall in one room. As we arrived, there was a line of sorts inside the door… couldn’t tell exactly where it was going. We asked a guy as he was leaving, “The host will find you,” he said “How’s the food?” “Food is fine.” Hmmmm. Guy taking names said no longer than thirty minutes wait. We waited at the bar, with wine.
Their sign says “SERIOUS FOOD” and I guess it is. The menu features mainly grilled meat. My medium-rare rib eye steak came medium-well done at best, but it wasn’t tough or dry so I decided to just eat it. Then the very nice waitress asked how it was, and I told her. “Keep eating, I’ll be right back,” she said. In a few minutes she was back with a new plate including a new medium rare steak. I ordered the rib eye steak because I keep reading about how they’re the best cut of steak, best marbled and best tasting. I’ve always thought they tasted greasy and fatty. I still think that. It was served with grilled potatoes, grilled sliced tomatoes and guacamole. Good stuff, aside from my choice of steak.
We’re staying in the Marriott Rivercenter, a convention hotel. Carol is off to an eight o’clock meeting while I get dressed and take stock of stuff… we didn’t bring anything except the sandwiches for the plane. There’s a bottle of water on the room desk with a sign that says “If you open this, we’ll put $4.95 on your bill.” Not very friendly. No thanks. So I made a little shopping list: water, juice, deodorant, sun block, gum.
About 9 o’clock, I ask the concierge if there’s a CVS or Walgreens around and he sends me toward CVS, located beside the Hilton on the Riverwalk. Out the door of the Marriott, I’m on Commerce Street… huge street, 5 lanes one-way, no cars. I walked a couple blocks in wonderment until I realize that it’s Sunday. Duh! Got to the Hilton… CVS is down the steps to the Riverwalk, but it doesn’t open until 10. I’m already tiredâ€”the heat just saps the energy outâ€”and hungry. There’s a Hilton place for breakfast on the Riverwalk and I sat there. Ordered coffee, V8 and an English muffin which comes to $14. Traveling rules: 1) I don’t mind paying 5 bucks for a drink on the airplane, but I hate paying 4 bucks for a V8 in a hotel restaurant. 2) Don’t leave the hotel without something to read. So I stare at the passers by on the Riverwalk and eat and wait, wait, wait for the check to be picked up.
Carol gets a break for lunch from 12:30 to 2 o’clock each day. I’m in charge of finding a place close by to eat. The Rivercenter Mall adjoins the hotel and has the most garish food court I’ve ever seen, or could imagine, populated by fat people with too few clothes carrying heaping trays of carbs. I ruled out the boring and overpriced hotel restaurants as well, so the only thing near the hotel with a chance of being okay is a Chili’s. I guess that wouldn’t kill me.
I camped at Chili’s behind a very tall draft; chips and salsa, with my cell phone turned on and waited for Carol. Outside, on a shaded terrace overlooking the river, the heat is not too oppressive and there’s even a hint of a breeze. I’m reading Seasoning of a Chef, an interesting, but not very well written book by and about Doug Psaltis, a well-known chef that I’ve never heard of. (If I had an internet connection, I’d Google him. No wi-fi here. I could hook up with a phone cableâ€”if I had a phone cableâ€”in the room for ten bucks a day, and get additional services that I don’t need, like phone calls. There is wi-fi in the lobby, but they charge by the minute. The Marriott doesn’t give away anything but soap.)
Carol and Fran showed up as I received my second very tall beer. Carol and I shared a very good shrimp and chicken fajita with all the trimmings. I can’t imagine anyone eating that whole thing by themselves, especially at lunch and in this heat.
For dinner we plan to visit Landry’s Seafood, a Texas chain, on the Riverwalk. Sposta be good. Sarah and Fran barge into our room and announce that they’re bringing Sandy and Paula, so I call for reservations (six plus earns that privilege in San Antonio). When Sandy and Paula arrive, they ask is it okay if Barbara comes along. Sure okayfine. Me and six ladies for the evening, good show.
The walk on the Riverwalk of a Sunday evening was like a jammed up two-lane road in Sonoma County. You go at the common speed, and there’s no passing. But who cares… the temperature has dropped a bit and there’s a little breeze.
We opted for inside at Landry’s and were seated right away. The dining room is big and bustling and our waiterâ€”faced with our crowdâ€”is a model of cool. We start with Margaritas for the girls, Manhattan for Carol, Scotch for me. The waiter suggests a group appetizer and brings it… an assortment of fried seafood… good.
The extra girls were interesting. Minnetonka MN; Phoenix; New Orleans/St Louis… chatty and bubbly and smart and a good addition to the usuals. I had fried catfish, three huge fillets laid over mounds of potatoes and steamed vegetables, as did Carol; Sarah had her catfish broiled, which was better. The others had whatever and the food was good… remarkable for such a large place on such a busy night.
Carol called after her first meeting to say that she and Sarah and Fran decided to play hooky and go to Market Square and the Farmers Market. Do I want to go along? Of course, its on my t’do list.
We took the trolleyâ€”actually a trolley-looking bus with wheels and tires and a gasoline engineâ€”through town to the market for one buck. Nice ride.
We started at the Farmers Market, a big hall with an array of stalls selling curios, or what I would call good quality junque. Sarah objected to the junk part, even after I defined it as stuff that doesn’t interest me. (Sarah bought lots of stuff. She’s a fantastic and thoughtful giver of gifts.) The big hall was a very pleasant place to be. The air conditioning was moderate and big fans blew the air around. The girls started carefully shopping and I said, “let’s pick a place to meet in an hour, I’m sure we’ll all move at a different pace.” Done and done.
I took a quick spin around and bang, found the perfect straw cowboy hat for $20. Logically, I need it for the sun. Yeah, right, I just like it â€˜cause it’s way cool. Many shops sell the same kind of stuff… as noted, not interesting to me, but there are neat, cute, clever and often outrageous Texas themed tee shirts. It didn’t take me long to get around. What this building is not, is a Farmers Market, despite the name. The building is built right up against an elevated freeway in the back. Covered by the freeway is a large, paved open area, a perfect place for a Farmers Market. I asked the old timer I bought my hat from, “Is there an actual farmers market on weekends?”
“There used to be and then they built the air conditioned building and it was hard to get truck access back there and they stopped it. I think there’s one once a month on Houston Street.”
Across the street at Market Square, there’s a building just as large with the same kind of stuff. Alongside that building is a long, low building with a single, huge Mexican Restaurant.
I was back to our meeting place in 15 minutes or less, got a Lone Star and opened my book. While I was reading, a Mariachi band concert broke out. A group of brothers and sisters, aged 20 (the male trumpet player) to age 8 started playing up a storm. It must have been scheduled because it drew a crowd. We were just lucky to be there.
The girls came back. There are a number of food stands around, Tex-Mex stuff. We chose our own burritos, tacos, whatever. I had a Flautas Plate with beans and rice. Nice lunch, and a welcome change of pace.
We went for dinner at County Lineâ€”another Texas chainâ€”a BBQ joint on the Riverwalk. Fran had said that she wanted barbecue and I’m always up for that. Another Carol joined us; She’s on the faculty at SFSU in the legal department. She’s a shop-talker. I mostly tuned that out and as it turned out, she sat next to Fran on the other end of the table, so it was no bother to me.
Anyway, I had the Beef Rib Platter with a side of black-eyed peas, and a Lone Star. Big Beef! Good!
I’m facing another quick-lunch-near-the-hotel situation. I checked around, and guess what? Carol and I had lunch at Hooters. What!? It’s right next to Chili’s. I wanted something simple and cheap and they’ve got it. I had a Cuban Sandwich for $7 and Carol a Cobb Salad for $7.50. Surprisingly good. And the babes ain’t bad either; young, nubile Texans.
I asked the concierge what restaurant in San Antonio she is passionate about. “And what kind of food do I like?” she asked me back. Simple, fresh, American food, sez I. So she sent us to the Josephine Street Café in a building right next to the Liberty Bar where we ate Sunday evening. It’s in an old one room house-like building and there’s a three-foot tree trunk going right up through the room. We sat between that and the front window overlooking an exit ramp to I-281. The place was pretty full when we arrived a little after 7. It’s a place for locals… meat â€˜n’ potatoes. Carol had the Liver â€˜n’ Onions, I had the Bacon Wrapped Pepper Fillet with a side of Grilled Onions. Great! Don’t know why it missed the guidebook, but I’m glad we found it.
Carol has meetings through 11:30 and then we’re off to Austin for a part day jaunt. The drive up I-35 to Austin is EZ and bor-ring. It’s pretty flat, pretty straight and there’s not much space between the San Antonio sprawl and the Austin sprawl, just a bit of rolling hill country off to the left. When we got to downtown Austin we found the State Capitol fairly easily and took its picture, but before we could find a place to park and get inside, we found the Texas Chili Parlor… can’t pass that up! And it’s a good thing; their chili is notorious and delicious. C had the Fritos Pie, a big bowl of Fritos with X (that’s single X, only a little spicy) chili over the Fritos (heck, we make that at home). I had a large bowl of the XX. Just right for me with spice and hot, and C felt the same about her low test. This is straight Texas chili, no beans or other adulterations. Comes with a heaping basket of cellophane wrapped two-cracker packs.
After visiting the University of Texas campus and the LBJ Memorial, we proceeded to 6th Street, Austin’s main drag for food and music. We found a parking space in front of The Old Pecan Street Cafe. Nice place. Had a drink and chatted up the bartender, it being 5 o’clock and nobody else in the place. That was a good, cool break. The menu is ordinary, but they do have crepes, which could be a nice light meal.
We reserve judgment on where to eat while walking up and down 6th Street. At the extreme west end, there’s a nice place called Louie’s 106, serving Tapas as well as a grill menu. That appealed to me, but we completed our circuit of the street before giving the nod to Louie’s. Pecan Street Cafe was a close second, should we ever get back to Austin. Carol had a Tuna Carpaccio and loved it and polished it off. I had three tapas: mozzarella with tomatoes, roasted potatoes with aioli, and duck liver pate. They were all good, but way more than I could eat.
The convention is over. I was up for driving to Bandera, Texas, a little town in the Hill Country with some history. Carol was up for slowly packing, hanging out and reading her book. So I packed my bags, loaded the car, and picked my way through northwestern San Antonio on city streets to Texas Route 16 running up through low hills in gentle bends and curves, rises and falls. The drive was a welcome relief from the endless strips of San Antonio City and County and the straight flat truck laden I-35 to Austin.
I got to Bandera in an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s not much… crossroads at a traffic light, a Cowboy Store, a few gift shops and a restaurant, the O.S.T. Restaurant. I parked, walked around, and had a Cowboy Breakfast; two eggs over easy, Chicken Fried Steak, grits and a biscuit. Damn good. After, I sat on a bench for a spell, took some pictures and got back into the hot Hyundai Sonata for the return, no less delightful than the getting there. All in all, that’s a fine way to spend a morning before hustling out to the airport for a 4:45 flight.
I bought a Mounds Bar and a Snickers Bar at the San Antonio airport. Then we flew to Las Angeles to connect to San Francisco.
At LAX we learn that our plane, coming from Chicago, Omaha and Denver is delayed by at least an hour. We get three hours at LAX, more than we could have dreamed. Might as well eat something. The drinking and dining establishments on our concourse are jammed, but we finally find a pair of seats at the end of a bar at Wolfgang Puck’s. (Remember when Wolfgang Puck, the chef of Spago and Chinois, meant fine dining?) The place is hot, jammed with punch drunk travelers, and the air quality is poor, but we have a hot pizza and a cold beer and the first game of the NBA Finals is just starting on the TV. Who could ask for more?
Texas eats notes
Wine: Except for Louie’s 106 in Austin, wine lists are the kinds that are printed on the back of the menu. Most folks order cocktails and nurse them through dinner with water or iced tea.
Beer: You may have noticed that I was often having a beer. 1) Texas food such as chili and tex-mex cry out for beer, 2) I was often killing time, 3) It was freakin’ hot! At home, I may have one beer a week on the weekend.
Texas Size: Portions are huge. The only meal I could polish off was the 7 ounce peppered bacon wrapped filet at the Josephine Street Café. Even there, my side of grilled onions was less than half consumed.
Back home in San Francisco on the Monday following, Sarah gave Carol a ride home and stopped for a drink, so dinner prep didn’t start until well after 7 o’clock.
Cup of fresh pea and green garlic soup (leftover from lunch)
Really fresh black cod with panko sautéed in butter
Small young carrots braised in broth, beer, sugar and butter
Wilted red romaine lettuce with Balsamic
Navarro White Riesling
Carol did the fish and lettuce and I did the rest. It was all put together in 15 to 20 minutes (ok, the soup was made in the afternoon). A meal that was certainly different than those in Texas. That’s what I was talkin’ about when I said to the concierge, “Simple, fresh, American food.”