San Antonio | February 2016
Travel time: 11 hours, 20 minutes (SFO to DFW to SAT, palindromically)
Miles covered: 3,416 (roundtrip)
Movies consumed: the incomparable Groundhog Day (departing flight); Minority Report on the return
Hours slept: approximately four
Travel time: 3 days
Miles covered: 15 (via Riverwalk)
BBQ joints frequented: two
Pecan desserts consumed: four (in order of appearance: praline, bar, fudge, pie)
I have been to Texas twice now. And let me tell you, despite my affinity for Friday Night Lights and the fictional inhabitants of fictional Dillon, that is two more times than I ever thought I would find myself here. The first was a lovely trip to Austin (it had me at Barton Springs), timed to coincide with my spring break and the conclusion of SXSW. More recently, San Antonio beckoned. Even after two pleasant trips under my expanding belt (thanks in no small part to Franklin BBQ), I am still guilty of low level Texism when it comes to the Lone Star State. A prejudice predicated on my fear (and general dismissal) of a formerly independent republic that hangs its Stetson on easy access to guns and unduly burdensome access to health care. I only mention it because as we enter an election year, and I entered San Antonio for the first time, I witnessed a political unicorn: a parade of publicly vocal Bernie supporters taking to the streets the weekend preceding the Texas caucus. As a visiting Californian and curious bystander, I couldn’t help but wonder what that experience was like. What it meant to be a Democrat (or a “socialist”) in a staunchly red state.
Then it dawned on me. The common thread is, of course, pride. Texans are proud, and unabashedly so. Proud of their heritage and culture and BBQ. Proud of their footballers. Proud of the Battle of the Alamo. Proud that everything really is bigger there. And – if he’s your guy – proud to feel the Bern. Everyone I encountered was nice and friendly and open and bold. From Ted Cruz to Wendy Davis, Texans do not do anything halfway: pardoning the turn of phrase, they stick to their guns. And while I am not the first (and certainly not the last) to find their stance on reproductive and second amendment rights unsavory, their smoked meats are not to be messed with.
I am traveling with my little sister. For a change! With her presenting a Tropic of Orange-themed paper at a literary conference on boundaries, I thought it no better time to break down my own. Following her presentation on Friday morning, we took the rest of the weekend to explore.
I am flying the redeye from San Francisco to Dallas to San Antonio. As a general rule, I cannot sleep on airplanes. But I still am a proponent of the redeye as a way to maximize time on the ground. That first day, you can usually get decent sightseeing mileage on excitement and adrenaline alone. That, and coffee. During my first flight, in a moment of wishful thinking, I tuck into Groundhog Day, a movie I have seen over and over and over again and am willing to miss should I be lucky enough to catch some z’s.
I land and take the number 5 bus to our downtown hotel. The ride is about 45 minutes, costs $1.30, and drops off right outside the Sheraton Gunter Hotel. There is no shortage of hotels in the area. I have a sneaking suspicion that San Antonio is host to many conferences and conventions, as well as celebratory and bittersweet family reunions. There are seven U.S. military bases in the area. Young, clean cut soldiers were well-represented during our stay. As were optimistic Christian couples working on their marriages via DreamTrips.
I rest. Sister presents. Together we luncheon at Oasis Café – a quiet, local spot in the business district. The chicken verde enchiladas are excellent. And the food is cheap! (This turned out to be an unexpected and pleasant trend. Unfortunately, sometimes I forget how ridiculously expensive San Francisco is.)
All across these United States we are instructed to “Remember the Alamo.” The motivation behind this memorialization is of less clarity and more interest to me. After skimming several children’s books in the gift shop, I am still a little hazy on the details. There are a lot of players involved, and historical accounts differ as the facts of this 1836 conflict fade to lore. The battle was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution and inspired many revenge-seeking Texians to join the fight. An all too familiar refrain. Basically, General Santa Anna and his Mexican troops launched an assault on the mission in an attempt to retake Texas. The Texians – both Texas settlers and U.S. adventurers – managed to hold off Mexico’s advances for thirteen days. In the end, Santa Anna prevailed, killing all the defenders of the Alamo. The battle was a grueling defeat for the Texians. Many lives, along with the Alamo, were lost. And yet, here we are hallowing this ground. For one must honor their failures in order to celebrate their successes. While the facts surrounding the siege of the Alamo continue to be debated, there is no doubt about what the battle has come to symbolize. San Antonians continue to remember the Alamo as a heroic struggle against impossible odds – a place where men stood their ground, refused to back down, and made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.
In addition to the unforgettable Alamo, San Antonio’s other claim to fame is the Riverwalk, very generously referred to as the “Venice of America.” This four mile continuous loop of walkways, bike paths and footbridges runs along the San Antonio River just below street level and is simultaneously obscured by and redefining the city center. The most bustling and touristy section (more Bourbon Street than St. Mark’s Square) is populated with souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, bachelorette parties, and riverboat tours. In the cleaner and less trafficked sections, one might encounter more exotic wildlife, kayakers, and intimate marriage proposals or nuptials.
Established hundreds of years ago, La Villita Historic Arts Village was one of the city’s first neighborhoods. Today, shops and galleries offer handcrafted items by local artisans. The Arneson River Theatre – with grassy amphitheater on one side of the river and stage opposite – is the perfect outdoor venue to watch a dance or musical performance. The length of the Riverwalk is sprinkled with beautiful seating areas.
When in Texas, a rockin’ n rollin’ Friday night obviously features a religious experience. In our case, we head to San Fernando Cathedral, the site of renowned French artist Xavier de Richemont’s video collage that visually narrates the city’s storied history. The 24-minute installation, named San Antonio | The Saga, is projected onto the Cathedral’s facade, perfectly overlaying and reinterpreting its architecture to visually and chronologically map the legend of San Antonio. The whole spectacle is choreographed to music. For the next eight years, weather permitting, it is scheduled to run at 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Main Plaza. The event is free and open to the public. There is limited seating available, and spectators are invited to bring their own chairs or blankets. Or, like us, you can just sit on the ground or stand. There is a spacious courtyard overlooking this place of worship. In awe of this unforgettable display of talent and vision, not quite ready to surrender to the night, we stay for the second show. I am not being hyperbolic when I opine that this show alone is worth the trek to San Antonio. The experience was truly transcendent, and one I will not soon forget. Until then, there is YouTube.
If you are endorphin-inclined, taking a jog is a perfect way to see a city. After a caffeine fix (There is no shortage of cool, hipster cafes. Rosella Coffee and Local Coffee, to name a few.) and Alamo introduction, we run the Riverwalk. We head north to Pearl Brewery (historic former brewery now home to restaurants, retail stores, and a Culinary Institute), which hosts a local farmer’s market every weekend. A Texan farmers market is a strange sight to behold, particularly during the winter months. The stalls were populated by vendors selling beef, bone broth and eggs, bread, cheese, honey, salsas and empanadas. Nary a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. The prepared food stands looked especially delicious. I heard good things about brunch at Southerleigh. The industrial and beautiful Hotel Emma has a bar and club that is open to hotel guests and passersby of less substantial means.
Along the way, we pass several notable sights. The Luxury, with its outdoor beer garden just off the path, looked fun. Tobin Center for the Performing Arts is the architecturally interesting home to the San Antonio Symphony, Opera San Antonio, and Ballet San Antonio. Paramour, San Antonio’s first rooftop bar, is situated atop a law firm. The glass conservatory at Hotel Havana’s Ocho lounge is the perfect place to take in the view and toast to narrowly escaping the heat (I with a Havana margarita, as if you need an excuse to indulge. With the opening of the Gloria Galt River Landing in 2009, the San Antonio Museum of Art now anchors the “Museum Reach” expansion. The sizable collection’s works represent 5,000 years of history and culture, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, Asian art, Latin American art, and Contemporary art. The museum, which occupies the the former Lone Star Brewery, offers free general admission between 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays.
From Pearl Brewery, we continue north along B Street to our heavily researched, slightly out of the way lunch destination: Smoke Shack. We split the two meat plate with brisket and pulled pork. The pork (slathered in this incredible sweet and spicy mustard sauce) and mac and cheese were my personal favorites. It was the perfect amount of food. The banana pudding (which I had my heart set on) was not ready yet, so we settle for a pecan bar. After lunch, we walk back towards downtown via Brackenridge Park, sharing bites of the nutty dessert.
Back at the hotel, the afternoon lull brings its own share of nuttiness. Even more polarizing than my political preferences is my affinity for Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. New York City is my personal favorite. However, during my travels, I just so happened to find a hilarious podcast recapping the concurrent season of Beverly Hills. Bitch Sesh is hosted by the charmingly cutting duo of Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider. I find their comedic rapport so captivating that I often listen to the podcast before having watched the episode being discussed. Anyway, that afternoon we rest our feet and eyes and engage our ears with a couple delightful episodes.
As happy hour approaches, still reeling from Bitch Sesh’s investigative journalism, we head to Esquire Tavern. The historic haunt features a long bar and plenty of indoor seating. But the best seats in the house are the outdoor tables overlooking the Riverwalk. We manage to successfully snag one and order drinks. The nuestra margarita is refreshing and philanthropic. $1 of the proceeds from each cocktail goes to the Tequila Interchange Project – a nonprofit focused on sustainable practices within the industry. Clearish eyes, full stomachs, can’t lose.
After drinks, we head to the Mercado. San Antonio’s historic market square, spanning three city blocks, is the the largest Mexican market in the United States. The market plaza boasts and hosts live music, dancing horse shows, food and drink stands, souvenir and art stalls, and the afore-mentioned Bernie bros. The Mercado is also casa to the famous Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery. You first enter what is commonly known as the Christmas room, resplendent with piñatas, tinsel, and twinkle lights. If you are just there for baked goods, then pick a number, feast your eyes on the sugary spectacle, and wait. The bakery is open all day, every day. Despite the sufficient delay, with my nose pressed against the glass display, I panicked as my number was called and somewhat hastily decided on a cookie, a vanilla creme empanada, pecan caramel fudge, and this huge orange slice of candied pumpkin. It tasted just like pie filling.
To temper our unstinting eating efforts, we walk everywhere. The next stop is obviously dinner. We were planning to eat at Mi Tierra, but the overall touristiness of the mercado was almost enough to put us off another meal altogether. Almost. On the way to Tito’s (Tex-Mex the locals like!), we passed through the adorable King William Historic District. The Filling Station (a gas station repurposed into a pizzeria and bar) and Friendly Spot (with its projected Spurs games and child-friendly jungle gym) are two places of note. The lazily-named Southtown is primarily known for three things: the King William Historic Neighborhood, its role as the epicenter of contemporary art in San Antonio, and its bevy of high-quality restaurants. B&D Ice House, Hot Joy, and Feast are just three of the dining options in view of our table at Tito’s. The chicken quesadilla was good. The chalupa was more mini tostada than Taco Bell. For us, the highlight was dessert. The sopapillas – deep fried flour tortillas dusted with cinnamon sugar, drizzled with honey, and topped with vanilla ice cream – were incredible.
That night, we remember to swing by the Alamo once more on our way back to the hotel. In the dark courtyard, with the illuminated Alamo in the background, a sizable crowd had gathered for a screening of the 1960 eponymous film starring John Wayne. Like George Santayana says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We begin the day with another run along the Riverwalk. This time heading south to Blue Star Arts Complex, San Antonio’s first mixed-use project. The contemporary art museum, galleries, and bike shop are joined by Blue Star Provisions, Stella, and Halcyon. The latter is an awesome coffee shop with seemingly delicious breakfast fare. The massive cinnamon rolls, in particular, caught my eye, but I was saving myself for our final meal in Texas.
San Antonio is very easy to navigate. The main downtown area is compact and flat. Rentable city bikes are available. We managed to walk everywhere. It’s difficult to get lost in the seventh largest city in the U.S. And yet I was constantly disoriented. There is something so spatially confusing and unrecognizable about the relationship between the (sometimes) seedy street level and the labyrinth of the Riverwalk. We would retreat from the glitz and glamour and overall themepark feeling of the Riverwalk, ascend a set of stairs, and have no concept of where (on street level) we were going to end up. And vice versa. I was constantly losing my bearings between upstairs and downstairs. And, somehow, The Aztec Theater was always in the background.
Our accommodations were very comfortable, a short walk to the Riverwalk and across the street from The Majestic Theater. East Houston Street is quaint and adorable, especially at night when the trees lining the sidewalk are illuminated. But don’t let it fool you. There is something a bit dark and twisted about the city when night falls. Allegedly, San Antonio is haunted. And several tour groups have capitalized on this paranormal activity. As legend has it, in 1965, a woman was murdered at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel and her restless spirit is said haunt the premises. Her body was never found. Police speculated that the killer may have disposed of the body in wet cement at one of the many construction sites taking place in the area at the time. Since this terrible incident, staff and guests have reported strange occurrences in the vicinity of room 636. Not wishing to acknowledge its more infamous past, you may find the hotel staff unwilling to talk about the grisly murder or the alleged haunting.
We combined our first and only trip outside the city center with our eventual departure, taking an uber about 15 minutes outside downtown to an unassuming strip mall. It has been my experience that some of the best dining is found in the most unexpected of places. For us, that means The Big Bib. The line to order is perpetually long and slow moving. But the food comes out quickly enough. We are there with the church crowd. Groups of families and friends dressed in their Sunday best. In stark comparison, we have carried all our luggage and personal effects on this pilgrimage to the promised land. The marbled brisket is tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. My sister’s pulled pork is also delicious. The side dishes, traditionally underwhelming, were so good, particularly the potato (cheesy baked and brown-sugared sweet) casseroles. Being the gluttons we are, fully embracing the motto that we are also bigger in Texas, we brave the line a second time to order side dishes for the journey ahead. Then, having made some memories, to the airport we go. Texas forever.