Photos, story by Cassie Hepler
When the tourism board for Visit San Antonio, Texas invites you on a press trip, you go. Especially when it’s a culinary tour and the itinerary includes eating, exploring (hey, that sounds familiar), sleeping, wining and dining at some of the best spots that this massive city has to offer (its the 7th largest city in the U.S. while Philly is 5th).
The night before the scheduled 4 a.m. flight from Philly by Southwest (hint: never agree to early flights while having spotty reception in the Poconos the previous week), I was bouncing around from back to back events and packed at 8 p.m. the night before. I took a sleeping pill, passed out and we were on the road after some eggs (there’s always time for eggs) with plenty of time to spare. The connecting flight was a killer (from Orlando to Texas) but I refused to fly United (didn’t want to get beaten) or Frontier (didn’t want to get nickel and dimed to death) so layovers it was. Once I arrived, things immediately got better. Elegant Transportation picked me up in a town car and drove me to Hotel Valencia, right on the beloved RiverWalk. My room was not ready, which worked out well as my tired butt had bigger fish to fry as I had not packed any heels or cocktail dresses for various upcoming events. So off to the Shops at Rivercenter I went, located on the Riverwalk which is lined with charming footbridges and flagstone pathways that take you under a canopy of Cyprus trees.
We were also given a San Antonio “passport” to explore area sites and attractions that included the Briscoe Western Art Museum, La Villita, Spanish Governor’s Palace and the San Antonio Museum of Art – none of which I had time to explore sadly. After I scoured Macy’s, Express and any other cocktail dress conglomerate, I was all set and ready for that epic nap before dinner in that extremely comfortable luxury bed.
That evening, we met in the lobby for a tour of Hotel Valencia Riverwalk with Stacy Seaborn, director of sales and marketing, who has that sweet Southern style and explained the hotel’s new $10 million renovation from April 2017. Hotel Valencia Riverwalk wast the first boutique hotel in San Antonio, Texas and has its own signature fragrance and candle scent available to purchase. Philadelphians might recognize its luxury detail like a Kimpton Hotel, however with a Texas flare. Warm, rustic woods, elegant ironwork, hand-crafted tiles and textiles that reflect the design sensibilities of Spanish Colonial style, along with the color palette and elegance of Modern Mediterranean design. Large leather chairs and couches, boots, spurs and animal skulls adorned the walls keeping to that spacious Texan theme.
Soon we began dinner right off the main bar area at Dorregos, the only Argentinian-inspired restaurant in the city and named after the famed Plaza Dorrego in the historic San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Executive Chef Anthony Mesa draws much of his inspiration from his travels in Argentina mixed with culinary influences from Spain, Italy, France and other cultures.
The next morning we met up for breakfast at Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia with some planned shopping time at Market Square that never happened due to our epic eating and exploring frenzy. A traditional Tex-Mex breakfast and visual feast of the eyes was awaiting us at this 24/7 bakery and family-owned Mexican restaurant decorated with hundreds of lights, piñatas, murals dedicated to famous Mexican Americans and Mexicans, and stained glass located in the historic Market Square (El Mercado).
Next up was a trip to in the telltale Visit San Antonio white van to the Mission San Juan and its farm. We welcomed some walking, movement and fresh air, especially after all the eating in the last 24 hours. The four beautiful missions (Mission San José, Mission San Juan Capistrano, Mission Espada and Mission Concepción) that make up this National Historic Park were established in the 1700s by the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church. They feature a diversity of architectural styles that have been influenced by time, along with art from the Spanish colonial period. These Spanish colonial missions, including the Alamo (which we visited later), recently gained global recognition as they received UNESCO World Heritage status.
Mission San Juan is the only Spanish Colonial Demonstration Farm in the National Park Service and the only Spanish Colonial Demonstration farm in the United States that utilizes the original historic farmlands. The Mission San Juan farm provides a foundation for an emphasis on living history demonstrations in the park while preserving the Spanish Colonial landscape. We also got a feel for the Texas heat as the sun beat down on us but nothing that SPF 70 couldn’t handle. Soon we were back in the van in the air conditioning and off to go eat again!
A 2016 and 2017 finalist for Best Chef Southwest by The James Beard Foundation Awards, Chef Steve McHugh’s restaurant, Cured, makes use of the purest regional ingredients, paired with organic methods and is built on a foundation of lovingly hand-crafted cured foods, from charcuterie to pickles.
The restaurant’s renovated historical building, built in 1904 as Pearl’s Administration Building which included the president’s office, embodies the perfect blend of a contemporary and historical atmosphere.
And because we hadn’t had enough to eat yet, we spent some time roaming around the shops at Pearl before we went almost across the street to eat at Botika. But first… an adorable puppy!
Since our bellies were full, what better way than to fill the cracks than some education and tastings of San Antonio’s brewery heritage with first stop at Southerleigh restaurant and brewery.
Brewer Les Locke brought back brewing to Pearl at Southerleigh, which was originally Pearl’s Brewhouse, built in 1894 and a San Antonio landmark ever since. The building was designed by Chicago architect August Maritzen in the Second Empire style. Maritzen specialized in breweries, designing more than eighty in the US, Canada and South Africa.
Because I am mostly German or just have a love of wheat beer, Alamo Beer Co. was one of my faves. You can tell this by the way I don’t want to leave… like ever. Alamo combines local craftsmanship and pride with high quality ingredients to produce an exquisite craft beer. The brewery’s flagship beer, Alamo Golden Ale, is a lighter style ale perfect for those just starting to taste craft beer.
We had so much fun at the Alamo beer company that we almost missed the original! Just barely making it before closing time, they squeezed us in for a speedy tour. The Alamo, originally named Mission San Antonio de Valero, was established in 1718 as the city’s first mission. In March of 1836, the famous Alamo was the site where 189 Texian heroes including Jim Bowie, William B. Travis and David Crockett bravely battled General Santa Ana’s army of thousands.
After a fun-filled afternoon of fun in and out of the sun, we headed back to our home base at Hotel Valencia for another well-needed power nap, shower and refreshments that only a full shower (or hot bath in my case) can offer. Before I knew it, I was getting ready in a white lace Calvin Klein dress with a zipper in the front only to have the zipper break moments before walking out the door. Luckily, I had hastily packed some long, flowing summer dresses and with heels, makeup and some jewelry on, I felt I was acceptable for poolside chic for our next event. A weekend-long affair for us, the Culinaria Festival Week kicked off with Bubbles & Pearls at La Cantera Resort & Spa.
With all things that sparkle and shine, the glossy sheen of pearls gives a natural essence of elegance. The flavors of oysters, shrimps, and scallops will be enhanced by champagne making the stars of the gulf anything but over looked. It was a fabulous evening poolside with exceptional drinks (my precious bubbles) and tiny tastes of the delicacies of the gulf.
After briefly speaking with Suzanne Taranto-Etheredge, CEO of Culinaria, about the amazing week-long food fest, we were off to view San Antonio-The Saga at San Antonio’s main plaza. It is a captivating 24-minute video art installation on the beautiful façade of San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest continuously functioning religious community in the state of Texas. Created by Xavier de Richemont, This visual artwork narrates the history of San Antonio and is beautifully choreographed with lights, music and projection. We all decided to walk back to Hotel Valencia as it was only a five minute walk because the boutique hotel is so centrally located. And from there it was lights out for me!
A bright and early morning for me the next day as I awoke and immediately thought I lost my cell phone the night before (of course I have the latest, most expensive Samsung). I poked around grumbling at the continental breakfast with lots of coffee, OJ from a machine that makes it right there in front of you like a gum ball machine, fresh fruit salad and a croissant. However my fellow journalists assured me I dropped it in the van and kind of gave up on finding it the night before which reassured me as well as their hugs (best media group ever, by the way).
And we were off to the River Boat tour of the River Walk as I envied everyone’s cell phone and social media posting (it was like I lost a limb). The boat picked us up at Hotel Valencia right down the steps to the Riverwalk.
Eventually we were dropped off at the Pearl next to Hotel Emma and I was happily reunited with my cell phone. All was well in the world again! We took a tour of the Pearl district and the breathtaking luxury Hotel Emma with Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer. I wished we were staying there immediately as it is quiet, tranquil and next to the Riverwalk ferries that can take you where you need to go on water, almost like Septa but with better views, no weirdos and much fresher air.
The carefully curated boutique hotel compliments the Pearl. Originally home to the Pearl Brewery, today Pearl is a mixed-use space featuring retail, dining, picturesque green spaces and paseos, a riverside amphitheater and a third campus of the Culinary Institute of America.
Located along the banks of the San Antonio River on the grounds of the historic Pearl Brewery, the Pearl Farmers Market is the city’s trendy newest addition which has become an iconic culinary and cultural gathering place featuring cooking schools, apartments, chic shops, fantastic restaurants and much more. Since Pearl is a producers-only farmers market you can be sure that all the goods found here are hand-planted, raised and harvested within 150 miles of San Antonio.
We were soon set free to roam around, exploring the space and met back at The Culinary Institute of America for a tour and savory tacos before lunch. This is where culinary masterpieces and great chefs are made with the culture and vibrancy of San Antonio adding a little spice to the cooking.
Programs range from one-day workshops all the way up to five-day CIA Culinary Boot Camps and help participants build skills, explore new culinary worlds, and have lots of fun.
Up next was more food! Just kidding, it was to actually move off our lazy, foodie bums and explore the Witte Museum, located on the banks of the San Antonio River in Brackenridge Park, it’s San Antonio’s premier museum promoting lifelong learning through innovative exhibitions, programs and collections in natural history, science and South Texan heritage. The New Witte is a catalyst for creating San Antonio as the City on a Rise, shaping the future of Texas. The $100 million New Witte project includes a facility expansion on the Witte campus as well as an additional 100,000 square feet in renovations.
After our educational pit stop, we all climbed back in the van back to the hotel to take power naps (all but one of us did so and that Canadian went to a San Antonio Spurs game instead) and ship off to our final night adventure, the Grand Tasting Event. Dressed in our cocktail best, we were all suits and heels for the VIP access to the fanciest event of the Culinaria Festival Week events at La Cantera Resort & Spa.
I’ve been to a million tastings so far (or so it seems) and it was refreshing to taste new to me flavors. The mouthwatering, jaw dropping gourmet event of the week left me full and happy and always trying to eat more.
So many varieties of cuisines paired with equally varied beverage choices enamored even this veteran food lover. There was also live entertainment, music (I was dancing at one point on the small dance floor with my fellow movers and shakers), a silent auction, and all you can eat made it the best Saturday night. A lone few of our crew made it out for one last cocktail on the town however this gal was too pooped to party.
For our last morning and half day before our flights back to our collective homes, we were up bright and early for a taco crawl (which needs to happen in Philly btw… hint, hint). We met up with local former freelance food writer Edmund Tijerina who was full of food and history knowledge and led us to delicious lands of some of his favorite picks. First up was El Milagrito, a humble, family-run eatery supplying hearty Tex-Mex breakfast & lunch favorites since 1969 who is famous for their barbacoa, a form of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean with the Taíno people, from which the term “barbecue” derives.
Because we weren’t quite uncomfortably stuffed yet, we left there and went further down the road to Los Barrios Mexican Restaurant, another family-style mainstay serving Mexican & Tex-Mex fare in a casual setting with a full bar and patio.
After we thoroughly turned into little piggies, we went back to sluggishly check out and store our bags for yet one last adventure into the culinary world. We arrived at the casual outdoor festival, Burgers, BBQ & Beer back at La Cantera with full bellies however others came with an empty tank as any foodie knows is the proper way to start a food fest. I love BBQ and was wondering when we’d get to sample the Texas iconic food and somehow made room.
Those juicy cuts of meat were delightful as some of San Antonio’s best chefs were manning the grills and ice cold beverages were flowing. We didn’t see many boots and cowboy hats, but it was certainly a Texas extravaganza. We sadly departed and were back at the hotel and some of us got right to work. Shortly thereafter, Elegant Transportation picked me up after a brief snafu and I was back to the airport waiting game, narrowly missing my connecting flight that got me back to Philly by midnight. With some Texas swag from the Alamo brewery, Visit San Antonio and Hotel Valencia, I can now relive some moments when I want. But I can assure you that Texas is now deep in my heart (and belly) regardless.