San Antonio Rose
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Texas’ oldest major city is as romantic as the 18th-century Spanish mission where the past comes alive in the lacy stone of Rosa’s Window—passionately carved, so the story goes, by a craftsman longing for his sweetheart in Spain. By Melanie Young
In San Antonio, romance inhabits the walls of the heroic Alamo, the festive restaurants where mariachis serenade you, the tropical River Walk where you linger lazily over margaritas. Seduced by this mañana mood, you should take your time savoring its pleasures, from fabulous Mexican feasts to picturesque places steeped in history.
Of course, San Antonio is unrivaled as the capital of Tex-Mex cuisine, though “cuisine” sounds a bit fancy for the hearty enchiladas and other zesty fare found anywhere from tiny taquerías to hacienda-style dining palaces. But Spain and Mexico weren’t the only countries to stake their claims in the Alamo City.
Germans flowed in during the mid-19th century, leaving their mark on stately mansions, in the polka-like accordion rhythms of Tex-Mex music (conjunto) and even on Tex-Mex food. German-born William Gebhardt produced the first canned chili in San Antonio—inspired, perhaps, by the beautiful Mexican “chili queens” who peddled the first chili con carne by lamplight on San Antonio’s plazas.
Settlers from the Fatherland came to the Texas Hill Country, too. It starts just north of San Antonio, making it easy for visitors to experience the coziness and natural beauty that lie deep in the heart of Texas.
Start your day with a hearty Breakfast Platter with buttermilk biscuits ($8.25) at The Guenther House. The enterprising German immigrant Carl Hilmar Guenther built this Victorian-era home, which you can tour, as well as the flour mills that tower above it.
From The Guenther House it’s an easy walk up shady King William Street, lined with opulent mansions built by other successful German families during the Victorian age. This lovely historic district sits within the “Southtown” neighborhood—so called because it is just south of downtown. As you browse its beguiling shops, check out Inter Artisan for international folk art and Garcia Art Glass for hand-blown glass lighting and wall art. Before leaving, have lunch at El Mirador, known for its superb Tex-Mex fare and Saturday soups: Try the Sopa Azteca or Caldo Xochitl ($5.95).
Fredericksburg, about an hour’s drive away, is ideal for a Hill Country outing; its old-fashioned Main Street is packed with tempting shops. To learn about the German settlers who founded this pretty town, spend time at the Pioneer Museum Complex, with a half-dozen buildings from the early days. Look for authentic German nutcrackers and beer steins at The Grasshopper and Wild Honey.
If outdoor fun is on your agenda, drive north from Fredericksburg to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Your reward for the easy hike to the top of the massive pink granite dome is a spectacular 360-degree view of the rolling Hill Country. Before returning to the Alamo City, stop by Luckenbach, where locals sip beer under shady trees while listening to whoever shows up to sing and play guitar. Even Willie Nelson himself has made surprise appearances.
Back in San Antonio, dress up for dinner at elegant Biga on the Banks, renowned for the eclectic cuisine of star chef Bruce Auden (try the 11-spiced Texas Hill Country Axis venison chops and grilled quail, $39). For after-dinner drinks, dip into the swanky scene on Houston Street, Metro Houston Street is a favorite.
Luxuriate in the pleasure of sleeping in—breakfast is served ’round the clock at Mi Tierra Café & Panderia, a Tex-Mex institution so festooned with twinkle lights, piñatas and other decorations it’s like a non-stop fiesta, complete with crooning mariachis (try the Chilaquiles Famosos, $9.95). Don’t leave without buying some of its habit-forming pecan pralines ($1.75) to take home. Just across Market Square, El Mercado sells everything from silver jewelry to embroidered clothing and ceramics from south of the border.
Spend the rest of the day exploring the River Walk: people-watching at waterside cafés, seeing the sights from a river barge and browsing boutiques. The River Walk exists because in the 1920s Robert Hugman, a San Antonio architect, envisioned turning the winding San Antonio River into a scenic waterway lined with shops, restaurants and attractions such as the open-air Arneson River Theatre, where you might catch a Mexican folkloric dance show.
Just above the theater, stroll through La Villita, a village of historic stone houses turned into artsy shops. On a portion of Rivercenter mall’s exterior walls, you can admire replicas of Rosa’s Window. Alamo…The Price of Freedom portrays the legendary Battle of the Alamo and is shown several times daily at the IMAX Theatre in the mall.
For a late-afternoon pick-me-up on the River Walk, order the Guacamole for Two ($8.75) at Boudro’s Texas Bistro, whipped up right at your table. It goes perfectly with the Prickly Pear Margaritas ($7), which look and taste luscious with their fuchsia swirls of cactus-pear purée. What better way to toast your amor?
Melanie Young’s quest for great Tex-Mex food in San Antonio never ends—there’s always an enticing new restaurant on the horizon.