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Beyond the Alamo in San Antonio August 26, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in San Antonio, Texas.
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San Antonio's West Side is alive with color, culminating in a collection of murals that tell its stories.

San Antonio's West Side is alive with color, and scattered with murals that tell its stories.

There’s a touch of irony in the Alamo’s stature as the No. 1 stop on the San Antonio tourist trail. The Alamo was all about the battle to wrest Texas from Mexico. Though Santa Anna lost the war, he won the battle in San Antonio, and the Mexican spirit has prevailed – which is the other part of what people come to see. Hispanic influence touches everything: the art, the literature, the music, the cuisine, the activism. And that’s a huge part of what makes San Antonio so special.

Tracy and Peter on the River Walk

Tracy and Peter on the River Walk

In honor of Travel Detective Peter Greenberg, who has invited me to appear on his excellent travel show, Peter Greenberg Worldwide, I’ve put together a list of my favorite off-the-tour-bus San Anto sights and experiences. Listen to the podcast here, and browse Peter’s site for a wealth of travel news. Peter’s logged more miles than anyone I know, and amazingly, he finds time to serve as a volunteer firefighter in Long Island on the weekends. And please add your favorite San Antonio haunts in the comment section below.


SA hotels make “World’s Best” list July 17, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Sustainability.
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Recently I was in San Antonio to visit the new stretch of the famed River Walk, and to visit with chef John Brand, the culinary wizard behind the remake of two River Walk classics, Pesca and Las Canarias.

Brand has distinguished himself with a cuisine that is both cutting-edge and creative, while being an active adherent to farm-to-table and sustainable harvesting practices. Here’s an interview I did with Brand at Las Canarias after a memorable lunch in May.

Pesca and Las Canarias and their parent hotels, the Watermark Hotel and Spa and Omni’s La Mansion del Rio, have more to celebrate this month than a new stretch of the River Walk. Both hotels made Travel + Leisure’s “World’s Best Hotels” list — the only hotels in Texas to have received this honor.

Here’s the story in the San Antonio Business Journal.

Of course, it can’t hurt that they’ve got a world-class chef at the helm of their two restaurants. Congrats, y’all.

John Brand: From Farm to Kitchen June 1, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in Food, San Antonio, Sustainability, Texas.
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It wasn’t easy to improve on the two landmark River Walk restaurants that John Brand took over nearly a year ago. But Brand’s passion for the farm-to-table concept and sustainably harvested ingredients has taken two winners – Las Canarias of La Mansion del Rio and Pesca of The Watermark Hotel and Spa – and pushed them over the top.

His beef comes from a farmer in Floresville, his quail from Bandera, his grits from Converse and his tomatoes from Hidalgo County. But he’ll go much further afield to find the best-quality sustainably grown ingredient when necessary, such as the free-range veal he imports from New Zealand.

“If I can’t get fresh ingredients, I’m not going to serve the dish, period,” he said. This meant eliminating some longtime favorites, like the squash blossom and huitlacoche soup.

Another element came into play for the swordfish. “They’ve been heavily overfished for some time now,” he said. “We’ve come to the point that my kids aren’t going to be able to see those fish. And the crab they were using came from Southeast Asia, where they’re destroying the wetlands and making more people die from tsunamis.

“Besides,” he added, “If it’s really good, it doesn’t need to be deep-fried.”

It was a risky move. San Antonio’s River Walk draws a traditional crowd, fond of their fried foods and Tex-Mex and not as keen on cutting edge cuisine as some of the high-end resort crowds Brand has served in the past. A number of them demanded to talk to the chef.

“In most cases, when I explained to them my reasoning, they understood,” he said. “If it’s on the menu, we’d better be truthful and know where it’s from and know how it’s raised. If you can’t do it from scratch, don’t do it at all.”

Brand’s insistence on tracking his ingredients back to their source stems from his own beginnings as a Midwest farm boy, raising pigs and cattle in Nebraska. “There were two paved roads in the whole county,” he recalls. He earned his pocket money hiring himself out to local farms for $2 or $20 a day, he says. He still looks the part, his blonde and tanned good looks and a shy earnestness tempering his frank words.

He was the oldest of six, and they all took turns cooking recipes that Mom left for them on index cards. The ingredients were simple, so technique was everything.

“I didn’t know what a pomegranate was until I was 19 years old,” he laughs. “Salt, pepper and butter – that’s about all I had. Use what you have, that’s what I learned. And I learned you can’t cook with an ego. Leave the ego to the guests; let them decide what’s great and what’s not.”

Perhaps his aversion to industrialized agriculture stemmed from the time his father had to go to work for hog containment facility – a dreadful place to a sun-drenched farm boy. “Those pigs never saw the sun,” he says, shaking his head.

Despite his early affinity for cooking, he says, he never intended to be a chef. His first restaurant job was in Wisconsin at the age of 16, but it wasn’t until two years later, working as a cook in a restaurant in Spokane, Wash., that he realized he had a flair for fine cuisine. He worked his way up through the business over the next 12 years to some of the finest resort restaurants in the country in Aspen and Beaver Creek, Colo., Virginia and Scottsville, Ariz.

What’s most surprising about Brand, given the sophistication of his menus, is that he never received formal culinary training. Instead he learned from other chefs and from working his way up through the profession. It could be said, in fact, that he’s a farm-to-table chef in more ways than one.

Lunch is an excellent time to sample a few of his creations, when he has a collection of delectable “small plates” on the menu. Despite his aversion to deep-frying, he made a small concession to fine effect: the crispy jicama tacos, lightly fried and filled with fresh tuna, roasted tomato diablo, avocado and grapefruit. And his Stuffed Dates with Blue Cheese and Bacon, shimmering in an aged sherry and brown sugar crust, must be tasted to be believed.


The desserts, from the Blackberry Tuile with Honey and Black Currant Tea Ice Cream to the Ecuatorial Chocolate Mousse, were simply divine.

Along the way, Brand read “Holy Cows and Hog Heaven,” an indictment of industrialized agriculture by Joel Salatin that strengthened his resolve to provide integrity in his ingredients. Now, when he’s not working or at home gardening with his three sons, he’s browsing websites like www.chewswise.com or www.blueocean.org to stay up on sustainability and food security issues.

It’s not easy, but it’s been rewarding – and San Antonio readers have just given him a resounding seal of approval, voting Las Canarias Best Hotel Restaurant of 2009.

Sneak Preview: San Antonio River Walk May 22, 2009

Posted by tracybarnett in San Antonio, Texas.
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The long-awaited new River Walk extension is set to open on Saturday, May 30, and Steve Schauer of the San Antonio River Authority gave me a hard hat tour this week.  Here’s a sneak preview:

Steve Schauer has given this hard hat tour to dozens of visitors from around the world, seeking to learn about San Antonio’s experience as it has developed a long-neglected, weed-choked ditch into a world-class tourism destination. Still, with just a week to go before its official opening, he seems to get a kick out of showing it off to yet another journalist.

“It’s just been an awesome process to see how it’s changed,” says Schauer, communications director for the San Antonio River Authority. Indeed, the $72 million project has been in the planning stages for close to eight years, with the official groundbreaking just over two years ago.

The project has merged antique structures dating from the 1800s with the latest in lock-and-dam technology to produce a mile and a half of linear parkway laced with waterfalls and water lily pools, sculptures and art installations, sound recordings and other surprises guaranteed to delight fans of the famous attraction. This stretch of river, however, takes into account modern knowledge of conservation to create a friendly habitat for aquatic species as well as the landlubbing types.

“We didn’t design this with just us in mind,” Schauer says. “We want it to be a sanctuary for other species as well.”

He points out the fish lunkers built in under the walkway, a place for fish to get out of the sun on a hot day or to take shelter from the occasional storm. The more than 100 species of plants that comprise the landscape are drought-friendly, and a recycled water system has been installed for the irrigation.

The new stretch of River Walk begins downtown at Lexington Street near the Hugman Dam, named for Robert Hugman, the original architect of the River Walk in the 1930s and ‘40s. One of the first challenges was figuring out a way to preserve this historic stone structure while still allowing barges to pass through for riverboat tours.

This problem was resolved with an artful passageway to one side, preserving the best features of the old stone dam on the other side. A pair of crested night herons posed and preened for the cameras as we passed by, oblivious to the workmen administering the finishing touches.

“One of our challenges was to make sure the vision of the river reflects change over time,” explained Boone Powell of Ford, Powell & Carson, chief architect for the project. “We do our best to make sure there’s a timeless quality about it. It’s not like we just picked a few ideas out of a hat and tried to implement them.”

And to be sure, change over time is something Powell knows a good deal about. His firm’s historic preservation work reads like a who’s who of Texas’ most important historic attractions. Included among the accomplishments of his firm are in San Antonio are the design and restoration of the Alamo, Hemisfair Park, the Tower of the Americas and La Villita; in Austin, the Texas State Capitol; in Galveston, the historic Hotel Galvez, Tremont House and the Strand Street Theater; and in West Texas, El Fortin de Cibolo at Cibolo Ranch.

The first stretch of the new River Walk, beginning with the Hugman Dam, is designed to keep with the historic feel of the original River Walk, with the Works Progress Administration-era stonework, narrow canyonlike walls and tall buildings along the riverbank. At the upper reach of this section, Schauer stops to explain another historic structure that has emerged from the long-buried riverbed. As the construction workers dug their way up the river, he says, they suddenly hit a wall they hadn’t expected. It took some intensive research to figure out what it was: the dam for the old Alamo Mills, dating back to 1872.

It’s at about this point, looking out over the river and a restoration of this dam at the historic Lone Star Brewery – now the San Antonio Museum of Art – that the river begins to change character and open out into a broader, more spacious feel. Here the walkway begins to incorporate the yellow brick of the museum, hence the designation as the SAMA stretch. Around the corner, SAMA comes into full view in all its towering glory.

The towers and yellow brick are echoed one more time in a restored pedestrian bridge, once the bridge connecting the two towers of the Lone Star Brewery, converted to a glassed-in passageway by SAMA. The old steel bridge had sat neglected for nearly half a century until resurrected by Powell for the pedestrian walkway. The graceful span is bookended by the two brick towers.

At this point the river winds under the freeway, where a special treat awaits: a whole school of giant sunfish, suspended from the freeway over the river. It’s the creation of Philadelphia artist David Lipski.

But the piece de resistance from an artistic standpoint is surely the Grotto, the fantasmagorical creation of San Antonio artist Carlos Cortes. Seen from the river, the structure rises from the river like a bit of prehistoric Middle Earth, winding and twisting like the tree roots that seem to be the source of its inspiration. Moss-textured ancient faces peer from within and above, evoking other worlds. Stairways, waterfalls, hidden lights and passageways work a strange spell.

Dionisio Rodriguez, the legendary faux bois artist whose work has adorned San Antonio’s River Walk and Brackenridge Park for generations, must be proud of his nephew, who has carried on the family tradition in grand style. Besides the grotto, San Antonians will recognize a palapa-style bus stand Cortes created at the Cameron and Newell street River Walk entrance, similar to the ones in Brackenridge Park and along Broadway.

Here the character of the river shifts to a third style, based on that of the Pearl Brewery. The yellow brick is gone, and in its place, walls of pebbled cement. The look is more modern and industrial, but softened with the green of hanging plants – and of course, the river, which winds past an amphitheater that will seat up to 1,000 and reaches a series of waterfalls and small stone islands. One island is the home base of the Hardberger Tree, a young cypress named for Linda Hardberger, who presented her husband the mayor with the tree on the occasion of their 39th wedding anniversary.

The Pearl is rapidly becoming a focal point for an emerging scene, combining history with cutting edge design and a postmodern return to tradition. The new Farmers Market brings local growers and chefs together with musicians in a standing-room-only crowd on Saturday mornings that is carried through the week at Texas Farm to Table restaurant, and the New Urbanism of the project’s architects promises a thriving community with housing to compliment the culinary and beauty school and the shops that are springing up here.

This is the end of the road for the barges that will carry tourists from the downtown area, and for our tour today. But the project will carry on. To the north, another mile and a half of hiking and biking trails will wind their way up to Brackenridge park and the Witte Museum, hopefully within a year to a year and a half. And to the south, the city will restore the channelized river to its natural state in the Mission Reach. Some 24,000 trees will be planted and hundreds of acres of riparian habitat will be restored along the stretch of river that connects the four missions that are a more authentic, if less famous, representation of the colonial Spanish era than the Alamo.

“The ecosystem was essentially destroyed in the ‘50s and ‘60s for purposes of flood control,” says Schauer. “We’re turning it back into a natural river. Now we understand that you can have a healthy river and flood control at the same time. Back then, the answer was just to turn it into a ditch.”