Goodbye Tex-Mex…

…Hello, heritage chic


hf_tex_4By Keith Edwards

I knew things had changed in Texas when I stumbled on a complex full-bodied 2010 Epiphany red at the Grape Creek winery in the hill country outside San Antonio. Time to ditch my Tex-Mex stereotypes of tequila, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats.

San Antonio has always been a destination ripe with Alamo heritage and rich with Spanish mission architecture. Lately, however, its food and wine scene has stepped up its game, and there’s now a refreshing new arts and culture vibe.

Obvious crowd-pleasers include the resurrection of a long-hiddenhf_tex_2 German brewing tradition and the very pleasant leafy river walk. We take a river taxi from the end of the river walk, leaving behind the Irish pubs, the Mexican cantinas and the impressive conference centre. A different San Antonio emerges, one that is very hf_tex_5much a pleasing work in progress. Couples stroll or jog, dogs bound. Artwork blossoms on and under the bridges, new residential housing abounds and there’s an exciting array of stylish hotels.

The water taxi takes us north as far as it can go, and we get off to explore The Pearl, a huge complex that in days gone by housed the Pearl Brewery. This site has thankfully been brought back to life and is now a landmark location that’s home to artisan shops, restaurants, a farmers’ market, coffee shops and a branch of the famous Culinary Institute of America. We’ve been invited to the annual Tamales Festival, which is held here every year in early December, where a happy, bustling crowd is enjoying a variety of traditional dishes.

But perhaps more impressive and captivating for us is Cured, the restaurant in the square. Chef Steve McHugh has faithfully restored the former brewery administrative building as a home for Cured. He holds court here each night in front of a huge temperature- and humidity-controlled glass case that is overflowing with artisanal local meats. I can tell you, it’s not long before a number of these delicacies end up on my plate as charcuterie. With a glass of Baby Blue California Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s richly indulgent.

hf_tex_3A nice little extra is a hard-hat tour of the soon-to-be-opened Emma Hotel that is emerging from the 1894 brewery building. With its carefully preserved architectural details and repurposed equipment and finishings, it promises to be a unique destination. The characteristically distinct rooms in the old section are echoed in the more modular accommodations in the new wing. Best bets appear to be those overlooking the river with small balconies, as well as the two-level suites. The Southerleigh restaurant under the direction of Philippe Place and chef Jeff Balfour will open on the main floor in early 2015.

At a pop-up restaurant in the Culinary Institute, I was able to sample their locally inspired cooking and some of their excellent craft beers, including the excellent Spiced Belgian Red Ale and Shellfish Porter.

The neighbourhoods of San Antonio are a great place to kick up your heels as you experience the unexpectedly exciting things to see and do—and cowboy boots not required.