Working a booth at A Night in Old San Antonio is a fun way of gaining a new family. Taking on a two-hour shift at the Bongo K-Bob booth Tuesday was no exception.
I was warmly greeted by the queen herself, Lillian Villanueva, who was wearing a Happy Birthday tiara on her head and was decked out in a bevy of Fiesta medals.
Villanueva became the booth chairman this year after working with Bongo K-Bobs for more than a dozen years, and several members of her devoted crew have been with it even longer. To the whole group, many of whom work at Fort Sam, spending time together at the booth is a great way to celebrate NIOSA.
For those who have never had a Bongo K-Bob, it’s a skewer of marinated beef chunks with slices of marinated onion and green pepper added for good measure and flavor. The meat has a lively combination of sugar, garlic and other seasonings that caramelize on the hot coals until it reaches a flavor so irresistible that hundreds of people willingly spent up to two hours in line for a single stick at the price of $4.50.
“The meat is premarinated, and they cut it specially for us,” said J.J. Gonzales, one of Villanueva’s co-chairs and the man in charge of delivery hot coals to the pits that ran the length of the booth. “We add our own little sugar and spice to it.”
The end result is so delicious that no matter how long the crowd waited, not a single person complained. They were too busy enjoying the tender meat when it was finally served to them sizzling from the grill. Or, as Gonzales said, “It’ s in, like Donkey Kong.”
Part of the success belongs to Dennis Rivera, who has been head griller for the past three years. He knows exactly when the meat reaches the desired doneness, which he judges by watching the cooking progress of the lowest cube on the stick.
These hearty treats were named after George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, a percussionist who had played with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock among others. He moved to San Antonio and performed around town and on the River Walk in the early 1990s. “I’m a drummer myself and I remember seeing him,” said Gonzales, who guesses that he’s volunteered at the booth for 16 or 17 years.
There was a scare early in the evening that the booth might run out of meat. No one had predicted the opening night crowd would be as huge as it was. Yet Tuesday was the first day of Fiesta with brilliant weather, and the crowds were ready to party, which put a strain on what many booths could serve.
Villanueva said she based her order on what the booth used last year on opening night. But when saw the need for more, she made sure a second shipment arrived. The moment the meat appeared, a swarm of volunteers got to work, skewering hundreds of extra cubes of meat and vegetables for the hungry crowds. Still, she feared the stock might run out before the evening was over, because of the demand.
Villanueva’s daughter, Anita Laves, has been working alongside her mom for 13 years now. She’s one of many on the team who will work throughout NIOSA. She probably wasn’t expecting to work alongside a novice like myself. Yet she handled the tickets and made sure I handed enough K-Bobs to the customers.
She and a few of the others in the booth also entertained the waiting throng with a lively version of the Macarena when the song blasted into the night.
How does one get involved in a NIOSA booth? I asked Carol Blancas, who is working at Bongo K-Bobs for the fourth year. “I got started because of my boyfriend (Mario Garcia),” she said. “This is like his 13th year. We love it.”
Maria Hernandez and Rose Flores have both spent 15 years at the booth. That’s the same time co-chair Roy Lopez Jr. has been involved with the K-Bobs, but he’s been a volunteer at NIOSA for 21 years.
One night certainly can’t compare, but I enjoyed meeting everyone in the booth as well as the hundreds I helped serve. But after a full day’s work and then two hours on my feet, I welcomed the end of my shift.
I had waited two hours for my first taste of Bongo K-Bob, and I left the booth savoring each juicy bite of meat and each caramelized sliver of onion and bell pepper. It really tasted as good as it looked. And it looked so good, several people stopped me to ask where I had gotten that. They were ready to wait two hours for one of their own.
Photos by Bonnie Walker