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It’s Time to Party, San Antonio


The German Club float the Texas Cavaliers River Parade.

The German Club float the Texas Cavaliers River Parade.

Fiesta is here, but you already knew that. In just a few days, however, we’ve learned not to trust the weatherman and just play it all by ear.

Tubs of baked oysters, ready to be shucked and slurped down.

Tubs of baked oysters, ready to be shucked and slurped down.

Sure, the fireworks over Fort Sam were canceled because it was wet beyond wet. And yet, despite forecasts of thunderstorms, the Texas Cavaliers River Parade and the Fiesta Oyster Bake both went off without a hitch.

Here you can enjoy a few visual memories of both events as you get ready for NIOSA, the Battle of Flowers Parade, Fiesta Flambeau and more.

You can expect to get your fill of your favorite treats. Already I’ve enjoyed my annual chicken on a stick crowned with a jalapeno as well as a tub of oysters. But this year brought something new to Oyster Bake: freshly cut and fried potato chips that were too good for words.

Gorditas, corn in a cup, borracho beans, sausage on a stick, corn dogs, paletas, cotton candy and more have all been a part of my Fiesta diet. And I’m making Cowboy Klopse at NIOSA on Tuesday. I don’t eat like this the rest of the year — honest. How about you? What are you favorite Fiesta flavors? Let us know.

Workers bake sacks and sacks of oysters each year to keep up with the demand.

Workers bake sacks and sacks of oysters each year to keep up with the demand.

Friday at Oyster Bake draws music lovers to its many stages.

Friday at Oyster Bake draws music lovers to its many stages.

The Texas Cavaliers enjoy their own parade.

The Texas Cavaliers enjoy their own parade.

Many of the floats are works of art.

Many of the floats are works of art.

Partying with Fiesta royalty on the water ...

Partying with Fiesta royalty on the water …

... and on land (with Rosenda Rios, Latin American Heritage queen for 2016).

… and on land (with Rosenda Rios, Latin American Heritage queen for 2016).

 

 

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‘Turn Me Loose’ at Fiesta Oyster Bake


Rain or shine, the Fiesta Oyster Bake was happening Friday night. That meant, rain or shine, I was going to be working. Thankfully, the rain held off, for the most part, until I was under the protective cover of the pavilion where the wine booth was located.

Pork chop on a stick!

Pork chop on a stick!

My friends and I felt a few drops and sloshed through some mud puddles on our way around the St. Mary’s campus. But for the most part, the evening delivered on the fun that the event promises each year — down to the fireworks that sends the crowds home.

Before our shift, we wandered the food booths, getting an early fill of chicken on a stick, shrimp on a stick and steak on a stick, holding off on sausage on a stick, pork chop on a stick and even cucumber on a stick until we could fully assess our choices. An oyster shot, chilled and briny, prepped me for the oyster bucket that was to come. Toward the end of the evening, my friend Cindy and I squared off: She purchased a bucket of baked oysters, while I eagerly went for a bucket of raw. The plump Gulf beauties went down easily. And thank you, Kathleen, for being the designated shucker (after I lightly punctured my hand on a particularly stubborn bivalve. Thank goodness for those wet napkins that came with the dozen or so oysters, priced at $7.)

Chicken on a stick!

Chicken on a stick!

This year, the Oyster Bake featured a food truck area that included such favorites as the Duk Truck, Wheelie Gourmet, Saweet Cupcakes and Cheesy Jane’s. From barbecue to bacon-topped tacos, they had you covered.

More music was on the menu, too, as added stages meant you could choose jazz, country, Tejano and hip hop in addition to the headliner, ’80s favorite Loverboy, who had the crowd singing along to “Turn Me Loose.”

This year’s wine booth featured Robert Mondavi’s Woodbridge collection, and the lovers of sweet drinks were out in force.

“I want the sweetest wine you’ve got,” was a phrase we heard dozens of times throughout our shift. And when they saw the Moscato being poured in the cup, more than half would ask before taking a sip, “You sure this is the sweetest wine you’ve got?”

What? No oysters on a stick?

What? No oysters on a stick?

In a lineup that included Woodbridge White Zinfandel, Rosatello Rosso, a sweet red blend, and Rosatello Sparkling Rosé, the Moscato won the crown for being the sweetest. And the customers must have agreed, for we had many repeat customers.

Galoshes

Galoshes

We also had folks returning for the dry Woodbridge selections, including Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. And while they, too, were faithful to their choice, they were simply outnumbered, with Chardonnay and Merlot being the least chosen wines of the evening. That’s a change from years past.

We also had a captive crowd for an hour or so, as the sky opened up and sent those without umbrellas looking for cover.

The Oyster Bake was set to continue Saturday with more oysters, music and fun. Hopefully, the day will be a little dryer. But you may want to wear your galoshes, just to navigate the mud.

 

More galoshes.

More galoshes.

Happy customers at the wine table.

Happy customers at the wine table.

Fireworks through the trees.

Fireworks through the trees.

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At Fiesta Oyster Bake, It’s All About the Oysters. And the Wine.


John King of Glazier's talks with a customer about wine choices.

John King of Glazier’s talks with a customer about wine choices.

For the third year in a row, I had the great fun of working at the wine booth during the opening night of Fiesta Oyster Bake. And it’s a tradition I hope to continue far into the future.

Sack after sack of Gulf oysters cook over hot coals.

Sack after sack of Gulf oysters cook over hot coals.

Because even though the party atmosphere doesn’t always lend itself to serious wine contemplation, I was part of a team that really worked hard to make sure our customers were having a great time. And what better way to celebrate Fiesta, San Antonio and the joyous spring we’ve been enjoying than with a glass of wine that you really enjoy?

We work hard to ensure that each year, though the scene is slightly different each Fiesta. Last year, for example, we poured the selections of only one winery, and the thousands of guests we served gratefully took what we had to offer.

This year, we got to introduce a few wines to San Antonio as we tried to make sure everyone ended up with something that they would appreciate.

“Good evening. What kind of wine do you like to drink?”

We said that to customer after customer as we proffered an array of wines that ran from sweet to dry.

If you’re among the millions of Americans who think that the word “Chardonnay” is synonymous with “wine,” you were in for a real eye-opener. The unoaked Acacia Chardonnay  is crisp, clean and dry with plenty of fruit and citrus acid to make your mouth pucker in delight. It was the perfect accompaniment for a bucket of the grilled oysters that were being prepared just behind our booth.

A bucket of grilled oysters.

A bucket of grilled oysters.

Sack after 75-pound sack of oysters was dumped over the hot coals, sending out a heady aroma of brine, shellfish and smoke that drew hungry customers to the food booths.

The wine was also perfect for any San Antonio summer afternoon when the thermometer rises into the triple digits. I’d also pair it with the chicken on a stick as well as a steaming hot ear of Oyster Bake corn on the cob.

For those who wanted something a little sweeter, there were several selections sliding from the realm of off-dry to super sweet. The Rose ‘N’ Blum Pinot Grigio had a light touch of sweetness matched with flavors of stone fruit such as nectarine and apricot, while the Sterling Vineyards Aromatic White mixed dry and sweet grapes with a marked emphasis on the later. The Butterfly Kiss Moscato and the Rose ‘N’ Blum Pink Moscato both appealed to lovers of unabashedly sweet wines, drinks that would be perfect with a bag of caramelized kettle corn or even the deep-fried cheesecake from a nearby booth.

At the nacho booth, a show of support for Boston.

At the nacho booth, a show of support for Boston.

I found myself pouring more of the red wines, which had a different audience, though matching the right wine to the patron wasn’t always easy. There’s still some mystery out there among wine drinkers about what the words used to describe wine mean, and Fiesta might not be the best place to learn wine vocabulary. But we pressed on in the hopes of pleasing people.

“Do you want a sweet wine or a dry wine?” we’d ask.

“Oh, a dry wine.”

“What kind do you usually drink? Red or white?”

“Red.”

“Do you know what grape you like?”

“Riesling.”

That’s where the Rose ‘N’ Blum Pink Moscato came in handy.

For those who wanted a really dry red wine, the choices became harder. We had two new reds on the market, both from the Once Upon a Vine Winery in Sonoma County, Calif. They were a Pinot Noir and The Big Bad Red Blend, which was made up of a fruit combination of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. We also had a dry red blend, Stark Raving Red, which was made up of Tannat, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Corn, butter and what wine? Think Chardonnay.

Corn, butter and what wine? Think Chardonnay.

So, trying to get people to figure out if they wanted fruity or dry, light bodied or full bodied became more of a problem, especially since giving out samples really were off the table.

We persisted, in the hopes of finding some descriptor that would clue us in to what they wanted. Sometimes they came up with a word that let us know where to go; other times, we just guessed. (Admittedly, our attentions were occasionally diverted as someone on the line’s cellphone buzzed through with an update on what was happening with the Boston manhunt and the capture of the bombing suspect, but we worked on.)

A few were really interested in what grapes made up each blend, because they, too, wanted to make sure their $3 a glass was being spent well. So, they listened to talk of how, in the Big Bad Red Blend, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were likely used to give backbone to the Zinfandel used, while the same three grapes were used to smooth out the usually rustic Tannat in the Stark Raving Red.

Friday is family night at Oyster Bake.

Friday is family night at Oyster Bake.

Something seemed to work. We began getting repeat customers. Then more repeats. A few wanted to try something else, but most wanted to repeat the experience they’d had earlier that evening — and they wanted it on more than just Friday night. They wanted to know the price of the wine — about $11 a bottle for most of what we poured — and they wanted to know where to find it (Twin Liquors or Gabriel’s are your best bets).

There was a reason for that. Most of what we poured really was something you wanted more than just a taste of. The Stark Raving Red and the Acacia Chardonnay are both wines that I’ll be on the lookout for, and not just during Fiesta. If I find the One Upon a Vine wines along the way, I’d seriously consider picking up a bottle or two. I just won’t be matching them with oysters.

Red wine and oysters are an ugly mix, but that’s another topic entirely.

Here’s hoping that your Fiesta wines are all rewarding and that you enjoy them responsibly.

Walking through the Oyster Bake with corn and without care.

Walking through the Oyster Bake with corn and without care.

 

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It’s Shuck, Rattle and Roll at Oyster Bake


Sausage on a stick is a favorite at the Oyster Bake.

Stuck on you: Chicken on a stick. Any questions?

The annual Fiesta Oyster Bake kicked off Friday evening with a host of musicians, plenty of food on a stick, and beer and wine to wash it down with.

Oysters baking over hot coals.

The two-day event, traditionally one of the bigger parties during Fiesta, takes place on the grounds of St. Mary’s University.

This year’s event got off to a rousing start, thanks to perfect weather in the mid- to lower 70s, a gentle breeze and a clear sky for the triumphal fireworks that ended the evening.

Somewhere in that mix you can find oysters three ways: raw and served in shots, baked over hot coals, and deep fried.

But it could be possible that foods on a stick were stealing the briny bivavles’ thunder, or at least threatening to do so. There was sausage on a stick, chicken on a stick, steak on a stick and a pork chop on a stick.

Warming tortillas for chalupas.

On Friday night, plenty of people were stopping by the wine booth to sample some of Barefoot Bay’s line of wines, including Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and, for sweet wine lovers, Moscato. That was where you could find me for the first half of the evening, pouring wine for the customers and trying to get people a wine they would enjoy.

Barefoot Bay made that easy for customers by offering some suggested pairings, such as the Pinot Grigio with the oysters or the Merlot with the sausage. For a change, the wine booth will be open on Saturday this year, so, if you make it out to the second day of the Oyster Bake, give the pairings a try.

Time to sort the oysters.

Beer drinkers had the choice of several fine beers, including Stella Artois and Beck’s, which were $1 more than the Bud Light, yet the line was practically nonexistent. Take a tip: Get the Stella Artois. It loves the oysters, the habanero salsa on the pork chop, the butter on the roasted ears of corn.

Armadillo Eggs, anyone?

Music choices for the evening included Smash Mouth performing a little ska mixed with its big hits, including “Walk on the Sun,” and Kevin Fowler on the country music stage. Jazz with a little surf sounds and a swinging version of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” filled the third stage.

The fun ended with a dazzling fireworks display that impressed the crowd, prompting a few old-timers to say it was the most impressive they had seen in years.

Fiesta Oyster Bake continues Saturday. For more information, click here.

For a full schedule of Fiesta events, click here.

Friday's opener closes with fireworks.

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Fireworks, Food and Fun Mark the Opening of Fiesta Oyster Bake


Getting just-baked oysters off the grill is quick work.

Rob Ziegler, left, pours wine for a patron.

The first weekend of Fiesta got off to a lively start Friday, with events across town ranging from A Taste of New Orleans at the Sunken Garden to the Tejano Explosion at Cattleman’s Square. But for many, the only place to be was the St. Mary’s campus for the first night of Fiesta Oyster Bake.

Friday evening is vastly different from Saturday’s free-for-all, which runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., many traditional visitors will tell you. For one thing, the crowds are a lot lighter, making the grounds not so crowded. Plus, Mother Nature was ready to party Friday night, providing a breeze that kept the evening from becoming too sweltering.

Friday night at Oyster Bake, also brings a wine tasting area, which is where I volunteered for several hours, pouring a host of wines to thirsty patrons.

Cindy Hernandez enjoys a baked oyster.

The lineup, from SmartWineDirect.com, included a Spanish Tempranillo, a Chilean Carmenère, a dry rosé, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc from California, and a pair of softly sweet wines, red and white, from Idaho’s Ste. Chapelle. For the lovers of sweet whites, there was a Beringer Moscato. At the other end of the scale, for dry wine lovers, choices included the Hob Nob Chardonnay and the Geyser Peak Cabernet Sauvignon.

After the shift, it was off to try the foods, which run the gamut from chicken and steak on a stick to sausage on a stick and chocolate-dipped strawberries, also on a stick. Gotta love those sticks. Of course, there are oysters. Baked oysters, fried oysters and oyster shots are all available. None of the oysters is served on a stick. And if sticks aren’t your thing, think fried cheesecake, funnel cakes or kettle corn.

Behind the baked oyster booth, patrons could watch the flames of the charcoal leap up and bake the briny shells before they were sorted into buckets and served up with packets of cocktail sauce spiked with plenty of horseradish. Newcomers to the Oyster Bake should know that they’ll have to visit the neighboring booth for a shucker, which is loaned out for $10. Return the shucker and get your $10 back.

Fried oysters are served with lemon.

Kathleen Burke has volunteered at Fiesta Oyster Bake for many years now, selling both beer and wine. Working the event has a special meaning for her. “I work the Oyster Bake because my entire family went to school at St. Mary’s,” she said, adding that her grandmother’s brother once as served dean of the law school. “And this raises money for scholarships for needy students, so they can come here, too.”

One treat you won’t find Burke eating at the event is the oysters. She does, however, open each one in the bucket for her friend, Cindy Hernandez, who devours the baked bivalves with a beer. This has been going on for 11 years now. “Apparently I have an aptitude for shucking oysters,” Burke said with a laugh. “We do this every year.”

Another tradition for Burke is to gather as many friends to help out at the Oyster Bake. Chris Fowler joined her group four years ago, shortly after moving to San Antonio from Phoenix. He loves the event, in part because there’s nothing like it back in Arizona.

The evening ends with fireworks.

Live music is another part of the Oyster Bake fun, with jazz on the smaller stage and rock on the main stage. The Gin Blossoms performed such hits as “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You.” So, while the crowds enjoyed the perfect weather and the music, they moved back to food booths for an ear of corn sprinkled with cayenne and lemon pepper or another cold brew.

The end of the evening brought a splashy fireworks display. It was a bright way to launch the 120th Fiesta San Antonio.

For schedule of food-related events during Fiesta, click here. And remember to drink responsibly.

Photographs by John Griffin

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