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Scenes from the Paella Challenge


Jesse Perez's paella from Arcade Midtown Kitchen

Jesse Perez’s paella from Arcade Midtown Kitchen

Do you like your paella loaded with lobster, shrimp, clams and mussels? Or maybe you’d prefer one with several types of pork? Chocolate mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns?

Breckinridge High students make paella.

Breckinridge High students make paella.

Whatever your taste in paella, it was probably available at the sixth annual Paella Challenge, which drew chefs from all over San Antonio, the region and a few other states. It also drew more than 1,000 people to the back of the Pearl Brewery on a Sunday afternoon to eat their fill while enjoying a glass of wine or a beer or two.

Goro Pitchford of Godai Sushi Bar spent his first visit to the Paella Challenge making a classic version of the dish, while Tim McCarty, visiting for the sixth time from Rochester, Minnesota, made a Bloody Mary paella. James Moore of TBA made a breakfast taco paella with barbacoa, carnitas, bacon, eggs, tortilla strips and two types of salsa. Lorenzo Morales of the Experiment used orzo instead of the more traditional rice and added a host of colorful cauliflower.

In addition to sampling all of the various paellas, interested home cooks could also watch the chefs put their versions together. Jesse Castellon of Spork in McAllen was using pork lard rendered from South Texas Heritage Pork, while his assistant, multiple Paella Challenger winner James Canter, seasoned the paella pan as it heated with a handful of fresh thyme. Brian West of Smoke used the meat from a pig’s head, the skull of which he displayed at his booth. Moore layered the flavors of his, starting with the bacon before adding the onion and poblano pepper, following by barbacoa, which he deglazed with mezcal.

Seasons of My Heart chef Susana Trilling's paella

Seasons of the Heart chef Susana Trilling’s paella

More high schools than ever got into the spirit of the event as well, turning out beautiful paellas in a chance to bring home some glory.

Organizer Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria, True Flavors Catering and other restaurants, had originally scheduled the event on the first Sunday in March, but after two years of bad weather that weekend, he chose to move it to this weekend. Compare last weekend’s cold, wet, depressing weather with Sunday’s sun-warmed spring day, and you’ll see what a good choice he made.

The attendees, of course, were the ultimate winners of the day, getting the chance to try all of these great variations. But in the actual categories, the winners of this year’s Paella Challenge are:

Tom C. Clark High's paella

Tom C. Clark High’s paella

Contemporary Paella

First – David Gilbert, Tuk Tuk Tap Room
Second – Flor Vergara, True Flavors
Third – Jesse Perez, Arcade

Classical Paella

First – Juan Sanchez, Groomer’s Seafood
Second – Angie Bridges, Copa Wine Bar
Third – James Foote, Victoria Country Club

People’s Choice

Lorenzo Morales, The Experiment

H-E-B High School Paella Challenge

First – Byron P. Steele
Second – William Howard Taft
Third – Robert E. Lee

Diego Fernandez of Starfish uses lobster in his paella.

Diego Fernandez of Starfish uses lobster in his paella.

Acadiana Cafe offered crawdad races.

Acadiana Cafe offered crawdad races.

Lorenzo G. Morales of The Experiment uses colorful cauliflower.

Lorenzo G. Morales of The Experiment uses colorful cauliflower.

Memorial High's paella

Memorial High’s paella

Goro Pitchford (left) of Godai Sushi makes a classic paella.

Goro Pitchford (left) of Godai Sushi makes a classic paella.

Sam Houston High's paella

Sam Houston High’s paella

James Moore of TBA makes breakfast taco paella.

James Moore of TBA makes breakfast taco paella.

Tatu Herrara of Los Cocineros makes a scallop treat.

Tatu Herrara of Los Cocineros makes a scallop treat.

Zocca's team makes paella.

Zocca’s team makes paella.

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The Paella Challenge Returns to the Pearl March 15.


The sixth annual Corona Paella Challenge, hosted by La Gloria’s chef Johnny Hernandez returns to Pearl on March 15 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Corona Paella Challenge is March 15.

The Corona Paella Challenge is March 15.

The celebration happens rain or shine (as folks who remember last year’s cold but cozy gathering already know) and will showcase the delicious food and wine of Spain, traditional sangria, a variety of craft and imported beers, and live entertainment perfect for the entire family. Presale tickets to the event are $65. Admission for individuals under 21 years of age is $25. Tickets can be purchased at www.paellachallenge.com and will also be available for $75 at the door, if the event is not sold out.

Can’t wait until the competition for some paella? Make your own. You don’t need a fancy paella pan. You don’t even need rice, as this recipe from Giada De Laurentiis demonstrates. There are a lot of ingredients, but the dish comes together easily and the flavors will win you over to pasta in your paella.

Noodle Paella

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 sweet Italian sausages, casing removed (about 12 ounces)
1 skinless boneless chicken breast (about 6 ounces), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for seasoning
6 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, diced
3 (8-ounce) bottles clam juice
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon finely crumbled stem saffron
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 Turkish bay leaves
8 ounces spaghetti, broken into 1-inch lengths
8 ounces halibut fillet, cut into eight 1-inch cubes
12 small littleneck clams, scrubbed
12 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh Italian parsley

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a 6-quart Dutch oven. Add the sausages and stir, breaking up the sausages into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until cooked through, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken, 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Cook until the chicken is no longer pink on the outside, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the chicken and sausage to a medium bowl, using a slotted spoon.

Add the garlic, fennel, onion, bell pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to the pan. Cook until almost tender, about 5 minutes. Add the clam juice, tomatoes with juices, paprika, saffron, cayenne and bay leaves. Add the spaghetti and cook, uncovered, until almost tender, stirring occasionally, about 9 minutes. Return the chicken and sausage to the pan. Bring the sauce to a simmer. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper. Add the halibut, clams and shrimp. Cover and cook until the clams open, 4 to 5 minutes. Discard any unopened clams. Remove the cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently until fish, shrimp and chicken are just tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and discard. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in the parsley and serve.

From Giada De Laurentiis/Food Network

 

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Taste the Dream as Part of MLK March Weekend


Taste the Dream, a gala celebrating diversity through food, is being planned as part of this year’s DreamWeek and is scheduled for Jan. 17 as part of the Martin Luther King March weekend.

The savory event, which begins at 6 p.m., is being hosted by San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside, also known as SAGE. It will be held at the Institute for Texan Cultures, 810 E. Cesar E. Chavez Blvd.

gala“This is not your traditional gala,” said Jackie Gorman, executive director of SAGE. “Rather than sitting through the customary speeches, guests will enjoy celebrating the diversity of the cultures and cuisines that make up San Antonio and the historic Eastside.”

Taste the Dream will feature diverse cuisine from around the world, as presented by five featured local chefs, including chef Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria restaurant, The Fruteria-Botanero, El Machito and True Flavors Catering.

In addition to a Latin American menu item from Hernandez, Cibolo resident and St. Philips culinary program alum chef David “Bully” Page will be featuring his Caribbean cuisine. Page recently won a $10,000 cash prize for his PB & Jellumbo Po’boy creation on the show “Frankenfood” on Spike TV.

The SAGE gala will also have Asian cuisine prepared by Charassri “Nong” Saeng-On of Tong’s Thai Restaurant. Other local institutions include Sweet Yams, where both chef Gus Bard and chef Shane Duncan will be featuring their organic and vegetarian Southern food and Alice “Ma” Harper herself, the culinary force behind Ma Harper’s Creole Kitchen, an Eastside institution, will be serving up Cajun and Creole style cuisine. Harper’s food is always a favorite at annual city events including Taste of New Orleans, Jazz’SALive and Luminaria.

Alice "Ma" Harper

Alice “Ma” Harper

Chef Donald Mitchell of Chef Don’s Catering will serve as the gala’s master caterer for the evening.

Beginning with an open-bar cocktail reception at 6 p.m. and moving into free-flowing tastings with food stations at 7 p.m., attendees can interact with featured culinary teams and explore the Institute’s cultural exhibits. The culinary- inspired event will present these five local chefs and restaurant teams, each preparing a small-plate menu item.  The evening will continue with live music and dancing from 9:30 to 11 p.m.

The goal of the gala is to raise funds to support SAGE’s economic development efforts including the development of its online Eastside Business Directory, the Store-Front Grant program, which provides matching grants of up to $20,000 to Eastside businesses, and the SAGE Grow Eastside Fund, which provides low-interest loans to area businesses.

Individual tickets are $100. Tickets can be obtained by calling 210-248-9178 or emailing info@sagesanantonio.org. Tickets will also be available for sale at the SAGE office at 220 Chestnut. Parking will be available onsite. 

For additional information, visit the SAGE site: http://sagesanantonio.org/dream-gala/.

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Dean Fearing Here May 8, Promos ‘Texas Food Bible’


Renowned Texas chef and restaurateur, Dean Fearing, will be in San Antonio, appearing at two places open to the public on May 8 for book signings.
Chef Dean Fearing Book OnlyFearing’s new book is “The Texas Food Bible: From Legendary Dishes to New Classics” (Grand Central Life & Style, $30).

He will be at Neiman Marcus, at the Shops of La Cantera, for a book signing event from 1-3 p.m.  This appearance is hosted by Diana Barrios Trevino and Johnny Hernandez in the Gift Galleries on Level 2. The price of the book is $30.

“The Texas Food Bible” features a collection of traditional and contemporary recipes from Texas. Fearing takes readers through Texas culinary heritage, the classic preparations involved, and the expansion and fusion of the food that have combined to develop an original Southwestern cuisine.

That evening, there will be a reception and book signing, as well as a three-course meal at Nao at the Pearl in partnership with The Twig bookshop.

Chef Dean Fearing

Chef Dean Fearing

Fearing, a James Beard Award-nominated chef and owner of Fearing’s Restaurant in Dallas, will sign books at a reception in the Nao Lounge is from 5:30 to 7  p.m. Guests will have the opportunity to meet and talk with Fearing during the reception, and will be able to enjoy wine and passed hors d’oeuvres including Mango, Poblano, and Caramelized Onion Quesadillas with cilantro-lime sour cream, and Smoked Chicken Nachos from Fearing’s cookbook.

Dinner will start at 7,  and the menu will begin with Dean’s Tortilla Soup with south-of-the-border flavors. The dinner will continue with Grilled Lamb Chops with baked chuck wagon black beans and sweet potato rajas. Guests will end their night on a sweet note with Caramelized Apple Buckle.

Tickets are $80 per person, and all dinner proceeds go to The Culinary Institute of America. Ticket price includes a signed copy of The Texas Food Bible, hors d’oeuvre reception, meet and greet with the author, and the three-course dinner. For ticketing information and to purchase tickets, please call 210.554.6484.

 

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The Weather’s No Challenge for This Year’s Paella Challenge


Don Pullum, recently seen on "The Taste," and his assistant assemble their paella.

Don Pullum, recently seen on “The Taste,” and his assistant assemble their paella.

A last blast of winter didn’t stop hundreds of hungry people from turning out Sunday to the fifth annual Paella Challenge at the Pearl Brewery Sunday. But the gray skies and perpetual threat of rain did force the chefs and the sellout crowd under the 281 overpass for some protection.

Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen is the people's choice winner.

Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen is the people’s choice winner.

The new location  may have put a crimp into the parking, but people really enjoyed the more intimate space in which chefs from cross the city and across the country competed against each other to create the best and the most unique variations on paella, the classic Spanish dish that generally starts with some olive oil and garlic and finishes with a hefty dose of culinary magic. And on a cold, damp Sunday afternoon, what could be more welcome than a plate of steaming hot food laden with everything from scallops to roasted pig to clams and mussels?

David Gilbert of Tuk Tuk Taproom

David Gilbert of Tuk Tuk Taproom

Quite a few people stopped by Don Pullum’s table to talk with the man who recently finished a season on ABC’s “The Taste.” His final dish on that cooking show had been paella — and he didn’t survive the round intact — so the Mason chef and winemaker was looking for a chance to redeem himself. People loved his combination of lobster, crawfish, shrimp, and more over rice seasoned with plenty of saffron and other seasonings, as they did creations from a host of chefs, including Susanna Trilling, Robbie Nowlin, Stefan Bowers, Angie Bridges, Zach Lutton, Steven McHugh and Jason Dady. Chef James Canter of Victoria County Club, who has taken top prize several years in a row, became a judge this year, but he also managed to have a booth out of the competition.

The end result was a tasty way of raising money for scholarships, which will go to local culinary students, organizer Johnny Hernandez reminded the crowd before handing out the awards to the following winners:

Cesar Cervantes of El Bucanero joined Jeff Balfour to create a winning paella.

Cesar Cervantes of El Bucanero joined Jeff Balfour to create a winning paella.

High school:

  1. Robert E. Lee
  2. Brennan
  3. Sam Houston

Classic:

  1. Tim Rattray, the Granary
  2. Michael Sohoki, Restaurant Gwendolyn
  3. Michael Skibitcky, H-E-B

Non-traditional:

  1. The winning team from Robert E. Lee High School.

    The winning team from Robert E. Lee High School.

    David Gilbert, Tuk Tuk Taproom

  2. Jeff Balfour, an upcoming Pearl restaurant, and Cesar Cervantes of El Bucanero
  3. Jordan Mackey, Las Ramblas, Hotel Contessa

People’s choice:

  1. Jesse Perez, Arcade Midtown Kitchen

By winning their division, the students from Robert E. Lee High School will be traveling to New York City and on to the Culinary Institute of America main campus at Hyde Park, N.C.

Susana Trilling makes paella with her team.

Susana Trilling makes paella with her team.

Paella from Stefan Bowers of Feast.

Paella from Stefan Bowers of Feast.

Members of the Memorial High School team prepare their paella.

Members of the Memorial High School team prepare their paella.

Paella from Tim McCarty of Rochester, Minn.

Paella from Tim McCarty of Rochester, Minn.

The folks from Acadiana Cafe stage crawfish races.

The folks from Acadiana Cafe stage crawfish races.

Paella from chef David Delgado of the San Antonio Food Bank.

Paella from chef David Delgado of the San Antonio Food Bank.

 

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Six Chefs Gather for Nao-USA Today Dinner


Six of San Antonio’s chefs will be appearing together in a dinner March 13 that’s being sponsored by Nao Restaurant and USA Today.

Geronimo Lopez

Geronimo Lopez

The chefs include:

  • Geronimo Lopez: Nao Restaurant
  • Alain Dubernard: Nao Restaurant
  • Johnny Hernandez: La Gloria
  • Andrew Weissman: Il Sogno
  • Steve McHugh: Cured
  • Michael Sohocki: Restaurant Gwendolyn

The event will be at Nao in the Pearl Brewery, 312 Pearl Parkway. It begins at 6 p.m. with a reception and chefs demonstrations, followed by dinner at 7 p.m.

Johnny Hernandez

Johnny Hernandez

The meal will include a six-course dinner with wine pairings, live entertainment and chef commentary of the dishes. The price is  $100 per person plus tax and 17 percent tip.

For pre-paid reservations, call 210-554-6484.

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Events: Luke and Mardi Gras; NAO Chefs and More


Featuring six of San Antonio’s most well-known chefs, Nao and USA Today are excited to present “Experience Food & Wine in Texas” on Thursday, March 13 from 6 – 11 p.m.
Chef Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria

Chef Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria

While focused on ingredients that come from the Lone Star State, this event is an opportunity to taste the cuisine of chefs including Geronimo Lopez and Alain Dubernard of Nao, Steve McHugh of Cured, Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria and Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn and Andrew Weissman of Il Sogno,in one spectacular meal. To start up the evening, guests will have the chance to join the visiting chefs, all of whom are CIA alumni, as they come back to cook at their alma mater.

The six-course dinner will begin at 7 p.m. and will feature wine pairings with each course. There also will be live music. Tickets are now on sale for $100 per person and can be reserved by calling Nao at 210-554-6484.
Party like it’s New Orleans!

Luke San Antonio is bringing the flavor of New Orleans straight to Texas with a special Mardi Gras party on Fat Tuesday,  March 4,  from 3 p.m.- 8 p.m.

The event takes place during Luke’s weekly extended happy hour. Featured drinks include a signature Hurricane cocktail and Abita Beers on tap, including Amber, Purple Haze, Turbodog, Restoration Pale Ale and Mardi Gras Bock. For those who want to start Mardi Gras festivities early, we’ve attached our Hurricane recipe below.

crawfish1Luke San Antonio will be giving away T-shirts and there will be opportunities to win John Besh’s Mardi Gras-themed Besh Boxes. see more at beshbox.com.

Chef John Russ will be serving New Orleans party fare, listed below, at happy hour rates:

$2 King Cake with chances to win Besh Box
Hot Boiled Crawfish
$5 Gulf Shrimp Étouffée
$3 Andouille Jambalaya
$4 Peeler Farms Fried Chicken Wings
Hurricane glassIf you want to make your own Hurricanes for Mardi Gras, here’s a recipe from Besh Restaurants.
*
Hurricane Recipe
1 ounce tangerine-infused rum
1 ounce bourbon barrel-aged dark rum
2 ounces pineapple juice
2 ounces orange juice
1 ounce passion fruit juice
3/4 ounce pomegranate syrup
Pour ingredients over ice in a shaker and shake. Pour into a hurricane glass and garnish with fruit slices, such as a slice or orange or pineapple.

 

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Paella and Prizes Fill a Sunday at the Pearl


Students from Memorial High School accept the first place award for their paella.

Students from Memorial High School accept the first place award for their paella.

The storm clouds rolled past during the middle of the night, leaving Sunday with a healthy glow of light and a steady breeze for more than 1,000 to enjoy the 4th annual Paella Challenge at the Pearl Brewery.

Brian West (right) of the Culinary Institute of America makes paella.

Brian West (right) of the Culinary Institute of America makes paella.

The annual cook-off, created by chef Johnny Hernandez as a fundraiser for culinary scholarships, brought an array of chefs from across town as well as around the country and Mexico to participate.

The lineup included a number of long-time participants, such as Rene Fernandez of Azuca, Zach Lutton of Zedric’s and Jason and Jake Dady, while newcomers, including Mark Bliss of Bliss and Angie Bridges of Copa Wine Bar, dished up their best. Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen served up a seafood paella with fideo as the base, and Susana Trilling went with a traditional take that featured bright amounts of saffron and garlic in the base. Brian West and a team from the Culinary Institute of America weren’t in competition but they did serve up six different pans of paella to the hungry crowds.

Serving up Susana Trilling's paella.

Serving up Susana Trilling’s paella.

A fairly constant breeze made it hard for some of the chefs to keep their burners working steadily. Some used baking sheets to prevent the wind from extinguishing their burners. Others found that the fire would burn so hot that it had to be turned off to prevent the paella from burning.

The crowds didn’t seem to mind, as they waited patiently for dishes from Jeff White of Boiler House Texas Grill, Jeffrey Balfour of Citrus and Steven McHugh. One of the visiting chefs, Jehangir Mehta, known from his appearances on “Iron Chef,” looked out over the huge get-together and marveled at how well-run and fun the day turned out to be.

In the end, Hernandez announced the winners of this year’s high school division, which went to Memorial High School, followed by John Jay High School and Sam Houston. The winners earned a trip to New York, where they’ll visit the CIA’s main campus in Hyde Park and be able to shadow chefs in action.

The crowd listens to the winners being announced.

The crowd listens to the winners being announced.

This year’s judging was slightly different in that three top awards were handed out.

Clint Connaway of Max’s Wine Dive walked off with the people’s choice award, while Flor Vergara of Hernandez’s True Flavors took home the award for best contemporary paella.

The award for best classical paella went to James Canter, who won the top honor last year as well. Canter also was in charge of making the paella for Ben Ford’s team, which won the top award during the first Paella Challenge.

Canter, who is now chef at the Victoria Country Club, was in tears when he took the stage with his team to accept.

Given his track record, you can expect Canter to return for the fifth Paella Challenge next March.

The winners: Flor Vergara (right), host Johnny Hernandez, Clint Connaway and James Canter.

The winners: Flor Vergara (left), host Johnny Hernandez, Clint Connaway and James Canter.

 

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Dishing Up Paella: Coming Soon to Pearl


The 4th Annual Corona Paella Challenge hosted by La Gloria’s chef/owner, Johnny Hernandez, returns to Pearl Sunday, March 10, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m..  Chefs from San Antonio, across the country and Mexico will be cooking.

“We are excited to host the Paella Challenge again this year and invite everyone to come and join us in this celebration,” said Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer at Pearl. “This event has become a tradition in San Antonio, bringing chefs and the community together, and we are thrilled to be doing it again this year.”

paella snailsGoing into its fourth year, the Paella Challenge showcases the delicious food and wine of Spain and offers traditional sangria and a variety of fabulous craft and imported beers. The event continues to present its attendees with an afternoon filled with live entertainment and fun for the whole family.

Proceeds from the event will benefit The Culinary Institute of America San Antonio and The Educational Foundation of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

This year’s celebrity chef will be Jehangir Mehta, who appeared on The Next Iron Chef: Redemption.

Joining him in competition are Jesse Perez (Arcade Midtown Kitchen), Jeff White (The Boiler House), Steven McHugh, Tim McCarty (Sodexo), Jhojans Priego Zarat (Mariscos Villa Rica), Susana Trilling (cookbook author and Seasons of My Heart Cooking School chef instructor), Zach Lutton (Zedrics), John Herdman(Las Ramblas), David Wirebaugh (Hyatt Regency), Jeff Balfour (Citrus), Jason Dady (Tre Trattoria).

Also entering are Craig Bianco (The RK Group), Peter Holt (Lupe Tortilla), Mark Bliss (Bliss), Clint Connaway (MAX’s Wine Dive), James Canter, Michael Mata(Wyndham), Alejandro Rodriguez (Catalan Cuisine Catering), and Flor Vergara (True Flavors).

Tickets to the event are $50 pre-sale. Admission for individuals under 21 years of age is $25.  Tickets can be purchased here. and the day-of at Pearl.

paella traditional

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You’ll Want to Take a Bite Out of Two New Restaurants


Pork belly in a white chocolate mole at The Fruteria.

In the Basque region, tapas reign among those who want to spend an evening out, grabbing a small bite or two while bar hopping.

It’s not a dining format that has translated successfully to San Antonio. As I’ve said before, this city, by and large, has never been fond of the small plates concept. Legions of germaphobes find the idea of sharing food repulsive, while others just think the kitchen is trying to gyp their customers by not filling their plates with proper portions. Plus, too many people just don’t want to eat what everybody else does.

I don’t fall into any of those categories. I love the excitement that comes from taking a bite of one dish and then sampling another, tasting what friends have ordered and what arrives next. So, imagine my delight when I found myself jumping from one small plate restaurant in the Southtown area to another recently. My evening started at Johnny Hernandez’s new The Frutería, 1401 S. Flores St., and ended at Bite, Lisa Astorga-Watel’s haven for small plates at 1012 S. Presa St.

The Fruteria’s Seis Chiles Margarita

Beneath The Frutería’s name on the sign outside the door, the restaurant is billed as a “botanero,” meaning it specializes in botanas, or snacks. Also known as small plates. So, don’t expect one of the five chiles rellenos to be some overstuffed monster on a platter with rice, beans and shredded lettuce on the side. The slightly misnamed Chiles Anchos con Pollo was actually only one chile, a beautiful burnt-red rehydrated pepper that had been stuffed with lightly spicy shredded chicken tinga and topped with a hearty tomato sauce and a dramatic drizzle of crema.

It disappeared in just four or five bites, but I enjoyed each as I alternated it with a taste of Pulpo a la Plancha (a cold grilled octopus salad) or Puerco en Mole Blanco, slabs of crispy pork belly in a silky white chocolate mole with slivered almonds and a dramatic slice of fried plantain twirling up as a garnish. Other temptations from the dinner menu include carne asada, grilled sirloin in a guajillo sauce; camarones con fruitas, shrimp with a medley of mango, pineapple and orange as well as jícama; and huitlacoche con rajas, corn truffles or fungus with roasted poblanos.

Grilled octopus at the Fruteria.

Given the name of the place, I had to try the fruit cup for dessert and was rewarded with a large bowl of freshly diced apple, pineapple and strawberries with blueberries and more in one refreshing serving that was made even more mouthwatering with a touch of Lucas, chile and lime.

The Frutería takes that fruit and carries it over into its cocktail program, matching tequilas and juices in a rainbow of colors. Since I’m no fan of sweet cocktails, I asked my server for a suggestion. He recommended the Seis Chiles Margarita, said to have everything from habanero to ghost pepper in the mix. What arrived was beautiful, with a slice of red pepper floating atop the drink — and the first taste certainly showcased the intense flavors of the peppers and their innate fruitiness, but without the heat. But by the second sip, a candied quality swamped all other flavors, and I quickly lost a desire to finish it.

Bite at night.

The interior was still being worked on while I was there, but Hernandez has done a beautiful job of capturing color and an elegant sense of Mexico without the decor echoing the serape-and-sombrero look of the old school taquerias in town. Everything from the open kitchen to the bustling tables suggested that The Frutería will be a vibrant addition to the ongoing renovation of that block of Flores Street.

I moved on to the jewel box that is Bite, a dining space so cozy that small plates seem a natural. The pleasant interior design is a major improvement over the sparse sandwich shops that have come and gone in the space, which bookends a plaza with Torres Taco Haven. And the pop art canvas of a woman declaring in a cartoon bubble, “Oh my God Darling!! Southtown is so cool!!” gives the right sense of playfulness to set you at ease.

Most everything offered called my name, whether it was the cioppino or the carbonara on the specials board or escargots from the menu.

While sipping a glass of sparkling Spanish rosé, I settled on a dish from the Basque country, Boquerones Basquaise, an enticing array of tangy, white anchovies fanning out from a mound of a ratatouille-like salad of eggplant and tomato. Though the dish practically screams summer freshness, it displayed a vitality that made it refreshing, even on a cold, windy night.

It was followed by an off-the-menu special, veal-stuffed mushrooms with a touch of cheese on top. The mushrooms that provided a sturdy base for the delicately seasoned meat were king trumpets, and texturally, they resembled the octopus earlier at the Frutería. The heat of the dish just caused everything to melt together into a few exquisite tastes. The size of the serving was also fairly generous.

I would have preferred to have both dishes served at the same time to allow a little grazing, but it was not to be. Perhaps such kinks will get ironed out in the near future. I’d also like to suggest new seats at the bar. The stools are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. Worse still, they made me feel off-balance, which is a sensation that I’d prefer to let my cocktails provide.

Veal-stuffed mushrooms at Bite.

Then the owner came in, a move that was welcomed by her regulars and Astorga-Watel did make the rounds to greet everyone there, which is a nice touch. Unfortunately, she was wearing a perfume that was a little too strong for so small a place.  Though she was standing across the restaurant, her scent obliterated the aroma of the wine in my glass — and it was Torrontés, a dry Argentine wine with one of the most floral and expressive bouquets in the wine world. Within moments, her perfume literally took my breath away and sent me out of the restaurant gasping for air. (A word to restaurateurs of all stripes: Leave the heavy colognes at home, unless you’re using it to mask any flaws your food and wine may have.)

A final word: Dining on a few small plates can add up. The stuffed mushrooms at Bite, for example, were priced at $18. Nothing at The Frutería was quite as expensive — most of the prices run in the $5.50-$8.50 range — but, with the exception of the fruit cup, nothing was that substantial, either. Add a drink or two, though, and your bill could be higher than you might have realized.

The Frutería
1401 S. Flores St.
(210) 251-3104
Lunch/dinner: Tuesday-Saturday. Brunch: Sunday
www.thefruteria.com

Bite
1012 S. Presa St.
(210) 532-2551
Lunch: Thursday-Saturday; Dinner: Wednesday-Saturday
www.biterestaurantsa.com

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