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An Oasis of Calm and Great Flavors at NIOSA


It’s Shrimp Parilla time at NIOSA. What are you waiting for?

Once the parked traffic on North St. Mary’s decided to move Tuesday afternoon, I was finally able to find a place to park and then rush several blocks to the Villa Espana area at A Night in Old San Antonio. I was late for my shift at the Shrimp Parilla booth, but chairman Mark Swanson didn’t seem to mind.

Booth chairman Mark Swanson displays his Shrimp Parilla.

His first crew had already begun assembling the shrimp skewers that would be grilled after NIOSA opened while he finished putting up the decorations, which included a pair of stuffed shrimp, strings of lights and more to brighten even more the already colorful booth.

I quickly fell into the habit of skewering alternate layers of marinated shrimp, green bell pepper and onions while chatting away with the rest of the team, which included several volunteers who work with Swanson beyond their volunteer time on behalf of the San Antonio Conservation Society. 

In midst of the convivial chaos that is NIOSA, the Shrimp Parilla booth proved to be an oasis of calm. Taking their cue from the laid-back Swanson, the team did their jobs with a sense of dedication but without rushing. While Swanson’s son, Wesley, chopped peppers and onions, we put enough skewers together to last longer than our two-hour shift. Swanson, who has worked the booth for about 12 years and has been chairman for the past two, paid attention to the grill and the heat level of the coals underneath. Others sold the skewers once they were ready, and two marched out front with signs designed to lure in the hungry masses.

For the past 18 years, I’ve worked at a different food booth each NIOSA. I started with Maria’s Tortillas and have gone through the booths that produce fried mushrooms, Yak-i-tori skewers, Cowboy Klopse, shypoke eggs, bean tacos, Bongo-K-Bobs, escargots, fried green tomatoes, anticuchos and more. I can honestly say that I haven’t worked a booth as straightforward and stress-free as this one. After the hassle of the traffic and the pace of the workday, it was a welcome relief. 

And the Shrimp Parilla tasted great, too.

“We really do not have a secret recipe,” Swanson insists. 

A customer gets his Shrimp Parilla.

Perhaps that’s why Shrimp Parilla would be an easy treat to recreate at home.

All you have to do is marinate jumbo shrimp as well as the chunks of peppers and onion in Italian salad dressing. Then thread the pieces onto moist kebab sticks, starting with a pepper or an onion, the alternate each with a shrimp in between. Place the kebabs on the grill over high heat and grill them until the shrimp turn from translucent to white and the tails begin to look crisp, Swanson says. The grilling takes no more than 15 minutes and includes turning the skewers once. If you pay attention, you should know just what to look for after your first batch. 

When you remove the skewers from the grill, top them with your favorite spicy seasoning before serving. The booth uses what Swanson calls “lemon pepper and redfish seasoning.” (Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme marketed his own Blackened Redfish Magic, but here’s a recipe if you want to make your own. Or you can tone down the heat if it’s not to your liking.) The end result is both fresh and refreshing, something I can see myself serving at home in the future.

It’s time to make the shrimp skewers.

 

“Even though there’s nothing really special done to them,” Swanson says, “they sure taste really good.”

If you’re looking for a snack at NIOSA that won’t leave you feeling heavy, give Shrimp Parilla at NIOSA a try. You’ll likely take this flavor of NIOSA home with you, too.

A Night in Old San Antonio, which benefits the San Antonio Conservation Society, continues through Friday. For more information, click here.

Mark Swanson finishes decorating the Shrimp Parilla booth at NIOSA.

Other scenes from the opening of NIOSA include images of San Antonio partygoers enjoying the great weather and some time spent with friends.

What’s NIOSA without some wonderful hats?

Churros fresh out of the fryer.

Lines for the fried mushrooms are always long.

Great weather and great crowds at NIOSA.

 

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Rolling with the Klopse at NIOSA


Stop by most every food booth at a Night in Old San Antonio and you can get a serving of family history alongside your favorite snack.

Allison Schmidt (left) talks with her Cowboy Klopse crew.

Allison Schmidt (left) talks with her Cowboy Klopse crew.

Take Richard and Joy Slavin for example. Their family found their way to Frontier Town in the early 1970s when they worked at the chili con queso booth. After a few years, chili con queso moved out of the neighborhood, but the Slavins decided to stay on their NIOSA block. They found themselves working at the then-new Cowboy Klopse booth, where they have volunteered ever since.

Their daughter, Allison Schmidt, and her husband, Smitty Schmidt, are now chairing the booth, and you’ll find the next generation of the family, the Schmidts’ twin daughters, Jessica and Julie, joining in the fun. Allison’s brother, Rick Slavin, also pitches in where needed.

For those not familiar with the NIOSA favorite, Cowboy Klopse is the name of a meatball that’s been coated in a jalapeno batter before being deep-fried to a dark golden perfection.

Cowboy Klopse

Cowboy Klopse

According to Allison, the recipe was created by a woman named Jane Fricke, who ran the booth for a year before deciding she’d had enough. So, she left behind her recipe, which draws thousands of hungry customers over the course of the celebration. One bite will convince you why.

Throughout the duration of NISOA, the booth expects to sell just shy of 3,000 servings, Smitty says.

He’s the one who showed me how to fry up these treats. The recipe begins with a Golden Dipt Batter mix with diced jalapeños stirred in. Then you add the meatballs and get them thoroughly coated. Using a pair of kitchen tongs, you grab a meatball out of the bowl and make sure it has a thick coating of batter around it before dropping it into a fry vat and letting the hot oil do its magic. About halfway through the frying process, you shake the balls loose from the bottom of the fry basket, so they can float to the top and finish cooking.

It’s not a complicated process, but like anything you cook, the procedure has to be followed fairly closely — and you have to do it without giving yourself a grease burn. It took no time to learn how to fry them up right, but it did take me a few baskets before I got the process right. On my very first try, I managed to get the Klopse stuck in the corner of the fry basket, so I had to a clean pair of tongs to loosen it. It took a while to develop the right method of shaking the balls loose while they cooked. And I managed to splash myself with oil once. Thankfully, it wasn’t bad.

Meatballs in jalapeno batter

Meatballs in jalapeno batter

I picked up additional technique from my fellow fryers, some of whom have worked the booth for anywhere from five to 10 years. They made me feel like an old pro in no time. One of the volunteers, Bibi Nuñez, has been making klopse since 1984. He loves the work and he loves the protection that the booth offers from the sometimes overwhelming NIOSA crowds. “It’s fun being behind here, watching the people” he says. I’ve thought the same many times.

The crew fell into their jobs as if they had been frying up meatballs last week, not last year. “Everybody really knows what they’re doing,” Allison says. “It’s really in good hands.”

The finished product

The finished product

They also began to catch up with each, swapping stories about work, about volunteering for NIOSA and the San Antonio Conservation Society, the rain rock that was supposed to ward off the thunderstorms that had been forecast, you name it. Smitty told me about Caritas Ranch BBQ, which he used to make and market. Allison talked about sweating through a hot NIOSA when she was pregnant with her twin girls. And Jessica talked about heading off to Alpine with her sister this fall for college.

In the 15 years or so that I’ve worked at NIOSA, helping out at booths as diverse as Bongo-K-bobs, fried green tomatoes, Yak-i-tori, Shypoke Eggs and bean tacos as well as the no-longer-offered Maria’s tortillas and calf fries, I can’t recall a booth where the workers loved their product quite as much as the team at Cowboy Klopse. Yes, all of the booths took deep pride in their work, but these workers delighted in it, and that made it even more fun than usual.

Of course, you can’t make it through a shift of working at the Klopse booth without hearing a few jokes about the hot balls that they’re serving up to hungry customers. After all, as Allison Schmidt says, “They’re anatomically correct. We sell them two at a time.”

Three generations of NIOSA volunteers: Richard and Joy Slavin (front) with Smitty (from left), Jessica and Allison Schmidt at the Cowboy Klopse booth.

Three generations of NIOSA volunteers: Richard and Joy Slavin (front) with Smitty (from left), Jessica and Allison Schmidt at the Cowboy Klopse booth.

The sales pitch

The sales pitch

Bibi

Bibi Nuñez has been making Cowboy Klopse since 1984.

And what's NIOSA with a party hat?

And what’s NIOSA with a party hat?

A Night in Old San Antonio, a benefit for the San Antonio Conservation Society, continues through Friday. For more information, click here.

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This Year Marks 65 Years of Partying for NIOSA.


At NIOSA, it's a haven of meat on a stick, including Bongo K-Bobs.

At NIOSA, it’s a haven of meat on a stick, including Bongo K-Bobs.

The 65th annual version of A Night in Old San Antonio was underway, and the first two nights were marked by welcome if unseasonably cool breezes and hot fun for friends who just can’t get enough of the city’s best and most boisterous party.

Fiesta hats galore.

Fiesta hats galore.

It’s the perfect place for people watching. That is, if you can find a place where the press of human flesh gives way enough for you to enjoy the sights. That’s why so many working the booths love the safety of their stations: There’s a bit of breathing room with a great vantage point.

All the better to admire the mile-high hats decorated in all shapes and colors as they tower above the crowds. Some are so large that you have to wonder how the women and even some men wearing them could hold their head high for so long.

Don't forget the cascarones.

Don’t forget the cascarones.

But you need to throw yourself into the mix in order to get to an ear of corn on the cob or fried green tomatoes, quasadillas or churros, fried mushrooms or frogs legs, all treats that make NIOSA so special. Then there are the snacks on a stick: the anticuchos, the Broadway chicken, the Bongo K-Bobs, sausages, and the Yak-i-tori, to name a few of the favorites.

Of course, beer flows freely as a river, not to mention the wine, sangria and wine margaritas, all helping keep the adults happy.

You may not know it, but it takes more than 16,000 volunteers to run NISOA, which is a fundraiser for the San Antonio Conservation Society. Quite a few of them work all year to make four nights of unforgettable fun. You’ve only got two nights left this year. What are you waiting for?

Don’t forget to pick up a cascarone or two so you can crown your friends with confetti as colorful as all of NIOSA.

Photos by Phillip Kent.

What a hat!

What a hat!

Lonesome Louie adds his music to the scene.

Lonesome Louie adds his music to the scene.

Beer. It's even illuminated.

Beer. It’s even illuminated.

 

 

 

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There’s No Yak in Yakitori, But There Is a Lot of Fun


Customers line up for yakitori at NIOSA.

A Night in Old San Antonio is about tradition on many levels.

Josh Bachman (right) and Harris Sharawi trim chicken breasts.

For the San Antonio Conservation Society, it is the traditional fundraiser that benefits the preservation of landmarks such as La Villita, HemisFair Park and the River Walk. For the revelers, it could be a tradition to line up for an antichucho, fat bread with mushrooms and melted cheese or some fried green tomatoes and, of course, a beer or two to wash it down with. For the people who work in the booths, it’s a tradition that brings them together with old friends for an evening or two as they transform meatballs into Cowboy Klopse or sauté escargots in garlic butter.

Yakitori on the grill

For some of the booth chairmen, the tradition is what is passed down from one friend to another or from parents to their children. That’s the case at the Yak-I-Tori booth in the Chinatown section, which has been running since the late 1970s. Ruby Lehrman was chairman then, and she passed it on to Mary McDonald in 1982, who ran it until five or six years ago, when her daughter and son-in-law, Misty and Joey Boyle, took over.

On Tuesday night, all three generations could be found somewhere in the vicinity of the booth where marinated chicken breast on a stick disappeared almost as soon as it left the grill.

Ruby Lehrman (left) and Mary McDonald

I also have a NIOSA tradition. I work a different booth every year. One year, I made Maria’s tortillas, another year it was bratwurst. The list goes on to include fried mushrooms, Bongo K-Bobs, calf fries and shypoke eggs.

The work this year at Yak-I-Tori consisted of cleaning fat and any skin that may be on the chicken breast before cutting it up and dipping it in a soy sauce-based marinade. It wasn’t hard work, but it did require concentration, and that was greatly abetted by a selection of old favorites, from “Shout” to “Play That Funky Music, White Boy,” blaring from the sound system.

Terry Wilkins, who has worked the booth for a number of years, showed several of us newcomers, including Harris Sharawi, how to scrape the fat off while Josh Bachman, who has been making yakitori for 15 or years set the pace.

In short order, our shift had prepped our half of the 700 or so pounds of breast meat that the booth sold that night, more than the team expected.

Finishing off the yakitori on the grill.

Once the meat is marinated, a second team of workers skewers it before it is placed on the first grill. The meats are moved along until they get to the second grill where they are finished off before they are sold. To meet the demand, the booth needs about 50 volunteers an evening.

Tuesday night traditionally brings a crowd, Joey Boyle says, and this was an exceptionally good opener. Most nights at NIOSA, except for Thursday’s college night, draws customers to the food booths. College night is more about the drinking, though food sales do pick up late in the evening when even the staunchest partygoer needs something to mix with the beer, he says.

Joey Boyle and Mary McDonald

At the Yak-I-Tori booth, lines generally form only when the chicken spears are not available. Then, you can hear a hungry customer or two joke about being willing to try one medium rare — not a good idea with chicken.

But once they get that meat on a stick and taste the way the marinade adds sweetness, salt and a little spice to the meat, well, it certainly satisfies a hunger, especially for something that’s not heavy or deep-fried.

Mary McDonald has tried making them at home, but it has never worked out quite the same way. “I have the recipe,” she says. “I know what’s in them, but there’s something about being here that makes it taste better.”

McDonald and Lehrman’s friendship extends beyond NIOSA to the days when Lehrman helped McDonald coach the girls’ basketball team at Concordia. Get the two together and you’ll hear a colorful history of of the Yak-I-Tori booth, dating back to the days when the skewers used to feature vegetables threaded between the chunks of meat. The peppers and onions were eliminated because they cooked much quicker than the meat. The early years also featured facing booths, but that proved a little hard to manage, so the set-up was scaled back to one busy booth.

Skewering the meat -- and not your hands.

In the early years, people didn’t know what yakitori was, so “we used to tell them they were eating yak,” Lehrman jokes.

Then they switched to the tag line, “Come get your hot breasts!” And the memory of that sends them into laughter.

That sense of fun has been passed down to the Boyles. “I love it,” Joey says of being at NIOSA four nights each year. “You see people you have seen all year long. It’s like a Mardi Gras for San Antonio.”

 

 

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