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2012 Was a Year of Eating Well

The Pearl has become a food lover’s center for festivals as well as restaurants.

Bliss is aptly named.

As we approach the end of 2012, it’s time to look back on the many great flavors that we sampled. The list is lengthy, thanks to a decided upturn in culinary offerings across the city, both on the dining scene and for the food lover in general.

One of the biggest food stories of the year was the continued growth of the Pearl Brewery, which saw the opening of three praise-worthy eateries and a trendy bar. It also was the location of an increasing number of food festivals, meaning thousands from all over the city were showing up on a regular basis for cooking demonstrations at the Saturday farmers market, for paella, burgers and barbecue or tamales, and for the restaurants, all in the quest of good food.

A glimpse into the kitchen at the Granary.

The list of new restaurants includes the Granary ‘Cue and Brew, which restored beer making to the premises. Artisan barbecue, fine brews and an irresistible condiment known as ‘cue butter all made this a welcome addition. The Boiler House Texas Grill and Wine Garden delivers on the belief that quality grilled meat is prerequisite in the Lone Star State, and the massive setting, covering two stories, is epic enough to complement chef James Moore’s ranch-style fare.

The most intriguing addition, though, is NAO, the Culinary Institute of America’s full-service restaurant, which has provided San Antonio with its broadest and most authentic taste of South and Central American cuisines to date. These exciting flavors, from seafood stews and roasted meats to an inviting cocktail program, have somehow not been able to secure a foothold before in a city that values its Tex-Mex above all; yet in just a few months, NAO has developed a local following, and its client base should grow as word continues to get out to the rest of the country that the school has a campus and a destination restaurant here. When the visiting chef series returns, with culinary stars from countries as diverse as Brazil, Peru and Argentina, you’d be wise to make your reservations as soon as possible.

The CIA’s flagship restaurant in San Antonio.

NAO is also built on the concept of small plates, which has also not been widely popular in San Antonio. Yet Bite in the Southtown area and a revitalized Nosh on Austin Highway are joining in the effort to break that mold.

Southtown continued to attract diners from across the city, as Mark Bliss returned with a new restaurant, the aptly named Bliss. The warmth of the place, the impressive setting and the comfort of the food, especially when enjoyed at the chef’s table in the kitchen, all help place it among the city’s best.

Johnny Hernandez opened two distinct venues in the Southtown area, if not Southtown proper. They include the Frutería at the Steel House Lofts, where you can get everything from market-fresh fruit for breakfast to an impressive array of, you got it, small plates for dinner, and Casa Hernán, an airy catering facility and brunch spot in his own home.

Another welcome addition to the Southtown scene was the Alamo Street Eat Bar, a food truck park that featured crazy good burgers from Cullum’s Attaboy, the Peacemaker combination of pork belly and fried oysters from Where Y’At and the DUK Truck’s duck confit tacos. Add Zum Sushi, The Institute of Chili, Wheelie Gourmet and a few other visitors, as well as a great beer lineup, and you’ve got some wonderful fresh treats. And what do food trucks provide but small plates, albeit from different plates, giving you the feel of being on a tapas trail?

An “Eat Street” crew films at the Point Park & Eats.

Another food truck park that opened up north in Leon Springs was the Point Park & Eat, which also offers a great beer selection and a wide array of foods from a lineup that has changed in the months that it’s been open. The culinary confections come from trucks such as Skinny Cat, Gourmet on the Fly, Blazin’ Burgers and Say-She-Ate.

Television continued to discover may of these culinary gems. Say-She-Ate was one of four food trucks filmed for the TV series, “Eat Street.” The others include Rickshaw Stop, Tapa Tapa and Society Bakery. Meanwhile, PBS celebrity chef Ming Tsai came to town to film segments of “Simply Ming” with Diana Barrios Treviño from Los Barrios, Elizabeth Johnson of the CIA, John Besh of Lüke (visiting from New Orleans) and Johnny Hernandez at La Gloria.

Sustenio, with Stephan Pyles’ blessing and David Gilbert’s gifts, made people realize the Eilan Hotel Resort and Spa off I-10 was not just a pretty façade. Its menu, with much of the dishes derived from local meats and produce, features an exciting array of ceviches that captured the freshness of the sea and a number of dishes using South Texas Heritage Pork products.

The $13 Burger at Knife & Fork.

The gastropub movement continued with the opening of Knife & Fork in the Stone Oak area. An outgrowth of the Bistro Six food truck, it offered a $13 Burger worth every cent, an extensive cocktail program and a laid-back atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the bistronomy craze — a hybrid of “bistro” and “gastronomy” — could be found in Laurent’s Modern Cuisine on McCullough Avenue. Next door to the still-vibrant and dependable Bistro Vatel, it proved that a segment of San Antonio does love its French food.

For those who enjoy a meal every now and then at home, the number of gourmet groceries grew, thanks to the addition of Trader Joe’s in the Quarry Extension and a second Whole Foods on Blanco Road, north of Loop 1604. The food warehouse Gaucho Gourmet expanded its hours to the public to six days a week, while Groomer’s Seafood reeled in even more seafood lovers, especially when lobsters hit a mouthwatering low of $5.95 apiece.

Classic cocktails have made a comeback.

San Antonio lifted it spirits high during the year. Distilled spirits, that is. Mixed drinks, both shaken and stirred, got a huge boost from the first annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference. But it didn’t stop there. The Blue Box in the Pearl and the downtown Brooklynite joined the likes of Bar 1919 in the Blue Star Complex and the bar at NAO as havens for hand-crafted classic cocktails. A rye sour shaken with traditional egg white, a real martini made with gin and a pisco sour bright with freshly squeezed citrus were all incentives that made exploring these nightspots fun.

Expect beer’s popularity to soar in the new year. Beyond the excellent brews at the Granary, we await Alamo Beer’s ambitious plans for a downtown complex that will feature a restaurant as well as a brewing facility as well as the launch of Branchline Brewery.

What else can we expect? The Pearl will continue to expand with the openings of Jesse Perez’s Arcade Midtown Kitchen and an as-yet-unnamed venture from Steven McHugh as well as the move of Green Vegetarian Cuisine, all of which will add to the draw of the campus. Culinaria has announced plans for a community garden center offering food and agricultural education for the city. Andrew Weissman is taking over the former Liberty Bar site on Josephine Street.

With these strides forward on so many fronts, the city’s culinary scene should continue to offer some enticing new flavors for anyone with a healthy appetite.

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A Dessert So Easy You Can Make It Without Turning on the Oven

Tapa Tapa’s Watermelon Poprocks

Are you looking for a fun, fresh and blessedly easy dessert this summer? Take a tip from Rudolfo Martinez, who operates the Tapa Tapa food truck at Alamo Street Eat Bar, 609 S. Alamo St.

Martinez, one of the crew in the truck wearing a “Not Rudolfo” T-shirt, has made a great many fans in the past year with his Watermelon Poprocks dessert, a simple creation that would take no time for you to make at home.

All it takes is some cubes of watermelon, which you can even buy already cut up, plus a few fresh mint leaves. Then top the mix with Poprocks, that childhood favorite that explodes on the tongue with an effervescence that is whimsical  and welcome. That’s it.You’ve got a simple treat that’s actually quite complex on the tongue.

You won’t want to add the candy until each individual serving is ready to be eaten. In other words, don’t sprinkle the Poprocks over the whole bowl of fruit and let it sit. The candy will get get soggy and lose its sparkle.

I hadn’t see Poprocks in stores for years — that is, until recently, when I found them at Spec’s, which is now at 5219 DeZavala Road as well as 14623 I-35 N. That means you can make this carbonated candy-crowned confection any time you’d like — and without having to turn the oven on.

Or you can just head to South Alamo Street and order up Martinez’s terrific fish tacos or 9-cheese macaroni and follow it with a taste of summer that’s light and perfectly refreshing.

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It’s ‘Eat St.’ at Alamo Street Eat

A customer gets her order from Tapa Tapa.

Rudolfo Martinez takes orders at his truck, Tapa Tapa.

“Eat St.,” the Cooking Channel show that celebrates the fabulous and fanciful fare of food trucks across the nation, has been in town the last few days sampling the best the city has to offer.

On Thursday, a crew trailed Jason Dady and the DUK Truck as they set up in Main Plaza for lunch. On Friday, they sought out what Rudolfo Martinez had to offer at Tapa Tapa, which is parked most every night of the week at Alamo Street Eat + Bar, 609 S. Alamo St.

Watermelon Pop Rocks

His menu included two of his usual favorites, Grown A*$ Macaroni and Cheese, which is made with eight cheeses, truffle oil and cheese crackers, and Watermelon Pop Rocks, with chunks of watermelon and mint leaves topped with the carbonated candy treat.

Specials for the evening included Chicken and Waffle Balls, deep-fried, of course, and a real foodie treat: Foie Gras Oatmeal Pie. Yes, this tribute to our friends in California who are currently deprived of the delicacy, featured a deep-fried oatmeal cream pie with peanut butter spread over the top to melt into the dough. Grape jelly, blackberries and a touch of smoky olive oil added to its considerable charms, but the crowning glory was a 2-ounce slab of seared foie gras somehow bringing everything together in one sweet, savory, silly and superb treat.

The “Eat St.” crew interviews diners about the food from Tapa Tapa.

The crew asked me to say a few words about the foie gras, which meant I had to get another order to eat while on camera. The sacrifices I sometimes  have to make in order to promote the wealth of culinary options in this town can seem monumental, but I’ll always up fro the challenge of taking an extra slab of foie gras for the team.

Tapa Tapa’s Foie Gras Oatmeal Pie

The crew moves on to the Point Park & Eats, 24188 Boerne Stage Road, to film Say.She.Ate on Saturday, starting at noon. At noon Sunday, Rickshaw Stop will be filmed at the Boardwalk on Bulverde, 14732 Bulverde Road. On Monday, Society Bakery has its moment, also at Boardwalk on Bulverde.

So, come out, support the city’s food truck scene, enjoy the food and possibly get on “Eat St.”


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2nd Food Truck Throw Down Set During ‘Eat St.’ Filming

Say.She.Ate is one of the trucks to be filmed for “Eat St.”

“Eat St.,” the Cooking Channel show that celebrates the food truck business, is coming to San Antonio, and the folks at Boardwalk on Bulverde are celebrating with their second annual Food Truck Throw Down and Music Festival.

The show will be taping around town July 19-23, while the Throw Down is set for July 20-22. Last year’s Throw Down featured more than two dozen food trucks from the throughout the region serving up their finest while live music filled the air. Participants voted on their favorites.

“Eat St.”  won’t be at the Boardwalk during their entire filming. The crews will start at Jason Dady’s DUK Truck on July 19 for lunch at a spot yet to be determined.

On July 20, crews will be at Alamo St. Eat Bar, 609 S. Alamo St., to focus on Tapa Tapa.

Filming moves to the Point Park & Eats, 24188 Boerne Stage Road, on July 21, where footage of Say.She.Ate will predominate.

Tapa Tapa Shrimp Ceviche

On July 22, “Eat St.” meets Boardwalk on Bulverde, 14732 Bulverde Road, during the Thrown Down, while crews go to the Rickshaw Stop.

July 23 closes out the filming at Boardwalk on Bulverde for a spot on Society Bakery.

The public is invited to the filming, so this is a great chance for you to support the city’s burgeoning food truck scene, enjoy some fine eats and maybe get your face on TV.

For more information on the Thrown Down, click here.


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Chefs’ Corner: Rudolfo Martinez’s Shrimp Ceviche and Chicharrones

Tapa Tapa's Shrimp Ceviche and Chicharrones

Rudolfo Martinez, who owns the Tapa Tapa truck that can be found at Boardwalk on Bulverde, is a Culinary Institute of America graduate serving up extremely flavorful dishes that combine comfort foods in unique, playful ways. On a recent evening, he mixed watermelon and mint with old-fashioned Pop Rocks candy for a salad that gave your mouth a little extra burst of flavor.

For his shrimp ceviche, he takes fresh tomatoes flavored by serranos and mixes them with pickled onions and shrimp. He serves the mixture over pork rinds for a lively variation on this seafood specialty.

More of Martinez’s food will soon be featured at Counter Culture, which is opening in a few weeks next to the Spectrum Club at 20144 U.S. 281 N. at Evans Road.

Shrimp Ceviche and Chicharrones

1 medium white onion, sliced thin
1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (reserve lime peels for broth)
1 cup medium diced tomatoes
2 serranos, cut into thin coins
1 bunch cilantro leaves, torn
1 pound 16/20-count shrimp, shell on
Salt, to taste
1 bag pork rinds or chicharrones (see note)

Rudolfo Martinez

Mix the onions in lime juice and marinate at least 6 hours (overnight is best).

Mix the tomatoes with the serranos and cilantro and perfume at least 6 hours (overnight is best).

Boil shrimp in a broth of juiced limes and water for 90 seconds.

Remove and shock in a ice water bath to stop cooking. Remove from water bath, shell and reserve meat.

When ready to serve, mix all the ingredients together, salt to taste, and serve over chicharrones. Serve immediately.

Note: You can serve this ceviche with tostadas or corn chips. Serve it on avocado halves or on nothing but a plate.

Makes 4-5 appetizer servings or 2-3 main course servings.

From Rudolfo Martinez

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Get Some Street Food at the Revolution Room on Wednesday

The Beef Bahiri Kebab from Rickshaw Stop.

If you didn’t get enough street food at the Boardwalk on Bulverde over the weekend, then you may want to check out On Broadway StrEAT Food Wednesdays at the Revolution Room, 8123 Broadway.

From 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesdays, a collection of trucks will be offering their tasty treats outside the bar. The Rickshaw Stop with its Pakistani fare will be joined by Tapa Tapa, Saweet Cupcakes and more. Burgers, wings, barbecue and more will be offered.

For more information, call the Revolution Room at (210) 320-4567.

Friendly Spot seeks submission for film festival

The Friendly Spot, 943 S. Alamo St., is now accepting admissions for its short film festival.

According to the rules, “The theme of your film needs to be Friends, Family or Community. Each film must be eight minutes or less, the Friendly Spot must be at least one of your locations, and one of these three lines must be used in the film:

  1.  “Let’s be friends”
  2. “Be friendly”
  3. “Respect the hood”

“Narrative, documentary, animation, and experimental are all welcome. All films need to be family friendly. The film’s director is responsible for all rights clearances.”

Submissions must be received by Sept. 1.

More than $700 in prizes will be awarded. The films will be screened Sept. 16-17 with winners announced on Sept. 17.

For more information, click here.


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Food Trucks From All Over Converge on Boardwalk on Bulverde

The Throw Down offers fun and flavors for all ages.

What’s your preference? Pulled pork? Shrimp ceviche? Asiago macaroni and cheese? Pakistani samosas stuffed with beef or vegetables? Fresh berries atop a fluffy mound of whipped cream? Red velvet cupcakes?

You can sample all of these treats at more this weekend at the Boardwalk on Bulverde  where the first Food Truck Throw Down and Music Festival runs through Sunday evening. About 25 food trucks from across town and around the state have converged on the site, serving up everything from Colombian snacks to French-style crêpes.

Tacos were certainly popular Friday evening as hundreds of people strolled into the food truck park after work and as the sun began to set. Barbecued meats, from naked chicken wings (available with a truly spicy sauce, if you dare) to sausage sliders, were also drawing lines, but a great many were also happily trying jumbo dill shrimp and Ahi tuna.

Meagan Siddiqui prepares an order at Rickshaw Stop.

At Rickshaw Stop, San Antonio’s only Pakistani food truck, owners Meagan and Sameer Siddiqui were serving up beef bihari kebabs made from Sameer’s grandmother’s recipe. He wouldn’t divulge the secret ingredients, but he did say the eye of round was marinated at least 24 hours in yogurt and papaya juice to break it down and make it tender. The rest of the spices give it an Asian edge that will make you want  to return for more.

But are San Antonio street food customers ready for Pakistani food? Meagan admitted it has been a challenge, a word echoed by several food truck vendors, but the majority of tasters do enjoy it once they try it, they all say. At Rickshaw Stop, Meagan has had to come up with Mexican food analogies to get many to try her dishes. The samosa are kind of like empanadas, she’s told customers, while the beef kebab with onions on top and wrapped in a flatbread is akin to a taco.

Those descriptions have helped people venture out of their comfort zone.

And comfort food is what most food trucks are about, chef Brian West said. Friday was his first visit to Boardwalk on Bulverde, and he loved the tasting the bacon-wrapped shrimp, the asiago macaroni and cheese, and the cupcake he tried. But he would like to see the food trucks “push the envelope a little more. I’d love to see more modern cafe food,” he said.

A trio of tantalizing tacos from Davila's BBQ: pork belly (left), short rib and carnitas.

“I’m a big believer in San Antonio,” added West, who used to own Cafe Paladar on Sonterra Boulevard.

Pork belly was one of the dishes West wanted to try, and it was served two ways Friday night at the Throw Down, but it wasn’t necessarily easy to find. Less than two minutes after West walked away, Adrian Davila of Davila’s BBQ in Seguin mentioned to me that he had an unadvertised special of a pork belly taco. So, I had to get one, as well as the carnitas taco that arrived with mango salsa and the short rib taco with a spicy salsa. All three could make your toes curl in delight.

Davila’s, which has been in business since 1959, has two restaurants in Seguin as well as the truck. And the flavors it served up may well justify a road trip.

Menudo-dusted calamari, pork belly and hominy.

Pork belly was part of another fascinating dish: menudo-dusted calamari, pork belly and hominy, served in a jumbo cup with a slice of lime. This was one of three dishes offered at Tapa Tapa, a relatively new San Antonio truck run by Culinary Institute-trained Rudolfo Martinez. Shrimp ceviche and watermelon-mint Pop Rocks (remember those?) were the other two. I started with the ceviche, which I liked so much that I had to return for the calamari, which was, indeed, dusted with a powdered form of menudo. Go figure, and go get some.

In addition to his truck, Martinez is working with the owners of Tin Can Tacos and Wheelie Gourmet, both fixtures at Boardwalk on Bulverde. One of the owners involved in those trucks, Manny Olivarez, said diners should expect a few changes in the next month or more.

The current truck that houses Wheelie Gourmet, a Mediterranean food vendor, is becoming the Purple Cow, which will offer ice cream and gourmet desserts. A truck truck is being customized for Wheelie Gourmet.

The group is also working on its first restaurant, Counter Culture, which will open in late August at the Spectrum Athletic Club, 21044 U.S. 281.

“It will feature a lot of things you’ve never seen in San Antonio,” Olivarez said. “But it will not be so eccentric as to scare people away. We have to remember who we’re serving. It will be health conscious, and it will be in keeping with our Mediterranean-Latin menus.”

Melissa Rogers operates the Kake Deva truck.

Melissa Rogers brought her Kake Deva truck to the gathering. The bright pink truck with eyelashes over the headlights, dubbed the Big Pinkie by kids who loves its ice cream and candy novelties, can usually be found driving through Kitty Hawk, down Toepperwein and into Converse.

Younger fans like most anything sweet that Rogers sells as well as the cucumbers with Lucas flavoring of chile and lime, while their parents enjoy the nostalgia that comes with certain items she has, whether it’s a Big Dipper ice cream cone or a Fudge Bomb Pop of bananas and chocolate. “Anything with Super Mario Brothers sells,” she says. “People love the Betty Boop candies, too. So many people tell me, ‘I have a sister who collects anything Betty Boop.'”

When Rogers isn’t driving the truck, she also makes and decorates cakes for special orders, ranging in style from wedding cakes to a cake decorated to look like an XBox. (Click here for more on Kake Deva.)

Choices abound at the Food Truck Throw Down.

Both the Kake Deva and Boardwalk regular Saweet Cupcakes offered cupcakes to the crowds, but there wasn’t real duplication as their flavors were different.

Duplication can be good, though. If you wanted to sample various approaches to pulled pork, you could wander from K-Hill to the Smoke Shack to Davila’s BBQ. Or you could spend the day sampling from as many booths as you can. The choice is yours. Enjoy.

The Throw Down and Music Festival continues 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Boardwalk on Bulverde, 14732 Bulverde Road. Click here for more information.

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