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Forget the Alamo

Nine other great reasons to visit San Antonio

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The River Walk is almost as synonymous with San Antonio as the Alamo, but the appeal of this landmark cannot be overstated, especially since it's recently been lengthened with arms that reach down to the city's museums and galleries and the area's historical missions.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The River Walk is almost as synonymous with San Antonio as the Alamo, but the appeal of this landmark cannot be overstated, especially since it's recently been lengthened with arms that reach down to the city's museums and galleries and the area's historical missions.

Unless you have an enduring interest in American history with a minor in muskets, the Alamo is somewhat overhyped as a tourist attraction. It’s not as if you should avoid it while in San Antonio — and with its smack-dab-downtown location, it’s hard to miss — but this Texas city has a lot more to offer.

9. The River Walk

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The River Walk is almost as synonymous with San Antonio as the Alamo, but the appeal of this landmark cannot be overstated, especially since it's recently been lengthened with arms that reach down to the city's museums and galleries and the area's historical missions.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The River Walk is almost as synonymous with San Antonio as the Alamo, but the appeal of this landmark cannot be overstated, especially since it's recently been lengthened with arms that reach down to the city's museums and galleries and the area's historical missions.

Yes, it’s almost as synonymous with San Antonio as the Alamo, but the appeal of this landmark cannot be overstated, especially since it has recently been lengthened, with arms that reach down to the city’s museums and galleries, and the area’s historical missions.

The touristy section of the downtown loop, where chain restaurants hawk 60-ounce margaritas, is a bit insufferable, but there are long stretches, where, although it’s just steps down from street level, it feels as if you’ve entered a whole other world, far away from the city.

Traffic noise is muted, you can hear birdsong and smell flowers and the walkways are dotted with public art and murals. It’s what an urban waterway should be.

 

8. Missions National Historical Park

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015, the missions are extremely well-preserved. </p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015, the missions are extremely well-preserved.

The park service has done an admirable job of providing the historical context for four 18th-century Franciscan missions (the Alamo is the fifth; it is its own park). San José, San Juan, Espada, Concepción run along the San Antonio River (you can reach them via the Mission Reach of the River Walk), and remain active parishes today.

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><P>San Antonio: The Saga tells the city's story via a video projection on the facade of the San Fernando Cathedral.

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

San Antonio: The Saga tells the city's story via a video projection on the facade of the San Fernando Cathedral.

They provided safety to indigenous people in times of increasing attacks by Plains Apache tribes in exchange for conversion to Catholicism and the Spanish way of life — and often death by European disease.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015, the missions are extremely well-preserved; an informative film can be viewed at San José and guided tours are available.

 

7. San Antonio: The Saga

Using the facade of the San Fernando Cathedral as a canvas, the video projection by French artist Xavier de Richmont tells the story of the settlement and development of San Antonio in a wordless but powerful piece that doesn’t shy away from contentious parts of history.

The 24-minute, 7,000-square-foot production is, in a word, stunning, a meticulously choreographed and soundtracked work of art that bears watching a second time.

 

6. Culinaria

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A highlight of Culinaria is the casual outdoor Burgers and Beer event.

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A highlight of Culinaria is the casual outdoor Burgers and Beer event.

This annual May event is a weeklong celebration of San Antonio’s food scene that ranges from high-end dinners to food-truck fare, with different ticketed events offering different takes on Texas cuisine (at the gala event, chef John Besh served up a hush puppy topped with caviar, prosciutto, grated truffle and pecan-honey butter that I’m still dreaming about).

A highlight is the casual outdoor Burgers and Beer event. Though the beer is mostly workaday Bud and similar swill, it’s ice cold and the burgers are mini-masterpieces, ranging from high-falutin’, high-concept edible artworks to all-American cheeseburgers done right.

 

5. Beer and bourbon

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>The Alamo Beer Co. brews up crisp, drinkable pilsners and ales meant to be served cold, including a German pale ale and a Vienna-style amber lager.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Alamo Beer Co. brews up crisp, drinkable pilsners and ales meant to be served cold, including a German pale ale and a Vienna-style amber lager.

Texas ranks pretty far down when it comes to states that have embraced craft brewing, but San Antonio breweries are making strides to redress that wrong.

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Ranger Creek's single-malt scotch style white whiskey Rimfire uses mesquite instead of peat for its smoky flavour, which makes it uniquely delicious.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ranger Creek's single-malt scotch style white whiskey Rimfire uses mesquite instead of peat for its smoky flavour, which makes it uniquely delicious.

Leading the charge is Alamo Beer Co., which brews up crisp, drinkable pilsners and ales meant to be served cold, including a German pale ale and a Vienna-style amber lager, and serves them in an airy space with floor-to-ceiling windows.

The communal tables are narrower than normal to encourage conversation and there’s a large patio.

More adventurous palates will enjoy the offerings from Ranger Creek, the only combined brewery/distillery in Texas. Set in a bland industrial park, Ranger Creek makes up for its off-putting location with the warmth of its welcome and the variety of its offerings, which include the Love Struck Hefe (banana and clove make an appearance in this refreshing hefewiezen) and the Red-Headed Stranger (a red IPA named for Texan songwriter Willie Nelson).

Ranger Creek also makes bourbon and white whiskey (which is like drinking sweet fire). Of particular note is their Rimfire, which is made in the single-malt scotch style, but uses mesquite instead of peat for its smoky flavour. Uniquely delicious.

 

4. Culinary Institute of America

San Antonio is home to the newest branch of the CIA, and its school and restaurant, located at Pearl Market, is focused on South American cuisine.

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Food writer Rick McMillen at work in the Culinary Institute of America kitchen. </p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Food writer Rick McMillen at work in the Culinary Institute of America kitchen.

The students run Nao, the on-site restaurant, doing everything from cooking to front-of-house management (on Saturdays you can find them grilling tacos out in the market, next to the underground cooking pit where meat is slow-roasted).

And if it’s not enough to enjoy the fruits (and meats and veggies) of the students’ labours, you can try your hand at whipping up a feast with one of the school’s many hands-on cooking classes.

Using the huge commercial kitchen, you feel as if you’re on the set of a Food Network cooking show. With expert assistance from the school’s instructors, we whipped up a huge Peruvian feast that looked almost as good as it tasted.

I was responsible for the solterito (a relatively simple salad featuring fava beans, tomatoes, onions, peppers, queso fresco and lime juice) that has become a staple of my potluck repertoire (though I substitute edamame, because life is too short to shell fresh fava beans).

 

3. El Mercado

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Colourful papel picado at El Mercado.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Colourful papel picado at El Mercado.

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Conchas, a classic Mexican sweet bread with shell-like cookie crust, served up at El Mercado.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Conchas, a classic Mexican sweet bread with shell-like cookie crust, served up at El Mercado.

This historic outdoor Mexican market — the largest in the U.S. — spans three city blocks and features more than 100 stores.

Crammed with everything from pottery and clothing to religious figurines, it’s a great place to pick up cheap souvenirs and trinkets and more serious pieces of art.

Bright papel picado (paper flags with elaborate cut-out designs) flutter over the stalls and at Mi Tierra bakery, the line stretches out the door, patrons queuing up to purchase such sweet delicacies as colourful conchos (sweet bread topped with a scalloped cookie crust) or the Ricardo, a cream-filled bun topped with caramel sauce and pecans.

 

2. Pearl Market

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Fried chicken and doughnuts with jalapeno syrup at Cured.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Fried chicken and doughnuts with jalapeno syrup at Cured.

It calls to mind The Forks, as it’s accessible from the river (you can take a very informative riverboat cruise that will let you out there) but it’s the former site of a brewery, not a train station. It’s a bustling hub, filled with hipsters and families alike, who come to visit the farmers’ market, browse the boutiques, sip excellent cold brew from the aptly named Local Coffee or enjoy a more potent brew at one of the site’s several restaurants and pubs.

It’s a textbook example of how to blend appealing modern design with existing structures, paying homage to the past without wallowing in nostalgia. The brewery building itself is being turned into a boutique hotel.

There are no dreary chain restaurants here; in addition to the CIA’s Nao, there’s Cured, run by chef Scott McHugh (a James Beard Award semifinalist), located in the brewery’s former administration building and featuring such delights as fried chicken and doughnuts with jalapeno syrup, and a charcuterie board dotted with fantastic choices, including a delectable chicken liver mousse and an unctuous country-style pâté. The restaurant also bottles its own alcoholic sodas, such as peach-basil gin, which are dangerously easy to drink.

 

1. Modern Mexican

Coming from Winnipeg, a town with precious few choices for authentic Mexican food, it’s always a treat to visit a U.S. state on the border where tacos are more common than perogies.

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Tuna ceviche served atop watermelon at Mixtli.</p>

JILL WILSON / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tuna ceviche served atop watermelon at Mixtli.

But for a truly elevated culinary experience, Mixtli Progressive Mexican Culinaria is a must. With a themed 12-course prix fixe menu (US$95) that changes every 45 days, co-owners and chefs Diego Galicia and Rico Torres and their talented co-workers are constantly experimenting and pushing the envelope.

One month’s menu will focus on Oxaxacan cuisine; the next could be Tabasco — a recent menu’s courses were based on the street food available at various subway stops in Mexico City.

Everything, from the plating to the cocktail/wine pairings, is sublime. At a recent tasting (scaled down to six courses), the meal started with a miniature loaf of mildly sweet, meltingly warm plantain bread, topped with sea salt, served in a wooden box and accompanied by two tiny pats of vanilla-bean butter wrapped to look like mints.

Precious? Maybe, but also unbelievably good.

Other highlights were tuna ceviche, served on a bed of watermelon, and poached eggs topped with serrano ash, served with a potato-leek puree and asparagus.

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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