It's Always Chili in San Antonio
It ranks up there with apple pie in the American culinary pantheon, but nobody's mom invented chili. The iconic stew of meat, chilies, onions, and a variety of spices was likely conceived around the 1840s by Texas cowboys who needed to make tough meat palatable while covering up the taste as it began to go bad. The name is a Texas corruption of the Spanish chile (chee-leh), after the peppers -- which are not really peppers at all, but that's another story -- most conventionally used in the stew.
The appellation chili con carne is really redundant in Texas, where chili without meat isn't considered chili at all. Indeed, most Texans think that adding beans is only for wimps. Beef is the most common base, but everything from armadillo to venison is acceptable.
No one really knows exactly where chili originated, but San Antonio is the prime candidate for the distinction. There are written accounts from the mid-19th century that describe the town's "chili queens," women who ladled steaming bowls of the concoction in open-air markets and on street corners. They were dishing out chili in front of the Alamo as late as the 1940s.
William Gebhardt helped strengthen San Antonio's claim to chili fame when he began producing chili powder in the city in 1896. His Original Mexican Dinner package, which came out around 20 years later, included a can each of chili con carne, beans, and tamales, among other things, and fed five for $1. This precursor of the TV dinner proved so popular that it earned San Antonio the nickname "Tamaleville."
Oddly enough, chili isn't generally found on San Antonio restaurant menus. But modern-day chili queens come out in force for special events at Market Square, as well as for Nights in Old San Antonio, one of the most popular bashes of the city's huge Fiesta celebration. And there's not a weekend that goes by without a chili cook-off somewhere in the city.
What's Cooking at the Old Pearl Brewery
The old Pearl Brewery, occupying about 6 square blocks just north of downtown, is becoming a gastronomical center for San Antonio. First, developers negotiated with the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA) to establish a school here that would give greater attention to Latin American cooking than either its East Coast school in Hyde Park, N.Y., or its West Coast school in Napa Valley, California. Though it has been operating at a low level for quite a while, the school was officially inaugurated in October 2010. In 2011, it will be offering occasional weekend classes for the nonprofessional cook. Go to www.ciachef.edu/enthusiasts to explore what's available. The CIA will also be opening a cafe for the public in March 2011.
Next, the developers persuaded San Antonio's most acclaimed chef, Andrew Weissman, to set up two restaurants here -- the Sandbar, which he moved from a small space downtown, and Il Sogno, a new endeavor offering Italian food. In the same manner, they brought in another chef, Johnny Hernandez, who recently opened his Mexican food restaurant called La Gloria. These three restaurants are reviewed below.
Other gastronomical activities include a farmers' market on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, and an excellent cooking store with a Latin American slant called Melissa Guerra. Plans for the future include a microbrewery, stores, apartments, a boutique hotel, and more restaurants. You can walk from downtown to the Pearl Brewery (20 min.) by heading north on the River Walk or taking a river taxi. If you're driving from downtown, take Broadway, and as soon as you've driven under the I-35 overpass, look for a sign on your left.
Austin has long had Amy's ice cream, but when it comes to homegrown frozen desserts, San Antonio has been, well, left out in the cold. But that's all changed with the new century and the introduction of Brindles Awesome Ice Cream, 11255 Huebner Rd. (tel. 210/641-5222). Brindles features more than 200 varieties of creative ice creams, gelati, and sorbets. About 45 to 50 flavors are available on any given day. You might find such unique creations as spice apple brandy or bananas Foster ice cream; white chocolate Frangelico or candied ginger gelato; and champagne or cranberry sorbet -- as well as, in every category, far more traditional flavors for ice-cream purists. Among the best-selling ice creams is the signature Brindles, a butterscotch fudge crunch inspired, like the store's name, by the multicolored coat of the owners' pet boxer. And don't miss "The Kick" ice cream whenever it's available. This mixture of pineapple, coconut, mint, and habañero chili doesn't taste hot initially, but it packs a bit of a wallop afterward.
If you don't want to have to trek all the way to Brindles' mother ship, the espresso and ice-cream parlor in the Strand shopping center on San Antonio's northwest side, you can also sample Brindles products at several of San Antonio's finest restaurants, including Acenar, Biga on the Banks, Bistro Vatel, and Boudro's.