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San Antonio
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(2015 - Fall/Winter Issue)


It was when I was up to my wrists in tamale dough—a mixture of corn flour, lard, water and salt—that I first tapped into the San Antonio vibe.

I was mixing the dough by hand under the careful instruction of Gloria Solis at the Witte Museum, where visitors can take a range of hands-on workshops throughout the year.

It was my first full day in the second-largest city in Texas. The day before, I’d checked into the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa, a sprawling resort on the city’s northern fringe. The 1,002-room property, home to two golf courses, a 2,415-square-metre spa and a big water park, is definitely Texas-sized. However, despite the local products in its restaurants and bars, I didn’t quite have a sense of San Antonio yet.

But then I made tamales. I’d never tasted one before—never even seen one—soperhaps it’s no surprise that mine came out a bit mushy and mutant. When Solis described how tamale making is a long-time tradition in many families, with comrades (godmothers) coaching several generations through a day-long process, I didn’t feel so bad for not getting the hang of it in a couple of hours.

Reason to Celebrate

Tamales are something of a religion in San Antonio. Everyone seems to have a favourite style (sweet or savoury) and vendor. I tried a wide range during the annual Tamales! Holiday Festival, a raucous December event where hungry diners move like swarms of locusts from stand to stand, sampling as many varieties as they can. The tamales were good, but my favourite dish, by far, was avocado fries from the Tailgate Bistro food truck, deep-fried in a crisp crust and served with salsa. Heaven on a paper plate.

The tamale festival took place at Pearl, a one-time brewery site that is quickly becoming a shopping and dining hub. It is also the home of the Texas outpost of the revered Culinary Institute of America, which trains aspiring chefs. Visitors can taste their efforts at the CIA’s on-site Latin American restaurant, Nao.

Pearl will get another boost in fall 2015, when Hotel Emma opens its doors in the 19th-century brew house. “Stylish” and “quirky” don’t even begin to describe this place, where you’ll be able to dine in a banquette fashioned from an old brewing tank in the hotel bar or—should your budget allow—stay in a two-level suite with a terrace and a dining table seating 16. (Less opulent rooms are also available.)

City Landmarks

Pearl is adjacent to one of the city’s crown jewels, the San Antonio River Walk. This roughly eight-kilometre stretch of the San Antonio River, augmented with bypass channels, winds through the heart of the city. Pearl is at its northern edge, and the River Walk banks are pretty quiet out that way, populated mainly by joggers and dog walkers. Farther downtown, however, the River Walk is thrumming with restaurants, bars, shops and hotels, as well as a massive convention centre. It would be easy to spend a day or two just strolling its banks, crisscrossing it on little bridges and puttering along it in a tour boat.

A stone’s throw from the River Walk is perhaps San Antonio’s best-known attraction, the Alamo. Those raised on tales of Davy Crockett or John Wayne movies will enjoy the tour guides’ detailed descriptions of the famous 1836 battle. That fight was part of the larger Texas Revolution against Mexico, which then governed the region.

The Alamo began its life as a Spanish mission, one of five in the San Antonio area. The other four comprise San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and they are well worth a visit. It’s easy to get a sense of how these missions would have felt to residents in the 1700s at Mission San Juan Capistrano. In this large compound, the native people, whom the Spanish missionaries were trying to convert to Catholicism, lived in small dwellings in the perimeter walls, while the missionaries lived in much grander accommodation near the church.

Special Pleasures

All of this exploring made me quite hungry (and thirsty). Fortunately, San Antonio delivered on that score. The new Alamo Brewery serves up German- and Czech-style craft beers from a site under a historic bridge in an industrial neighbourhood not far from the Alamo. In the historic King William district, the one-of-a-kind Hot Joy restaurant serves way-out Asian fusion dishes such as smoked brisket ramen and the surprisingly tasty tater tot chaat. And Cured at Pearl follows the nose-to-tail philosophy of cooking; be prepared to try some offbeat meats (the beef shank tacos are delicious).

For families, the big new attraction in town is the Do Seum. Formerly the San Antonio Children’s Museum, this huge new structure is aimed at kids under 10. With everything from a “spy academy” where kids can learn to crack secret codes to a pond full of tadpoles, it’s sure to keep children fascinated for hours.

Adults, on the other hand, may be more entranced by the McNay Art Museum, a bit of a hidden treasure. Did you know that San Antonio was home to an impressive collection of 19th-century European paintings, post-war American art and theatrical artifacts? The museum is a lovely spot, partly housed in the one-time mansion of Marion Koogler McNay, who donated the house and her art collection to the city when she died in 1950. The museum is hosting a large Joan Miró exhibition in fall 2015.

By the end of my visit, San Antonio and its culture had come much more clearly into focus for me, from its historic ties to Mexico to its one-of-a-kind River Walk. But in the end, it was those avocado fries I couldn’t get out of my mind.

Travel Planner

For more information on visiting San Antonio, go to VisitSanAntonio.com or call 1-800-THE-ALAMO.

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