The San Antonio River snakes along the city, serving as a backdrop to its central neighborhoods—what was once the life source for indigenous Payaya people and lure for colonialists is now a promenade for locals and visitors. The River Walk extends out past the central neighborhood of Pearl to Southtown and King William. Grand mansions from the late nineteenth century, when German nobility followed the Spanish to South Texas, still line the river, along with restaurants and bars that reflect the various cuisines and histories of this very American town.
Rosario's is loud, it's bright, it's festive—much like the food served there. Flavored with charred tomatoes and jalapenos, spiked with lime and ancho and cascabel chilies, made crunchy with fresh jicama and fried tortillas—the dishes at Rosario's taste deeply Mexican, and it comes from a woman named Lisa Wong.
The restaurant is an allegory of San Antonio's rich cultural heritage. Born and raised in San Antonio by the children of immigrants, Wong opened her first restaurant at 18 years old, using the money her parents saved for her college tuition. Her grandfather moved to San Antonio from China by way of Mexico, where he met his wife. Wong's Mexican grandmother and American mother helped her open her restaurant. The staples they continue to use today at Rosario's—the rice, the beans, the sauces—are all her mother's recipes.
At first glance, Cured looks like an upscale delicatessen named after its bread and butter. Chef Steve McHugh moved to San Antonio from New Orleans, but instead of opening his own restaurant, he began a rigorous chemotherapy treatment to battle lymphoma. By the time McHugh came out of remission, he'd fallen in love with the indigenous ingredients of San Antonio: its cactus petals, its chili pecans, the mesquite powder from the mesquite trees.
Apart from their best-selling duck ham and pork roulade, the restaurant serves fish like golden tilefish, caught by the large fishing boats that they'd normally throw away—a category of seafood known as bycatch that McHugh prefers to call accidentally caught fish. It's practices like these that earn them sustainable credentials like Smart Catch from the James Beard Foundation and Good Food 101 by the city of San Antonio for purchasing locally and making everything they can in house. Cured is a celebration of the cuisine McHugh finds around him in San Antonio, and it's also a celebration of life.
History runs deep at Maverick Whiskey in the heart of San Antonio. There's the proximity to the Alamo and location inside what was once the Lockwood National Bank, sure, but then there's Samuel Maverick. Samuel Maverick fought at the Alamo, signed Texas's declaration of independence, twice served as the mayor of San Antonio, and among much more, he built the 35,000-acre homestead on which Maverick Whiskey stands today.
Like his great-great-great grandfather before him, Dr. Ken Maverick seeks out a long-running list of accomplishments. He left his ophthalmology career behind to repurchase the former bank building and build a whiskey distillery inside.
In two years, Maverick and his distiller Rikk Munroegot have produced up to four different whiskies made from local Texas crops like rye, wheat, and corn. And they're also distilling gin, vodka, rum, tequila, and a bourbon based on a two-centuries-old family recipe. The hot, dry climate of South Texas yields whiskies that are much bolder and more peppery than those produced in Kentucky.
Chef Pieter Sypesteyn moved to San Antonio from New Orleans years ago, bringing with him NOLA's most beloved staples: andouille sausage, catfish, shrimp and grits, and gumbo. At Cookhouse, he uses the local flora and fauna to recreate the food he learned while growing up in Louisiana. Taking the bycatch from local fishermen, he serves vermilion snapper with a French-Creole fennel and green bean amandine.
Sypesteyn's culinary journey could have been much different had he been born in Texas, like the six generations of Sypesteyns before him. For Sypesteyn though, finding the common threads in San Antonio and New Orleans's histories has been enriching in formulating how he wants to cook food. Both cities are 300 years old and served as major commercial hubs, often supplying assets to each other, from one landlocked Mission town to one major trading port. These days the cities may have many of the same ingredients, but they're used entirely differently. In San Antonio, Sypesteyn will buy chayote and think of it as mirliton squash, remembering his NOLA upbringing while he cooks it into a Louisiana-Texan take on elotes: blackened squash with cotija cheese, lime crema, and pico de gallo.
See ya next time, San Antonio!