San Antonio’s main attraction, the Alamo, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Texas’ second-largest city (after Dallas) is mistakenly thought to host a food culture that rarely strays from margaritas, Tex-Mex cuisine and juicy steaks. While it’s true you can easily hunt all three down in San Antonio, relying on locally grown ingredients is an art that many restaurants, coffee shops, wine bars, hotels and spas have perfected. And within the last two years it has sprouted into an art form.
After you collect your luggage at San Antonio International Airport, drop by Holiday Inn Select Airport—fresh off a $6 million renovation—for a locavore cocktail. The recent renovation added a rooftop garden, including a beehive that produces honey for the hotel. The Bumble Bee Lemonade combines that honey with lemon juice and vodka for a refreshing drink. Bravo Bar & Grill, the hotel’s restaurant, also sources from the rooftop garden, mostly herbs for the dishes.
Westin La Cantera Resort’s quiet, hillside location (less than 15 minutes from downtown San Antonio) is a nice escape for a long weekend. Its three golf courses (designed by Arnold Palmer), spa and miles of hiking trails keep active travelers happy. Uncertain Farms’ “Farmer Bob”—what the resort’s chefs call him—supplies about 80% of the resort’s menu, beginning with candied jalapenos used in sparkling wine cocktails. At Brannon’s Café, the resort’s casual eatery, executive chef John Herdman falls back on his art-school degree to plate dishes that are textural works of art, and loves molecular gastronomy (a recent creation: torched onion cotton candy). The wine list at Francesca’s at Sunset offers many Texas wines (including those from Becker Vineyards), which sommelier Steven Krueger pairs flawlessly with chef de cuisine Ernie Estrada’s creations like Texas gulf shrimp spicy consommé or a double rack of wild boar from Broken Arrow Ranch served with a caramelized wedge of sweet pumpkin. Texas’ own Shiner Bock appears as an ingredient in ginger chili, all of which borrow from his American Indian and Mexican roots.
Two other Hill Country resorts—JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa and The Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa—grow herbs to use in their restaurants and spas, including The Hyatt’s peach-pecan body scrub. Chef Ryan Littman at the JW Marriott is an enthusiastic farmer, growing strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, squash and more on the hotel’s property.
Proof that San Antonio is on the cutting edge when it comes to food and wine: the city hosts the other only Culinary Institute of America campus outside of Hyde Park, N.Y. and St. Helena, California. Located in the Pearl Brewery district, on the banks of the San Antonio River, where Pearl Brewery operated from 1883 until 2001, it’s now a revitalized urban space with a Saturday farmers market that’s a favorite of local chefs.
At the CIA campus, chefs in training are schooled in not only classic French techniques but encouraged to express Latin themes too. Pearl Brewery district’s two restaurants embody Slow Food mantras. This includes Il Sogno Osteria, the city’s hottest dining spot right now (it opened in late 2009) with an all-white interior and an open-kitchen format, housed on the ground floor of a former warehouse. Chef owner Andrew Weissman (himself a CIA grad) hired a chef directly from Italy who cooks many of his family’s recipes in a wood-burning oven. But the pièce de résistance is a serve-yourself antipasti bar featuring traditional Italian salads (octopus and potato salad, eggplant and lemon cavier, or roasted bell pepper in sagna cauda, for example). Mexican street food is served at La Gloria—from tlayudas (Mexican-style pizzas) to panuchos (gorditas filled with beans and select toppings)—and relies on many locally grown ingredients.
Even this pizzeria is into Slow Food: Dough Pizzeria Napoletana, which opened in 2007, bakes its pies for 90 seconds in an 800-degree wood-burning oven built in Naples, Italy, later adding locally grown ingredients like Bluebonnet Farms arugula. It is one of only 32 restaurants in the country serving authentic Pizza Napoletana (certified by L’Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana); burrata, fior di latte, stracciato, rollatini and burricotti on its mozzarella bar is made fresh daily.
For Sunday brunch, head to Bruce Auden’s year-old restaurant, Auden’s Kitchen, which is an ode to Texas specialties and a casual alternative to Biga on the Banks, his other eatery which is perched above the Riverwalk. Sixteen dollars gets you a drink (from sake bloody mary to Alamo Ale, a local beer) and one of 15 dishes (such as chilaquiles verde, lemon-pepper fried chicken or a French toast sandwich on rosemary sultana bread).
Yet even at the River Walk, a beloved attraction still today, hotel chefs shop at local farmers markets in search of fresh, top-notch ingredients that illustrate San Antonio’s evolving food culture. Jeff Balfour of Hotel Valencia’s Citrus loves to pick up goat cheese, locally farmed game meat and Texas quail from the Pearl market. Some even grow their own crops, including the Grand Hyatt’s executive chef Jesse McDannell who raises 200-some herbs for use in the hotel’s Achiote River Café and Bar Rojo. For Zocca, which dishes up contemporary Italian cuisine inside the Westin Riverwalk, chef Jeff Foresman looked no further than his backyard. He planted herb gardens along the San Antonio River as well as inside the hotel’s rooftop greenhouse.