Culinaria San Antonio by Ron Kapon

I was invited to participate in the 4-day festival known as Culinaria on behalf of the San Antonio CVB. This may have been the best-organized trip I have ever attended.

I like very early flights out of New York. It is easy to get to the airport; the crew and plane are already there and the airport is not crowded. Each of my flights- LaGuardia to Dallas & Dallas to San Antonio- left and arrived early. It was the same for my return trip. I had several free hours before the opening event. The weather was perfect- mid-80’s and sunny. The only problem was American Airlines broke my bag and claimed non-responsibility because it was the wheels that they ripped off. It was time for another bag anyway.

I learned that San Antonio is the seventh largest city in America and the second largest in Texas (behind Houston but ahead of Dallas/Fort Worth) with a population of 1.3 million (2.23 million in the greater metropolitan area). 63% of the population is Hispanic. It is located in the south-central part of Texas. Named for Saint Anthony of Padua the city is best known for River Walk, The Alamo, The Tower of the Americas, Spanish missions and is the home of the four-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. There are several armed forces facilities nearby including Fort Sam Houston and Lackland Air Force Base. Several Fortune 500 companies make San Antonio their home- Valero Energy, Tesoro and Nu Star Energy. My host, the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, informed me that around 30 million tourists come to San Antonio every year (NYC drew over 54 million in 2013).
Many of you know the history of Texas and the conflicts with Mexico. San Antonio grew to become the largest Spanish settlement in Texas and the capital of the Spanish (Mexican) province of Tejas. Mexico allowed European & American settlers from the United States to move into the territory. The Texan Army was a military organization consisting of volunteer and regular soldiers who fought against the Mexican army during the 1835 Texas War of Independence and captured San Antonio. History books, TV shows and motion pictures informed us that in February of 1836 General Santa Anna attacked the Alamo mission and the Battle of the Alamo took place. All the Alamo defenders were killed and “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry when the Texan Army eventually defeated Santa Ana. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas as a state in the Union. This led to the Mexican-American War which the US eventually won. The Alamo is one of the most popular tourist sites in Texas.
Culinaria is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to benefiting the San Antonio community and promoting San Antonio as an ideal wine and food destination. It showcases the culinary talent found in San Antonio, with its Latin and European roots. They provide culinary scholarships and aid to San Antonio’s chefs. The total attendance for the 2014 Culinaria Festival Week (May 14-18) was 17,000.

Eilan Hotel Resort & Spa is a new concept for Marriott known as the Autograph Collection. They refer to it as a luxury boutique Hotel. The hotel opened in July 2012 with 165 rooms. It is part of a development that includes office buildings, apartment rentals and condos built to resemble a Tuscan village.

There are two shopping centers on the property, covering both luxury and budget shopping. Six Flags Fiesta Texas is just around the corner and both the River Walk downtown area and the airport are 20-30 minutes away.

While I waited for my room to become ready I checked out the hotel fitness center and indoor pool. I had lunch in their small market, which also serves the nearby property owners. The salad was similar to what I would get at any takeout airport restaurant. But $3 for a 12oz. can of Coke is way too much.

My room was fine except I could not figure out the lighting system and the doors to the bathroom would not stay open. I did meet the general manager and he agreed both needed to be redone. The bed was very comfortable and both the AC & TV worked perfectly. The chair next to the desk had no levers to raise or lower it so I used the extra pillow when I wanted to work at the desk.
I loved the outdoor pool. It was large, with a hot tub and plenty of lounges.

Have lunch or dinner at Sustenio their farm-to-table restaurant, using local and sustainable resources. Check the breakfast prices. I had an omelet (excellent), juice, coffee and a breadbasket and the bill was $37. The other mornings I chose the continental breakfast, which included juice and coffee for $16.

Our first function was a sampling of foods from Sustenio Restaurant with Chefs Stephan Pyles and Mike Collins. The restaurant is founded on the principle of using local and sustainable resources, i.e. farm to table. This was one of the best “tastings” I had during the festival. But dinner was to follow (a trend that resulted in a 3 pound weight gain). Some of our group went to the Food Truck Competition while I joined 4 others from our group at the Pearl restaurant area of town (we went back there several times during Culinaria). The Boiler House Texas Grill & Wine Garden served as the venue for the Blackbird Vineyards winemaker dinner. The wines from the Pomerol region of Bordeaux- Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon are the inspiration for this Napa Valley wines. Unfortunately, the lady presenting was a sales person and not a winemaker. Once she realized that several of us really knew wine she backed off and let us lead much of the discussion (there were 6 other people at the dinner that had purchased tickets and were not part of our group). Not my favorite event.

Friday morning was a late sleep-in day so I cajoled the General Manager and Front Desk Manager to give me a golf cart tour of the property. Our early lunch was at Cured Restaurant with Chef Steve McHugh, housed in the administration building of the original Pearl Brewery. He had been Chef de Cuisine for Chef John Besh’s restaurants in New Orleans (the last time I was in New Orleans I went back to his restaurant twice). Cured is a gastro pub with a Hill Country feel featuring craft beers and artisanal house-cured meats. I loved it.
We had a private 1½-hour cruise down the San Antonio River to take in the sights and sounds of River Walk. The city recently completed a $384 million improvement project to lengthen the River Walk to 15 miles. Perfect weather (mid 80’s and sunny) and I was at ease with the world. Most of our group split off to visit the Mission San Jose while 6 of us found foodie bliss with Chef David Gilbert. His Tuk Tuk Taproom featured Southeast Asian street food partnered with 60 craft beers. Chef traveled extensively in Burma, Vietnam & Thailand for many years and wrote a book called Kitchen Vagabond Sabout his travels and career as a chef. This was a new experience for me and I learned a lot.

I really enjoyed the rest period as all of us journeyed to the nearby Shops at La Cantera for the Best of Mexico walk around tasting. Guest chefs from Mexico and San Antonio presented their take on the cuisine of Mexico. There was Tequila, wine and beer to match the food. I liked the food but found it tiring and somewhat difficult to balance the plate and alcohol. I looked for a place to sit after each serving. Most of us were ready to return to the hotel by 9PM.

Saturday morning we headed to the Pearl Farmers Market on the grounds of the former brewery. There is now a campus of the Culinary Institute of America, apartments, shops and restaurants there. The market is a producers-only farmers market so all the goods found there are hand-planted, raised and harvested within 150 miles of San Antonio.

By 10AM we had gathered at the Culinary Institute of America’s third campus (Hyde Park & Napa) for our 4-hour mini-boot camp in Latin cuisine. I rarely cook but under the guidance of Chef Sergio Remolina (he moved here from the Hyde Park campus) and his two assistants our group prepared a glorious luncheon. We had so much fun that we cancelled our wine seminar attendance. Many of us returned to the hotel for some rest time. I went out to the pool and made use of the hot tub. During the Thursday afternoon time at the pool I was one of 5 people there. Saturday afternoon I had a tough time finding a lounge. I learned that the people who lived in the complex had use of the pool.

Next it was off to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for the grand tasting. We were afforded early entrance and use of the Bubble Room (as in bubbly stuff) with tables and chairs. This worked out much better for me. I went out to find food and brought it back to try with the Champagne and sparkling wines. There was even a separate dessert area. Yummy. A few members of our group chose to go to the VIP after party for chefs and VIP’s. I chose, along with half our group, to return to the hotel.
Sunday morning we took a private tour of the Alamo with an expert guide. Most of had heard the story before but it was great to see the actual site. It was brunch time at Casa Herman. We had a traditional Mexican barbacoa brunch with Chef Johnny Hernandez at his hacienda. I still can’t believe I ate all that food (see the trend). We departed for the new (2013) Briscoe Western Art Museum. The three story building houses artwork, sculptures and photography created by renowned Western artists.

Remember I mentioned the huge amount of food at brunch. We were then back to the Pearl District for a walk-around Burgers, BBQ & beer tasting. I had one burger and half a beer and was ready to go back to the hotel (almost all of did choose the same early return).

A change of clothes and a shower and I was ready for a private event (not part of Culinaria) at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. Chef Elizabeth Johnson prepared a pop-up dinner made from local and seasonal foods that are nourishing and healing, bringing our bodies into balance. She encompassed the “root to stalk” usage of plants and food and served her Crave Market juices to help us eat, quench and thrive. After eating all that food for 4 days I was ready for her meal and felt satiated.

The next morning our group had many different departure times. Everything went off smoothly and I returned to a normal eating pattern of three meals a day.

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