Clouds cover San Antonio on a chilly Saturday morning in April. Beneath the sounds of trees and tents rustling in the wind, the streets of Pearl Brewery begin to fill a mere 12 minutes after the farmers market’s 9 a.m. opening.
This carefully curated district of restaurants, shops, apartments, and now the landmark Hotel Emma, was the city’s first trendy alternative to the crowded River Walk when it debuted almost nine years ago. Nearly a decade later, people still come to try something new. Lines seep to the doors at Local Coffee and Bakery Lorraine for Merit Roasting Co. coffee and French-style pastries, and parking fills fast. Young, hip visitors, older locals and families alike browse the tables of produce, honey, bread and finger foods, from empanadas to Indian pakora.
“Everybody goes to Mexican restaurants, and they think that’s what San Antonio is only,” says Luis Morales, who runs the market’s Humble House Foods tent, which sources all of its ingredients for sauces, dips and dishes from the surrounding market. He points out the pork belly hash a customer’s picking up, “This is more of an expression of what San Antonio tastes like, because the eggs are from here, the meat is from here, the veggies are from here. The terroir is true to what we do.”
Morales started with weekly cooking demos, much like chef Johnny Hernandez who began shopping at the market and cooking on the lawn before opening La Gloria, one of Pearl’s two inaugural restaurants (along with Andrew Weissman’s Il Sogno), which celebrated seven years on Cinco de Mayo. Today the district has more than 15 bars and restaurants.
Hernandez is nationally known for his Mexican cooking thanks to the success of La Gloria’s authentic street food (now in San Antonio International Airport), yet he, too, notes the other influences in the city’s modern food scene, including Native American hunters and gatherers, Texas cattle trails and German beer making.
The beer heritage began at Pearl and now influences close to 10 local breweries, from trendy Alamo Brewing Company (opened to the public in 2015) to the city’s first ‘brewstillery’, Ranger Creek, one of five local distilleries. Take advantage of Alamo’s outdoor beer garden and games on beautiful days, and pay homage to the past at Southerleigh, which opened inside the former Pearl Brewhouse in 2015 with more than 20 beers on tap and a full menu sourced from local farms and the Texas Gulf. Most San Antonio eateries serve Lone Star Beer from Texas’ first mechanized brewery established here in 1883.
“We’re a community that feels culturally grounded,” Hernandez says. “It’s not youthful Austin, it’s not the glamour and glitz of Dallas … The culture, heritage and hospitality [are] what creates the destination. Food is culture, right?”
No one’s defined a single restaurant’s culture quite like chef Steve McHugh, a two-time James Beard Foundation Award finalist for Best Chef: Southwest, who helms Cured in Pearl Brewery’s original administration building. The eatery incorporates reclaimed and repurposed elements of the former site into its design, earning a 2016 San Antonio Conservation Society Award.
Celebrating “the beauty of aging,” as general manager Robert Rodriguez puts it, McHugh practices ancient curing and preserving techniques, from one of the most diverse charcuterie platters you’ll find in America – lamb and citrus terrine, six-month pork culatello, 30-day tuna lomo – to colorful jars of fruits and vegetables fermenting. Pair both with plenty of Texas beers, including an exclusive list of hard-to-find bottles.
“When people come here they’re surprised not just by the food, but by the feel and the culture,” says chef McHugh. “We take everything we love about San Antonio and just combine it.”
A champion of San Antonio sourcing, chef Michael Sohocki brought his hyper-local habits to Southtown a year ago with Neapolitan pizzeria, Il Forno, where he grows more than 20 ingredients on site and sources the rest from local farms. Enter through a garden of citrus trees, spice plants, lettuce and vegetables for wood-fired, thin-crust, garden-to-table pies on which greens, zucchini, butternut squash and “verdura” star. Locals would expect nothing less from the chef behind Restaurant Gwendolyn that’s disrupted the River Walk’s rows of Tex-Mex and chains with its daily changing menu of local, seasonal, machine-free cooking.
The latest openings combine global flavors with Alamo City’s famous barbecue and Tex-Mex. New 2M Smokehouse and renovated El Mirador debuted in December; chef Jason Dady revisits shareable Spanish fare at The Bin, which opened last September; and chef Stefan Bowers’ Italian eatery, Battalion, opened in February. Hernandez will open Burgerteca and seafood restaurant Villa Rica in Southtown this year.
“There are several neighborhoods that are now just evolving into something really special,” he says. “Southtown is the new Pearl. It’s on the south end of the river, so it’s beautifully developed and has a much more organic vibe because [of] independent operators.”
For a self-guided sample, start on South Alamo where The Friendly Spot’s colorful chair-filled yard beckons passersby. The only non-relaxing thing here is choosing from more than 300 beers. Across the street, unassuming B&D Ice House smokes pounds of brisket and more meat to enjoy at the eclectic bar or roadside picnic tables. The no frills, counter-serve spot surprises with tender brisket, great rub and sweet signature barbecue sauce.
Dady’s sister restaurants – Tre Trattoria, Tre Enoteca, Two Bros. BBQ Market, Shuck Shack and The Bin – reflect future San Antonio’s diversity, from Italian to Spanish to oysters from the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. And he, Hernandez and Weissman’s mini empires show the area’s appeal to entrepreneurial chefs.
“There are amazing ingredients, recipes and chefs here,” says McHugh. “People from other parts of the country are coming here … to open new restaurants. It’s a good feeling to be a part of such a cool movement.”
After all, San Antonio is now home to four culinary institutions, including a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) campus — the school from which Hernandez, McHugh, Sohocki and Weissman all graduated — which operates a restaurant and seasonal pop-ups at Pearl.
McHugh says the energy from Pearl and development in the surrounding neighborhood is “a catalyst for what’s happening in the city.
“San Antonio is 300 years old. It’s the same age as New Orleans so there’s a history of good food and culture, and we’re kind of just getting our dues now.”