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TRAVEL San Antonio, a spot that defies and embraces Texas
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2020-03-14

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San Antonio is one city that encompasses what one may think of Texas—but also extends beyond one's perceptions of the state.

Yes, there are the seemingly requisite cowboy hats and ( emblematic of the notion that "everything is bigger in Texas" ), the average rideshare vehicle is a huge pick-up truck. However—while some may feel the whole state is conservative—San Antonio is relatively progressive, including on the LGBTQ front.

Interestingly, even though it's the seventh-largest city in the United States, San Antonio has a small-town feel. ( For example, the lead story one night on the local news was that someone attempted to steal an ATM. ) However, it has a wide variety of attractions—basically, something for everyone.

Hotel haven

During my visit, I stayed in the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk ( 150 E. Houston St.; HotelValencia-Riverwalk.com ), an exquisite spot that is part of, fittingly, the Valencia Hotel Group. The hotel has an undeniable Southwestern feel, coupled with a Mediterranean vibe.

Hotel Valencia has several appealing amenities, such as in-room spa services, city-operated shuttle service, a spacious workout facility and Dorrego's—a restaurant with Argentinian-influenced cuisine. It's also located ( as one could tell by its name ) near the Riverwalk—a 15-mile urban walkway/waterway that snakes through the city, and which features numerous stores, restaurants and other businesses. ( Also, be prepared to get acquainted with various local "wildlife" such as ducks, pigeons and grackles. )

Of the city's numerous hotels ( which accommodated 39 million visitors last year ), few are as intriguing as the luxury boutique spot known as Hotel Emma ( 136 E. Grayson St.; TheHotelEmma.com ), a Pearl District hotel named after Emma Koehler, who ran the brewery after her husband and Pearl president Otto Koehler died in 1914—and a spot that no less than Cher recently lauded. ( The Pearl District is an entertainment space converted from the historic Pearl Brewery. ) Hotel Emma retains several elements of the brewery while exhibiting its own stunning, modern flair—including an outdoor seating area that entices numerous strangers. Among the hotel's rooms are units with unique private terraces that overlook large areas of the city.

Remember the Alamo—and the other missions

Of course, one cannot visit San Antonio without taking in the Alamo ( 300 Alamo Plaza; TheAlamo.org )—the mission-turned-fortress that was the home of the famous 1836 fight and is the most visited historic landmark in the state. The tours are beyond informative, with groups being led inside the church ( where there's no photography allowed ), the ground and the nearby museum. ( There is a movement to enlarge the Alamo, although there is currently a legal battle happening. )

However, this is not the only mission in San Antonio. In fact, there are four others ( missions San Jose, San Juan Capistrano, Espada and Concepcion )—and San Antonio Detours ( SanAntonioDetours.com ) is the perfect way to see any or all of these fascinating sites ( NPS.gov/saan ). ( Incidentally, San Antonio Detours can provide everything from overviews of the city to a culinary tour. ) The Franciscan order of the Catholic Church established the missions in the 1700s, and they feature various architectural styles. And here's a factoid: The missions recently were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, adding even more prestige to these locations.

Food, glorious food

San Antonio is approximately 60-percent Latino—and that means a lot of authentic Mexican restaurants as well as Tex-Mex spots. ( In fact, there are approximately a thousand here. ) Among the many acclaimed spots is Casa Rio ( 430 E. Commerce St.; CasaRio.com ), a Riverwalk spot that was originally established in 1946. If you're willing to pay, an authentic mariachi band will serenade you and your guests while you nosh on shrimp tacos and tres leches cake. ( For the bold, there's a ghost-pepper margarita—just one of the many varieties offered here. )

However, there are many other types of culinary spots around—and one of the most impressive is the Italian restaurant Tre Trattoria ( 200 W. Jones St.; TreTrattoria.com ), which can be accessed through two different points connected to the San Antonio Museum of Art. Server Steven took my guest and me through an intriguing menu that featured everything from cacio y pepe "deviled eggs" to orecchiette with pork and shrimp to desserts such as Nutella X3 and housemade lemon ricotta cake. Every item was absolutely delicious, so kudos go to co-owners Jason and Jake Dady.

For a more casual place ( with food that's just as delicious ), there's the Smoke Shack BBQ + Southern Kitchen ( 3714 Broadway St.; SmokeShackSA.com ), which advertises itself as "San Antonio's Best BBQ"—and it's hard to disagree after the sinful brisket grilled-cheese sandwich I had. Other selections range from a Frito pie to sliders to great sides ( e.g., pinto and green beans, spicy creamed corn and mac 'n cheese ).

Meadow Neighborhood Eatery & Bar ( 555 W. Bitters Rd.; MeadowSanAntonio.com ) is a bit removed from downtown—but is certainly worth the trip. PJ and Lindsey Edwards' restaurant aims to give patrons a seasonal Texas Southern dining experience—and artfully succeeds, thanks to dishes such as stone-ground Texas grits and creamed-corn fritters, although there are also items like New York strip, black pepper-glazed duck breast and even roasted cauliflower. ( The vegetable-forward menu defies the notion that Texas is full of carnivorous folks. )

NOLA Brunch & Beignets ( 111 Kings Ct.; EatAtNOLA.com ) brings that New Orleans feel to San Antonio—and I can only imagine how crowded this space gets during Sunday brunch. ( Even during a weekday morning, it was buzzing. ) Get a load of these dishes: bread-pudding French toast, blue-crab omelet, shrimp and grits, and the NOLA brunch plate ( which includes fried green tomato ). Of course, the beignets are worth eating; they're basically warm pillows of bliss topped with powdered sugar.

Last ( but certainly not least ), there's Cured ( 306 Pearl Pkwy.; CuredAtPearl.com ). Chef Steve McHugh's spot is a renovated historical building that was built in 1904 as Pearl's Administration Building—and it maintains many of the original elements while others are reimagined, to incredible effect. As for the impressive menu, you really can't go wrong with anything, and the Red Wattle pork chop ( topped with candied pumpkin butter ) is probably one of the best cuts of meat I've had in the past five years ( and I say this as someone who writes regularly about the Chicago restaurant scene ). Stop by here after taking in the surrounding shops in this district. ( By the way, "Cured" also refers to McHugh being a cancer survivor. )

Art-felt

One of the more unfortunate thoughts some may have is that Texas lacks culture—but a trip to San Antonio will disabuse one of that notion.

Look no further than the San Antonio Museum of Art ( 200 W. Jones Ave.; SAMuseum.org ) for impressively displays of art that span chronology and geography. Impressive collections of Egyptian, Etruscan and Latin American Art ( and seeing the altar "El Retablo de Maria" is a must ) are shown alongside current exhibitions such as "The Magic of Clay and Fire: Japanese Contemporary Ceramics" ( through April 19 ) and "Texas Women: A New History of Abstract Art" ( through May 3 ).

However, there are other must-see art venues. Ruby City ( 150 Camp St.; RubyCity.org ), which is free and open to the public, is a contemporary art center dedicated to providing a space for the city's creative community to experience works by both local and internationally acclaimed artists. Envisioned in 2007 by the late collector, philanthropist and artist Linda Pace, Ruby City ( which just opened recently ) presents works from the Linda Pace Foundation Collection of more than 900 paintings, sculptures, installations and video works—some of which are interactive.

And then there's the Witte Museum ( 3801 Broadway St.; WitteMuseum.org ), which embodies everything Texas. The family-friendly spot says it's where "nature, science and culture meet"—and there's no better indication than the huge prehistoric pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus that "flies" overhead at the entrance. The Witte is chock full of nods to Texas history, including "How the West was Fun! Circus, Saddles and the Silver Screen" as well as fossils of dinosaurs from the region. Also, be sure to check out added items out back—but be aware of the ( harmless ) feral cats.p>

Also, if you get the chance, I urge you to check out The Saga ( 115 Main Plaza; MainPlaza.org/san-antonio-the-saga )—a stunning 24-minute visual journey of the state's history ( open to the public ) that is projected onto the majestic facade of San Fernando Cathedral, which happens to be the oldest cathedral in the country. It normally runs at 9, 9:30 and 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays-Sundays.

The LGBTQ scene

The LGBTQ scene in the city—in the words of Julian Pablo Ledezma, who calls himself "the gayest photographer in San Antonio"—is "getting there."

Ledezma ( who's also on the board of directors of the Pride Center-San Antonio ) said that the city has made some inroads in recent years, and described some of the programs he's been involved in, such as Heat Nightclub's "Drag Me to Fame!," which aims to put drag queens in the spotlight.

And San Antonio definitely has its version of Chicago's Boystown, called the North Main Strip. There, you'll find such nightspots as Luther's Cafe, Sparky's Pub and the aforementioned Heat. There's also The Bonham Exchange, a downtown hot spot.

In closing

There are many other sites in San Antonio that I, unfortunately, did not get to, including SeaWorld, Ripley's Believe It or Not ( which also has a "haunted experience" ) and others. Like I stated, there's something for everyone. San Antonio is a place that's definitely worth ( re )visiting.

Many thanks go to Visit San Antonio and Giant Noise for their help regarding this writer's excursion to San Antonio.

[Note: In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, some of the listed items may be closed or have limited hours. Be sure to contact the venue or look at VisitSanAntonio.com to get the latest information.]


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