Best of San Antonio
Best of Places 2007
Think about direction ... I live near Fort Sam Houston, and I’ve only been as far north as the Quarry, northeast to the Austin Highway Wal-Mart, and south, through downtown, past the Alamo, to Blue Star.
Wonder why you haven’t before ... You know what? I can’t stand that song. R.E.M.’s too damn idealistic sometimes. Do you have any idea how often I’ve been stuck in the rain on that Korean moped? Try every day this winter. Point is, I moved here six months ago and haven’t been able to explore beyond a few square miles of downtown.
Now that spring’s here, I can putter farther out into San Antonio, and readers, with this Best Of issue, you’ve provided me with a long list of destinations: Fast Eddie’s Pool Hall, Rebar, and Bob’s Comics, just to start. Now I can roam where I want to, all around this SA world.
Great. If there’s anything more irritating than R.E.M., it’s the B-52s, ¿qué no?
— Dave Maass
Hop the train to Brackenridge Park — a treat for kids; a respite for parents.
Show me an adult who actually enjoys children’s birthday parties and I’ll show you an adult with a secret stash of Xanax. Which is why it’s especially puzzling when the (usually) mom organizers go out of their way to complicate matters: hotdogs at the house, then off to the Jymboree for running, cake, and ice-screaming, then back to the house for presents and relatives! Least-favorite location: those claustrophobic, AC-free “party rooms” they cram 30 people into at the various family-entertainment emporiums — which nonetheless seem like a respite from the bedlam outside, where 20 other birthday parties are working off their sugar highs.
Solution: Go old-school at a city park, where you can barbecue, hang a piñata from the nearest tree, and let the kids go gagoozy in a wide expanse of green grass and blue sky. If your guest list is afflicted with ADHD, Brackenridge Park is an especially good choice, allowing you to build an agenda that approximates Kid XTC: Fly kites, ride the Brackenridge Eagle choo-choo, throw rocks in the river (but not at the geese!), go to the award-winning San Antonio Zoo, play kickball at the softball diamond, go home. Bonus: Your tax dollars already paid the rent.
— Elaine Wolff
Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia touts its $7.95 menudo as your liver’s friend, right on the menu.
“Hot, comforting, homemade Beef Tripe Stew [traditionally, a hangover cure ... ]” it says. Sometimes a 24-hour operation like Mi Tierra has to spell it out to the post-binge clientele. I’m not big on organ meats, and that includes offal taken from any of the cow’s four stomachs. (Tripe got into my mouth via a spoon just once: there it squiggled until all the flavoring and juice had been drained from both the chow and my chops.) So I’ll have to admit that I go to Mi Tierra for the mariachis and tequila, all the ingredients you need to increase blood-alcohol content; I haven’t tried their morning-after medicine. But I’ve read that theirs and Los Apaches Café on Commerce will set you right.
Personally, I rely on the homemade “encholado,” as my friend Alex from Bolivia calls it: Beer mixed with coke.
(The only definition I’ve been able to find for encholado is “choloized,” in an essay about the marginalized Bolivian Indian. What that has to do with undoing the wrath of grapes, whiskey, and beer is beyond me.)
Parents losing disciplinary battles with litters of howling children; newly introduced dogs, yapping and snarling and tangling their leashes; the honks and squeals of Broadway traffic, and worse, the beep-beep/alarm-armed of the recently parked; the grating bells of the mini-railroad crossing; the Landcruisers bass-woofering gangsta rap and the portable boomboxes blaring trebly Spanish radio: By no stretch of the imagination could Brackenridge be described as quiet.
However, if you stray off the paths, wander through the pseudo-woods, you may find a patch of peacefulness, particulary on sunny days after a rain. The tinkling flush of the San Antonio River, the turtle belly-flops, the glee of the geese and ducks will drown all the human din. I won’t divulge the specific location of my Brackenridge serene spot because that would undermine the point. It’s my serene spot, and there are plenty of serene spots to go around.
The muffled roar of the city is a small price to pay for convenience. And I measure convenience by the distance between serenity and the nearest Taco Cabana. According to Google Maps: 289 feet between the Broadway restaurant and Lions Field.
Oh yes, placid Brackenridge. You’re riddled with secret alcoves, where a tired soul can ponder philosophical dualities, absorb the magnificence of nature, and nap after a shrimp quesadilla.
— Dave Maass
This review, much like Broadway News, the magazine shop it details, is only half appropriate for the young, the prude, and the easily offended.
Writers pay close attention to magazine selections, whether it’s the pathetic rack at the Valero or the rows of wasted rainforest at Borders. If you see a person loitering at the stand, notepad in hand, copying mastheads, know that you’re witnessing a freelancer performing the equivalent of skimming the classifieds. If you see the same sort of individual smile and grab 30 of the same magazine issue off the shelf, know that he’s just found his byline.
In my case, when I found a copy of Diplo magazine, a hard-to-find foreign-affairs magazine published in Britain that once commissioned a piece from me on Liberian refugees, sitting top-tier at Broadway News, I fell in love. They care.
Warning: Adult Content
Then, I fell in lust. Flash an ID card, prove your age, and you gain entrance to a moderate yet diverse pornography selection: videos, magazines, but best of all the bundled-together value packs covering everything from black booty to barely legal to Bulgarian amateurs. The clerks won’t blush or judge, not even when you, as a precaution against running into a colleague on the way out, slap a back issue of the now defunct (but still available at Broadway News) Global Journalist on top of Graham Crackers (the content of which I’ll leave to your imagination).
— Dave Maass
Motorcycle Shop owner Jason Trott
The word on the street, assuming you can hear it over the chugging of endangered two-stroke engines, is that the new Vespa dealership off Broadway is fantastic. That said, they’re too new to make this year’s Best Of; one must be mindful to discern between what’s good because it’s new and what’s actually of time-tested superior quality. That’s why I’m picking the Motorcycle Shop off Austin Highway, which specializes in used scooters, custom jobs (see the rocket out front of Blue Star Brewery), and Kymco and Genuine Scooter Company brands.
Full disclosure: the Shop’s Jason Trott sold me my powder-blue Kymco People 50 — not that I need to point it out, I’m as inconspicuous on the streets of San Antonio as a juggler in drag at a Lutheran nursing home. I may have paid more than I oughta, but as far as I’m concerned it was two grand well spent. The reasons — patience and personal attention: But most of all because, the Kymmie being my first two-wheeler, Jason took me out to the Rialto parking lot for a [how-not-to] crash course before handing over the keys.
An enthusiast community, whether it’s Magic: The Gathering or obscure Kung Fu weaponry, usually revolves around the retailer. For scooterers in San Antonio, that’s the Motorcycle Shop, a must-stop on the annual Third Coast Scooter Rally schedule, and also sponsor and organizer of its own “Spring Fling Scooter Ride.” (The 6th Annual was a week and a half ago.)
— Dave Maass
It looks a bit like a giant mushroom garden from afar, but up close it is revealed to be three faux-bois trees topped with a Swiss Family Robinson-worthy thatched roof that shades the trunk-encircling benches below. The station is planted on a concrete island next to the intersection, and enjoys increased height from its plateaued base of “roots” and “rock” — wonderful during a Texas flood; no deep-and-wide puddles in which to accidentally slosh.
This treasure of a bus stop is not only pleasing for its beauty, but its proximity to two of my favorite indulgences — Mons Thai Bistro (for curry) and Central Market (for cheaper Pacifica candles). It’s a nice place to sit and eat a piece of fruit, or sip an extra-early-morning cup of coffee, whether you plan to catch the bus or not.
Even if public trans isn’t a part of your everyday life, you can certainly appreciate this special piece of public art (and that the crosswalk where our chosen bus stop sits takes for-ev-er. We need a gorgeous place to pass the time).
— Ashley Lindstrom
By the time this runs, the Texas Legislature may have voted on a statewide smoking ban. The air in the newsroom has been thick with tension; I, the sole smoker, against the healthy-lung fascists. But even as a smoker, I would support some form of limitation on public smoking, as long as the legislation allows for certain exceptions to the rule. In other words, I have no problem with curbing chain-smoking in bars, as long as we cut businesses catering to aficionados some slack.
For example, Club Humidor, the tobacconist of choice for us last torch-carriers at the Current. The club’s humidor area, housing hundreds of cigars of varying brands and sizes, is a magical place and the clincher against the tobacco opponent’s argument that smoke stinks. Club Humidor smells sweeter than a florist, and the consultants are twice as lovely. The shop is like a jewelry store for men: engraved flasks, golden cigarette lighters, carved ashtrays, futuristic cigar cutters, and an assortment of non-tobacco lifestyle enhancements such as imported chess sets, and precious business-card holders.
The real charm is that Club Humidor, cornered at the Quarry, offers a guilt-free smoking lounge with complimentary coffee, flat-panel cable television, and chess sets, perfect for patrons whiling away the time before their film starts at Regal Alamo 14. The club’s also ideal for a post-P.F. Chang’s breather. Ban smoking, and the only other option will be the student-and-screaming-kid-infested Starbucks across the lot.
— Dave Maass
I live downtown, sure, and I’m a fan of the sidewalks and public spaces forsaken by so many Loopland developments, so I’m relentlessly biased. But when I was trying to calculate the single-best argument to justify my prejudice, I ran into this logjam:
1. The River Walk North extension, breaking ground this year, and promising more foliage-buffered walkways along our placid river and more quiet spots — like the faux-bois courtship bench just off of Augusta — to rest your pooch.
2. The Museo Alameda, a Smithsonian-affiliated cultural-arts center dedicated to the Latino-American experience, which opened in Market Square this month.
3. Sandbar, Le Rêve chef Andrew Weissman’s Asian-accented, New-York-style seafood café, serving the the freshest fish in Central Texas, save for the Gulf Coast.
4. Tito’s Southtown taqueria. The service might move at a glacial pace, but it’s exactly the right distance from downtown to walk off the Chella’s Special.
How to choose? But then I remembered a Slate story from a while back that said the reason digital pets are popular, even though they do not keep your feet warm at night, is because people need to feel needed. So here’s my advice for improving self-esteem, lowering stress, and tightening your gluteal muscles without a gym membership: Ditch that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses subdivision or the historical neighborhood with the shrubbery Nazi and move to a ’hood that needs you to work to preserve the character of the River Walk from encroaching chain restaurants and bars; that appreciates your business at its fledgling indie groceries, such as Main Plaza Market and the forthcoming Hippo’s; that wants you to walk around in broad daylight so that the tourists remember we’re a real city and not just a leftover soundstage from John Wayne’s heyday. When they ask where the Rainforest Café is, you can say, “I’m not sure … but have you tried Schilo’s Delicatessen? They have the most delicious homemade root beer!”
— Elaine Wolff
Complain about this selection if you want, readers (why not a local boutique, like Galeana? Or Kathleen Sommers? Or LeeLee Loves Shoes?!), but you essentially voted for Francesca’s every time you enviously fingered the collar of my Ellsworth Kelly-esque op-art T-shirt dress, overlooked my brand-new Ferragamos to exclaim about the gloriously kitschy plastic cornucopia necklace, or stared for an uncomfortably long spell at the flocked filigree on my turquoise velvet riding jacket — each and every one purchased for what amounts to a song in the high-fashion world, yet not quite as flimsy-feeling as the “wool” on those H&M A-line skirts. The Quarry boutique is stuffed with a well-edited set of trendy seasonal sportswear, a handful of unusual dressy dresses, jeans of the moment, a treasure chest of fool’s gold and other costume jewelry, and handbags for every occasion. Think Nanette Lepore on a SuperTarget budget. Shop discerningly, and you’ll never have to defend your receipt.
— Elaine Wolff
The term “body sculpting” is thrown about in fitness circles these days like javelins at a track & field meet, but based on observation and rave reviews, one local personal trainer lives up to the action verb.
Triathlete Greg Bell has been steadily ratcheting up SA’s workouts since the ’80s, first as a Gym Coordinator at the Y while the fitness craze was still nascent, and later as the city’s first Boot Camp drill sergeant at the Colonnade. These days he operates a private home studio, where some of the city’s most famous faces tuck their tummies the natural way with a tailored combo of pilates, bikes, treadmills, and Bell’s latest innovation — the basa, a training tool for swimmers, which he’s adapted to replace bulk-building traditional weights, resulting in lean, firm physiques with good posture. One of his customers, a well-known restaurateur, “at age 55 has the body of a 28-year-old” says Bell, a claim seconded by every client of my acquaintance, from handsome velvet gentlemen to society matrons to near-immortal party girls.
— Elaine Wolff
When I first moved to San Antonio from Seattle six months ago to take this job at the Current, I was homeless. For a full week I stayed in the damp, dank, and pitch-black dungeon of the Bullis House, a colonial home built at the turn of the century for Brigadier General John Lapham Bullis, aka “The Thunderbolt of the Texas Frontier.” The basement is actually the San Antonio International Hostel male dorm, a steal at $25 per night, considering it’s one of the few youth hostels in the region.
A steal yes, but also extremely motivating for finding permanent accommodations. The windowless dorm smells wet, like Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The compact bathroom would’ve fit nicely in an aircraft. And the drifters who crash the night always seem capable of starring in a variety of horror-film sequels. They’re usually harmless, except they may steal your soap.
Each night, however, I dreamed of moving into a full suite in the main Bullis House, which runs between $65 and $95 per night. Full-service kitchen, free cable and local calls, air conditioning and fireplaces: it doesn’t sound so luxurious, but to me it was a chandeliered heaven.
— Dave Maass
Liberty Bar: Home away from home for discriminating barflies and epicureans alike.
This category was supposed to be Best Place for Redevelopment, or something like that, but it just doesn’t seem right to have a Best of San Antonio issue that doesn’t mention one of the all-around finest features of the city. Liberty Bar, the 22-year-old eating and drinking establishment founded by Dwight Hobart and the late Drew Allen, is our Balthazar: so full of authentic and manufactured history and good liquor that locals bring their out-of-town visitors to show them “the real San Antonio,” yet so efficient at turning out eclectic dishes such as Chicken Breast in Hoja Santa and the city’s best Chile en Nogada, that the natives will never cede it entirely to tourists. First-time visitors are duty-bound to exclaim over the kaddywampus century-old building — a survivor of the 1921 flood and decades of hard use as a dry-goods store and saloon — but the personality-rich service and house-made pastries (creamy coconut custard, e.g.) leave an equally indelible impression.
— Elaine Wolff