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Dining on the Old Spanish Trail
Our critic eats a little history
In the 1920s, an ambitious multi-million-dollar highway called the Old Spanish Trail was constructed to provide the first major route between Florida and California. San Antonio served a crucial role. Not only was Fredericksburg Road the mid-point of this grand travelway, but its construction was championed locally by a torchbearer and fabulist named Harral Ayres. In Old Spanish Trail literature he often invoked mythic elements of an ennobled past. “Whenever the traveler picks up the highway or its territory the Spanish atmosphere greets him,” he waxed. “East or west, desert, mountains or gulf, the marks of the padres and conquistadores are there to make men pause and try to peer into that courageous past.” With this wistful invitation to travel, I had to throw on my pack.
Although Ayres’s writing was mainly poetic silliness, Fredericksburg Road did possess a grandeur independent of wise men on donkeys wearing pith helmets. Although the charm of Fredericksburg Road’s Art Deco district has been resurrected to a degree by the city’s rehabilitation project, the area south, between Interstate 10 and the FivePoints intersection, awaits its rebirth. What follows is a journey down this overlooked section of Fredericksburg Road to explore current points of interest, as well as an attempt to “pause and peer into that courageous past,” whatever that may entail …
Like many travels, this one began early and with a good breakfast. At 819 Fredericksburg I came across Harvest Day Bakery’s wooden sign advertising three donuts and a coffee for $1 — conquistador-era prices. Stepping inside, I found a classic Mexican panaderia full of a wide variety of sweets. The coffee and donuts were enough for me but it would have been wrong to stop there. I tried a concha and polvorone on the strong recommendation of another customer. Other delights were thrown in a bag for me. It must have weighed three pounds, yet cost less than $2. It wasn’t the best panaderia I’ve been to, but the goods were so affordable it was difficult to complain.
Next was lunch at Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant at 842 Fredericksburg. I sat down at the counter and ordered a Mexican coke, a brisket taco with guacamole and pico de gallo, a carne guisada taco, a pork-chop taco, and carne de puerco en chili verde. They were all unbelievably good. I was torn between the joy I felt for the food and regret for having toiled away so many years at mediocre Tex-Mex restaurants. The brisket taco was what really sent my head spinning. How could a taqueria serve the best barbecue in town? I later talked to the owners, the three Garcia brothers — Andrew, Julio, and John — and learned the key to their success. The family recipes have been guarded and passed down from their grandfather to their mother and now to them. No one else has cooked at Garcia’s since they opened in 1962. For high quality on a dime, I don’t think there is a better Tex-Mex joint in town.
I rolled downhill to Martinez Barbacoa and Tamales at 728 Fredericksburg. It was an early Saturday afternoon and the counter was busy with customers ordering pounds of tamales, as well as barbacoa and Big Red combinations to go. I sampled the pork tamales but was more interested in the bean and jalapeño version, which was savory and relatively light. The jalapeño was spicy but not sweat-inducing.
Though Martinez Barbacoa and Tamales is only open Friday to Sunday, owner Marco Martinez told me he works every one of his “days off” to prepare for the next weekend. I sense it is quite tiring, perhaps like working in the hull of a steamship. Customers send his tamales all across the country to such places as Colorado, California, Hawaii, Wisconsin, and even Iraq for soldiers serving in the war. I left satisfied, though I later heard the lean barbacoa is the real star of the menu.
I walked next door to a small park beside a row of Spanish Colonial Revival storefronts to “pause and peer into that courageous past.” In front of one of the storefronts at 106 Michigan I noticed a leather corset on a mannequin. Its presence was surreal. A handmade sign labeled “Fyrechylde” added to the intrigue.
I entered Fyrechylde and found a shop full of corsets — “The Underbust Cincher,” “Cinnamon Girl,” and the “Theodora.” Owner and designer Norma Hartman was very down to earth and businesslike. She explained that about 80 percent of her corset sales are to “vanillas,” a term for people not into the goth/fetish scenes. Norma also uses her considerble sewing skills to make costumes for theatrical plays and the occasional tailoring job. She mentioned doing work for a neighborhood priest, although it wasn’t for a corset. I had to ask.
I took a breath and looked across the street at a different Spanish Colonial Revival building at 731 Fredericksburg. A discreet black stencil on the wall read “Mayan Order.” I had been trying to soak up the spirit of the padres and conquistadores of old Spain, but what to make of the Mayan Order? A rejection of Spanish colonialism? Artist Rolando Briseño loosely describes it as a New Age, self-help organization that’s been in existence since the 1930s. Other people in the neighborhood believe it’s a La Raza/Mexican Mason secret brotherhood. I learned from various historians of Rose Dawn, “the star girl astrologer,” Koran, the turbaned mentalist, and their former boss, the Kansas “Ponce De Leon,” Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a surgeon infamous for transplanting goat balls into men to improve their virility. (For more on the mysterious Mayan Order and goat balls, see sidebar, page 19.)
Next to the Mayan Order is St. Ann’s Parish. Neighbor Jonathon Card informed me that St. Ann’s was once a movie palace known as the Uptown Theater, and a St. Ann’s custodian named Antonio Barron graciously gave me a tour of the former cinema. Though some wonderful ornamental touches near the stage remained, almost all other traces were removed when a basketball court was added for the parish school in 1960. Digging around the archives of the Conservation Society and the collection of Rolando Briseño and Angel Rodriguez-Diaz, I learned that when the Uptown was built in 1928, it was a lavish, “million-dollar theater” featuring a luxurious courtyard fountain in true Andalucian style.
Before it was sold to St. Ann’s, the Uptown became an arthouse theater called The Arts. In the long tradition of noble San Antonio failures, The Arts had a glorious but disastrous two-year run serving free espresso and screening the films of Jean Renoir and other European masters. Around this time the theater showed some low-brow burlesque on the side to pay the bills. Rodriguez-Diaz remembered hearing of a memorable show with the famous “Hubba Hubba Girl,” Evelyn West, “The Girl with the $50,000 Treasure Chest.” Her valuable bosom was insured for $50,000 by Lloyd’s of London, with a reasonable annual premium of $122.22.
Outside, the sun was headed toward the horizon. I trekked down the Trail toward 5 Points and came across Angie’s Patio, an inviting icehouse at 323 Fredericksburg. It looked like a good place to end my odyssey. A breeze was blowing and Angie opened the large garage door to cool the interior. I ordered a beer and enjoyed the friendly neighborhood atmosphere as the day wound down. I may not have glimpsed the glorious past of conquistadores and padres, but I think what I saw was well worth the trip. •
Jones’s Old Spanish Trail
Harvest Day Bakery
Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant
Martinez Barbacoa and Tamales
Secrets of the Mayan Order
The story of the Mayan Order is a fascinating piece of San Antonio history I learned about in Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford’s Border Radio. In the early 1930s in the Mexican border city Acuña, Dr. John Brinkley built a radio station called the “X” (AM XER) to promote his bizarre but highly profitable goat-testicle transplant surgery. The “X” blasted its renegade signal across the world at an unprecedented one million watts of power and could be heard in Russia and Sweden.
In addition to Dr. Brinkley’s goat-ball bromide, the station featured an assortment of unusual on-air talent, including a turban-sporting mentalist named Koran and his lover Rose Dawn, “the star girl astrologer.” After a metaphysical awakening during a visit to Mayan ruins, Koran returned to Del Rio to form the Mayan Order, a heavily advertised “secret” organization that promised to help people realize their true happiness through the esoteric lessons of the Mayans.
Fowler and Crawford put me in contact with historian Diego Domingo, the authority on the Mayan Order and radio mentalists. Domingo told me that in the 1930s the fortune-telling lovers brought the Mayan Order to San Antonio and established a headquarters on Fredericksburg Road, where it still operates today. Koran had made a name for himself long before this relocation with perhaps his easiest fortune-telling act — he predicted Herbert Hoover’s presidential win. He was awarded a photo opportunity with Hoover on the White House lawn but had to take the turban off — though he later had it painted back on for promotional materials.
Koran often employed unusual and pioneering marketing schemes to promote his performances. He once drove blindfolded around downtown San Antonio to various stores to attract attention for a performance at the Majestic Theater later that evening.
Rose Dawn and Koran built a reputation on astrology, fortune-telling, and mysticism, but they seemed to have lived a normal, perhaps secret, other life as Isabelle and William Taylor, respectable members of San Antonio society. For leaders of astrology and mysticism, they maintained a rather close relationship to formal religion; they were members of the Travis Park Methodist Church — which didn’t return my call to verify that Taylor Hall was indeed named after William Taylor.
I’m not sure if Koran and Rose Dawn’s association with Christianity validates astrology or casts organized religion in another light. I visited their graves at Mission Burial Park and paid my belated respects. Rest in peace. I almost never knew you.