An Evolving Ecosystem: The Gastronomic Landscape of Downtown San Antonio
By Miriam Sitz
Miriam Sitz by day works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. But in her heart, Miriam is a dedicated foodie. This is her first post for The Rivard Report. We hope it proves to be the first of many. Meanwhile, as you consider her many savory options for your next downtown dining experience, consider a First Friday foray that includes a reservation at the locale of your choice. Enjoy the recent TRR post on the Southtown monthly ritual. –Robert Rivard
In the center of this city, the structure of our food web is evolving. The landscape long dominated by exquisite Tex-Mex has subtly changed, infiltrated here and there by “New American” menus, locally sourced ingredients, and innovative chefs and restaurateurs with penchants for unusual cuts of meat, Twitter, or uncommon but respectable principles. Pop-up dinners, food trucks, and farmers’ markets all announce the dawn of a new age for food in our city.
Trinity University initially brought me to San Antonio and I’ll admit that back in those days, my priorities in choosing a restaurant oscillated between cheap, convenient, and cheesy. Fast forward a few years and now, living and working in the Southtown area, the game has changed. While I still appreciate the gratifying tradition of a Panchito’s margarita, I’m more inclined to head to The Friendly Spot for happy hour. I suspect that for the San Antonio young professional, food values shift as disposable income grows and student loans shrink. Convenience still ranks high, but healthy, organic, and creative increasingly oust cheap and cheesy from the posts they once held.
A recent visit from out-of-town parents forced me to stop and consider how many and which of my favorite eats I could feasibly pack into a 48-hour period. It was no easy task. A Saturday morning breakfast taco at Taco Haven gives the necessary nod to the city’s Tex-Mex heritage, but then how can one be expected to choose between The Monterey and Tre Trattoria downtown for Sunday brunch? It’s micheladas versus mimosas, so really, win-win. Then for dinner, regardless of where you fall on the casual-formal spectrum, you’re easily deciding between five or six restaurants each night. Do you highlight the dog- and kid-friendly organic food of The Cove or the Don-Draper-meets-Clint-Eastwood swank of The Esquire Tavern? Where will your overwhelming coolness be most apparent, Feast or Bliss? Will you acquiesce with requests for more Mexican food by visiting Ocho, Cascabel, or Azuca? After Zinc or Soho, should you try out the new Alamo Street Eat Bar? And will the loveliness of the concept behind Restaurant Gwendolyn or the freshness of Sandbar be appreciated?
I believe that with all these establishments and others I love in mind, there is a place downtown for almost every craving, occasion, price point, and hour. Identify your priority and I’ll bet you my B-cycle there’s a restaurant in Downtown, Southtown or Midtown to match it.
Gwendolyn: The Art and Food of Michael Sohocki
If you look closely, an emerging and, to me, very exciting trend has made its way into our city’s gastronomic ecosystem. A handful of San Antonio kitchens are beginning to demonstrate varying degrees of commitment to local, organic, and sustainable food. Perhaps the most notable example of this is Restaurant Gwendolyn. Named for his salt of the earth, Oklahoma farm-living grandmother who was “the last of an era shaped by limitations,” Chef Michael Sohocki explains that “the goal is to completely close the loop of a fine dining experience with 100% strictly local ingredients. Everything perishable … plays a part in local businesses [and] local horticulture. [All components come] from farms that I can name. They are raised by people who I know. To stay within this sustainable system that feeds our people and that keeps our people in business was the goal. To produce an entire dining experience that starts and ends with that.”
Seated beneath a charcoal portrait of the restaurant’s namesake, I had the great pleasure of savoring Gwendolyn’s beautiful and socio-agriculturally responsible fare. Beginning with the amuse bouche, a dollop of house-made ricotta with strawberry slivers and a drizzle of a honey and balsamic vinegar reduction, and continuing through the three courses of the meal, the unique flavors of the separate ingredients harmoniously mingled in what I can only describe as a gastronomic symphony. Each plate was elegant yet simple, managing to not overwhelm the individual tastes of its high quality components. All perishables involved were grown and raised within a 150-mile radius of San Antonio, from the venison belly medallions with the sweetest carrots I have ever tasted to the orange panna cotta with champagne gelée. Even the coffee was a treat, brewed with an electricity-free German siphon coffee maker in adherence to the pre-Industrial Revolution concept. Sohocki, who served as executive chef at The Cove and has previously lived and worked in Osaka, San Francisco, and New York, offered his views on the restaurant and concept, as well as on the San Antonio food scene, after the meal.
When asked how the San Antonio food and restaurant scene compares to that of other places, Sohocki explained that society raced to live the cheapest life imaginable how after World War II, embracing industrialization and “the celebration of cornucopia; that industry is able to provide you apples in June, and industry is able to provide you salmon in New Mexico, and industry is able to provide you gasoline right smack in the middle of a landlocked state that has no oil in it anywhere.” San Antonio, he argued, is largely still in that race, noting that residents of San Antonio spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than do residents of most any other place on the planet. That sort of thinking, he proposed, inherently places healthful, sustainable, and high quality food as a lower priority. However, Sohocki went on to assure that there is hope for us yet: “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have opened [Restaurant Gwendolyn]. Whole Foods survives, Central Market survives, and it was on that bet that I opened this place.” Fortunately for the chef, “There are enough people who feel the way I do, who are looking for something more meaningful, that I can keep this place open. So far.”
Sohocki belongs to the recently formed SA Chef Coalition and points to several industry peers who share a commitment to the local and the sustainable. “I know that the guys at the Monterey [are on the same page]; I see them at the market myself. And I see Steve McHugh from Lüke at the market myself. John Brand from Las Canarias I see every single week. So those people, when they say they support local agriculture, they support their community, I believe them.” Not surprisingly, however, varying shades of “greenwashing” exist in the Alamo City food community. Greenwashing, Sohocki explained, is “a new term for people who buy just one case of something that is organic or one case of something that is local … [and serve it] as one component of a single dish.”
San Antonio is fortunate to have such inventive restaurants and risk-taking chefs as those who comprise the SA Chef Coalition. They are the establishments and individuals who, with the support diners like us, are making our city to stand out as a worthwhile place to live, work, and eat. As Sohocki concluded: “I also think that cultivating interest in people who do nice stuff, people who go out of their way to produce something that is unique, something that is noteworthy, is a good effort … I am behind all of that, because those are the people who are stretching our horizons. There’s got to be somebody to stick their neck out first, and we’re doing that.”
Miriam Sitz works for Accion Texas Inc., the nation’s largest non-profit microlender. A graduate of Trinity University, she blogs on Miriam210.com and sells handmade goods on TinderboxGoods.com. Follow her on Twitter at @miriamsitz. [Click here for more stories from Miriam Sitz on the Rivard Report.]