I remember my first encounter with flamenco. It was at Carmens de la Calle Café and the year was 2006. At the time, it was one of the few places you could catch a flamenco show on a regular basis. As I entered the intimate café, the night’s musical performance was just getting started. A single dancer and guitarist sat in the center of the room ready to perform for the tightly packed audience. The performance that followed would mark the beginning of my love for live flamenco performances.
Over the years, I was able to witness not only flamenco, but also many of the local and touring jazz acts that have performed at Carmens. In December of 2013 however, the music at Carmens was temporarily silenced as chef and owner Paula Sullivan closed the café and began searching for a new location.
The café’s former location is at 720 Mistletoe, where it was located for almost 13 years, is now the new home of the Cookhouse, a popular New Orleans-style eatery.
This Thursday, Carmens de la Calle will reopen its doors at a new downtown location. It was local entrepreneur Rene Guerrero who first recommended the spot thinking it would make a good location for Carmens, Sullivan said.
“He was correct,” she said. “Our new location at 320 N. Flores St. in the Alpha Center (formerly known as the Alpha Hotel) will be a great location to not only continue our live music experience in the evening, but to build and expand other aspects of the brand which we were not able to take advantage of in our former location.
“I am originally from Chicago and have always appreciated what a vibrant downtown has to offer locals and visitors,” Sullivan said, noting the current state of growth and revitalization in downtown San Antonio. The new Carmens will be just a short walk away from other cultural institutions and attractions including Artpace, the Southwest School of Art, Geekdom, and the San Antonio River Walk.
“We are also conveniently located next to the Little Patch Garden,” Sullivan said. “As we get settled in, we would love to help with its continued cultivation and garner more community participation in its success as a green space among the tall buildings.”
After a yearlong absence from the scene, Sullivan says she plans to pick up where the old Carmens left off and will feature a variety of live jazz, flamenco, and world music performances Thursday through Saturday evenings. She credited established and up-and-coming acts, along with her relationship with Trinity University’s jazz station, KRTU 91.7 FM, for helping to "jumpstart" Carmens de la Calle in the early years and securing its place in the local music scene.
“When we opened the doors at our Mistletoe location, we were fortunate to have a prominent jazz artist, Gerry Gibbs, as our jazz aficionado and his quartet as our house Thursday night jazz ensemble," she said. "His deep connections within (the) NYC and LA jazz scene allowed us to bring in national acts and made Carmen’s de la Calle a place to hang for both national and international touring musicians.”
Today, Carmens can boast an impressive list of internationally recognized jazz artists including Wynton Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane, and Tom Harrell, among the many whom the café has hosted.
Along with great musical performances, however, Carmens has another thing to its advantage – great food.
The new Carmens location will continue to serve up items from its globally-inspired tapas menu. Among the most popular items on its tapas menu are the savory empanadas, with chicken chipotle, beef picadillo, and spinach, potato, and feta varieties.
“We use empanadas as a vehicle to introduce global flavors," Sullivan said. "We plan to start deliveries in the downtown area in February."
As anyone who has ever visited the café will tell you, Carmens de la Calle is known for “global flavors."
“The name is plural, not possessive,” Sullivan said. “It references the three Carmens and their personalities, which inspire our menu: the fiery Spanish gypsy of Bizet’s opera, Carmen Miranda; the lively, fun-loving South American actress of the '40s; and Carmen Jones, the '50s film musical adaptation of Bizet’s opera, in which Dorothy Dandridge plays the feisty African-American factory worker.”
As for the new look of Carmens, Sullivan said it will retain the same intimate atmosphere of its original location.
“Some very talented and artistic contractors and I have worked hard with my interior design of the new space," she said. "It doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the former location, but it has to have that Carmens de la Calle feel: welcoming, cozy, accessible and fun.”
With just days until its opening, Sullivan has been hard at work putting the finishing touches on the new venue in time to welcome back its musical acts and loyal patrons.
In an email message, Joan Carroll, a jazz vocalist and host of the Jazz Voice on KRTU, told me she was excited about the re-opening of Carmens. Since the original Carmens closed last year, the King William Jazz Collective, with whom Carroll performs regularly, has been playing at Luna once a month. During its gig there last month, the group announced it would be returning “home” to Carmens in December.
“Carmens is more than a place,” Carroll said. “It’s a community. How do you do that? Paula Sullivan had a vision when she created Carmens. She’s a generous person, a fabulous chef, and a good businesswoman. It worked, and Carmens has been a very special place for a lot of people for a long time.”
*Featured/top image: Paula Sullivan prepares a cup of Coffee at Carmens de la Calle. Photo by Matt Bynum.