Jennifer Norris for the Rivard Report
Editor’s note: Even the most devoted Thanksgiving turkey enthusiast eventually needs a change of protein. To that end, Rivard Report staff roamed the city to find hidden gems, longtime local favorites, and other independent eateries that serve slices of San Antonio’s manifold cultures. For more stories in our Escape the Turkey series, click here.
If you didn’t know to look for the place with the sunflower mural on its wall, you might pass right by the Sweet Yams restaurant on Cherry Street in a tiny, bright-yellow building on San Antonio’s East Side.
Inside the building, delicious smells and a friendly atmosphere filled the small space on a recent Tuesday afternoon, as owners Shannon and Gus Bard greeted regular customers by name and served plates piled high with vegetables and lean meats.
Signs in the front advertise the restaurant’s organic, gluten-free, vegetarian and even vegan options, but that doesn’t mean a meat-loving customer can’t find something on the menu.
“I don’t consider us the health food, but the transitional diet,” said Gus, the chef and culinary artist behind the restaurant’s unique flavors. “You can get your delicious food, get your delicious meat, but it’s not the heavy stuff. The chicken is clean. There’s no pork or any red meat on the menu.”
Both the Bards are vegetarians themselves and firmly believe it’s the healthiest option for a diet, but they are on a mission to help people eat better and recognize it might take some incremental adjustments.
“Really our mission is to bring healthy, delicious food and not compromise on taste or anything, and just make it affordable and accessible for everyone,” Shannon said.
The couple, who met while working at another restaurant, opened the storefront operation of Sweet Yams in 2012, but their online food ordering and delivery service had been around since 2011. They chose the name based on the fact that yams, which are closely related to sweet potatoes, are one of the most nutritious vegetables, Shannon said.
The restaurant’s location on the East Side was ideal, Shannon said, because it’s a food desert. But she and Gus consider the whole city of San Antonio to be basically a food desert because of the lack of healthy restaurant options.
“In the whole city, I know of maybe five healthy restaurant options,” Gus said. “And that’s out of [thousands of] restaurants.”
Gus said he became passionate about healthy eating around 20 years ago when both his mom and sister died of cancer within a year of each other.
“Cancer was kind of made to us to seem like this mystery disease that appears, and it’s just going to take your life, and there was no way to win, and that just didn’t make sense to me,” Gus said. “That’s when I started doing research and found that nutrients can solve about 95 percent of the things we deal with.”
Gus believes the barbecue culture in Texas, as he refers to it, makes it hard for Texans to break with meat, and has slowed down the progress he and others have made toward getting people to make healthy food choices.
“You can become vegetarian; it’s just all about flavoring,” he said. “It’s not that people don’t want to eat vegetables, they just can’t figure out how to make vegetables taste good.”
But Gus has figured it out, Shannon said, after about 10 years of working on perfecting his special spice blends and sauces. The two main seasonings his food is famous for are the blackened seasoning and one that she and Gus jokingly refer to as the Jesus seasoning.
“Jesus is the main seasoning, but we call it Jesus because it’s the perfect spice,” she said. “You can use it on anything and it’s going to taste delicious. You put it on salmon and it’s going to taste different than if you were to put it on chicken or vegetables. It just pairs well.”
There’s no doubt that their loyal customer base agrees that Gus has found the right mix of delicious and healthy.
Marcia James was at the restaurant on Tuesday to pick up one of her favorite meals, the Lemon Chicken, for lunch but had also ordered enough for her and her husband to have dinner that night and some more for the next day. She had even ordered cupcakes for co-workers who are crazy about Sweet Yams’ desserts.
“Oh my God, I have her on speed dial,” James said, referring to ordering takeout from Shannon. “I’ve gotten other people hooked on this place now, too.”
James said she is a believer in the power of organic and healthy food to heal. She said she was very sick with an autoimmune disease about 10 years ago when she decided to try a gluten-free and organic food diet, and the change in her wellness has been dramatic.
“My antibodies that were attacking my thyroid are down, so I know that it has to do with what we’re putting in our mouths,” she said.
The Bards have worked hard to improve the building by adding a dining area next to the kitchen and an outdoor eating area in the back. The garden area they created from two parking spaces will be the spot for the restaurant’s new vegan evening dining hours, called Solstice, beginning in 2020.
The restaurant is technically an open-air restaurant right now as most of the walls are just made of screens, but that’s another thing that’s about to change in the coming year with a remodeling of the dining area already underway to add real walls and air conditioning for those hot San Antonio summers.
Shannon estimated they are able to source about 30 to 40 percent of their food locally, and some of it comes from their own gardens. The new patio area they created houses lemon, avocado, and mandarin orange trees, as well as spices, such as basil and dill plants. Around the parking lot, Gus has built boxes for growing vegetables and plans to add more next year.
But ultimately Sweet Yams is about the food and not the interior, Shannon said.
“A lot of people would say this is like a diamond-in-the-rough or a hole-in-the-wall kind of thing,” she said. “We don’t care about décor. You go to the restaurant because it’s good food, so that’s really our focus.”
As for those families who love the idea but think they could never afford to be vegetarian, Gus recommends going back to what he calls the real, economic originals of beans, rice, and potatoes.
“People always say, ‘Oh, it’s so expensive to eat organic or vegetarian,’” he said. “Meat is expensive. You take the meat off your shopping list, [and] you’ve got a lot of leftover space to play with.”
But in the end, Gus doesn’t believe that anyone really needs the meat they think they crave.
“We don’t tend to want meat, we want the bite,” he said. “Meat makes you feel heavy, tired, you’ve got to sit down. You’ve usually got some cramps going on. What we’re looking for is more of a bite, and you can get the same thing from a portobello mushroom.”
For San Antonians who want to take a break from the meat this Thanksgiving, Sweet Yams will be open on Friday and Saturday of Thanksgiving week.