Pearl of the Lone Star State 0
Mission San Jose is one of five in San Antonio,Texas, four of which are active parishes. The fifth is the Alamo. (Wayne Newton/QMI Agency)
They like a lot of things in San Antonio. Pabst isn't one of them.
Many haven't forgiven the Illinois-based beer company for buying and closing San Antonio's famous Pearl Brewery, a local landmark and major employer since 1883. Sure, Texans can still buy Pearl beer, but it's brewed five hours north in rival Fort Worth and no longer the beer that made San Antonio famous.
But time heals all and 10 years after Pearl filled its last bottle, San Antonio is once again boasting about the Pearl Brewery complex -- reinvented as a dining, shopping and learning hotspot inspired in part by Toronto's Distillery District, Pearl's CEO Elizabeth Fauerso said.
Located along the new extension of San Antonio's famous River Walk, the Pearl District remains a work in progress, but so far includes several gem attractions particularly for serious foodies or those, like me, who just enjoy eating interesting food.
Eating well, and sometimes eating strange food such as rabbit-and-rattlesnake sausage or kangaroo sliders with foie gras, is par for the course while in Texas.
But nothing tasted as good as food I helped prepare myself along with classmates covering a spectrum of skills during a Brazilian cooking class led by chef Elizabeth Johnson-Kossick at the highly respected Culinary Institute of America. It's one of the cornerstone attractions in the Pearl District, catering to serious students and casual cooks.
Johnson-Kossick is high on South American cuisine and a little critical of many Tex-Mex offerings. Her trips to South America have yielded incredible recipes, including a Brazilian tapioca-cheese bread that is out of this world. For my part, my kitchen partner and I prepared Bahian fish stew in a pumpkin under Johnson-Kossick's watchful eye. Similar cooking experiences can be booked by visitors.
Visiting the Pearl District doesn't always mean cooking for yourself. One of the city's leading Mexican restaurants, La Gloria by chef Johnny Hernandez, with its signature tequila drink La Morenita, has a prominent spot in another of the former brewery buildings.
The most impressive restored building is the former stable. One home to teams of heavy horses used to haul Pearl beer, it's now an impressive performance hall and meeting space with whimsical touches such as light fixtures made from old bottles.
The best way to travel between downtown San Antonio and the Pearl District is by barge, captained by entertaining guides who'll provide much history about the Venice-like canal system that defines San Antonio, along with the various art installations along the route, ranging from fish hanging underneath a bridge, to a tile map showing the extensive highway system in and around the city.
The River Walk, which lines a route that's part river, part flood diversion channel, wends through the downtown a storey below street level. Shops, theatres, restaurant patios, bars and hotels line the banks, making it an active place for young people and place of choice for couples enjoying romantic strolls.
The River Walk also takes visitors close to San Antonio's main attraction, the Alamo, which has been an official state memorial property since 1905 operated by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. The Alamo is a must-see icon for fans of America like me, but not at all what first-time visitors likely imagine.
It is in the middle of a busy modern city and never was a fort located in the middle of nowhere as Hollywood might have us believe. And while the mission building itself is preserved and undergoing a long-term, meticulous restoration, most of the larger Alamo fort complex is now only marked by plaques on nearby sidewalks.
Inside are flags representing the countries of origin of the adventure seekers who were at the Alamo -- Denmark, Wales and Germany among them. In the Alamo museum, where the story of the mission-turned-fort is told, visitors discover artifacts ranging from Davy Crockett's vest to a period sword owned by singer Phil Collins, a major Alamo collector whose destiny was sealed when he sang The Legend of Davy Crockett in a singing contest at age 5. At least that's a story author and Alamo curator Bruce Winders told our tour group.
The River Walk can also help get you to one San Antonio's many other claims to fame -- the series of four historic Spanish missions -- although the stroll will take 90 minutes and transit or driving might be more efficient options if time is short.
The main mission to visit is San Jose, which is largely restored and continues to have an active, jaw-dropping, Roman Catholic church where tourists are welcome. Dating from the 1700s, the church was first restored in 1930s and more work is currently ongoing. The bastion, built to give protection against Indian attacks, still stands and encloses a courtyard originally used as a marketplace and skills-training area where Natives were once schooled in European trades.
IF YOU GO TO SAN ANTONIO
American Airlines offers frequent direct flights to Dallas-Forth Worth from Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver with connecting flights on American Eagle to San Antonio. Go to aa.com.
One works up an appetite in a fabulous walking city such as San Antonio. Here's three places that got my mouth watering:
-- Mi Tierra Restaurant and Bakery, 218, Produce Row. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Tex-Mex eatery has closed only three times since 1941: When John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, and for two family funerals. Former president Bill Clinton has eaten here. A 30-metre-long mural in one of the dining rooms tells the story of the Cortez family's ownership spanning three generations.
-- La Gloria by Chef Johnny Hernandez, Pearl District. Inspired by street vendors from around Mexico, this is authentic Mexican food by San Antonio's celebrity chef.
-- Luke, 125 East Houston St. on the River Walk. This is what happens when a celebrity chef from Louisiana opens a German-French restaurant in Texas. Best not to leave San Antonio without a steak dinner from chef John Besh's kitchen. Or wild boar. Or seafood.