*As a reminder, I was invited on an all expenses paid trip to San Antonio, Texas to attend the city’s 14th annual food festival, Culinaria.
On Friday, our group got the chance to explore the Culinary Institute of America’s newest campus, located at the old Pearl Brewery site, San Antonio’s newest community along the river.
First order of culinary business: breakfast provided by the CIA Bakery Café. The scones—particularly the cranberry orange—were fantastic.
Next, we took in a lecture from one of CIA San Antonio’s chef-instructors, Brian West, who had just the kind of personality that I’d want in a teacher—very knowledgeable while also proving funny and approachable.
The CIA’s Food Enthusiast Courses range from food demonstrations and tastings to full on Boot Camp Cooking Vacations for the everyday cook. Culinary classes are offered for all ability levels—from those who aim to pursue a career in culinary arts to those who simply want to bump up their cooking skills from basic to more advanced. I love that aspect, because often I find myself wanting to enroll in cooking classes—to learn something new and to experiment with new techniques—but I shy away from ones that lead to something grander professionally.
We were then put through our own mini boot camp and prepared our own Latin lunch. We made three kinds of roasted salsas, agua fresca, guacamole, rice, beans, and more. My team was tasked with making beer-battered baja-style mahi mahi tacos.
After lunch, we observed a ceviche cooking demo by chef-instructor Elizabeth Johnson.
Our last cooking demo of the day was by self-taught culinary expert and food historian, Melissa Guerra, who specializes in the food of Texas, Mexico, and Latin America. Melissa shared with us her signature Tex Mex enchiladas. Watching her easy confidence mixed with a sort of irreverent humor actually reminded me a bit of Julia Child.
I left the CIA very, very impressed with the Latin Cuisines Program they offer. By the end of the day, it was abundantly clear to me that the team there cares immensely about authenticity, using local ingredients, and immersing students in cultural traditions—all things that will make these future chefs better at their craft. There’s at least as much education about the genesis of the food and the cultural roots of the methods of preparation as there is about using proper knife skills and butchering meat, and that is something I deeply respect.
Dinner that evening was held at CIA’s newest restaurant, NAO: New World Flavors.
Check out the dinner menu here.
“The Entrance” cocktail.
One of our shared appetizers was the Seared Turkey Galantine: tomatillo green mole, escabeche of mushrooms, carrots, onion and jalapeños, crisp turkey chicharrón. Tasty, but not necessarily something I’d order again.
Another app: Grilled Shrimp and Fufu, which was described as, “fresh Gulf shrimp, mashed plantain fufu, pearl onions, piquillo peppers, garlic chives puree.” Flavorful and spicy without being overpowering, these large shrimp were so perfectly grilled that my tablemates and I fought over the last one. I’ll let you guess who won.
For my entree, I chose the Pork Chop Mojo Cubano: cashew-crusted pork chop, Cuban tangerine-cumin gastrique, baby cucumber rocket salad, taro root purée. While I appreciated the union of flavors in the dish, my chop was overcooked, a bit dry and verging on tough, so it’s hard to fairly judge how much I might have liked the overall meal had the pork been prepared to a more ideal doneness.
Others in my group ordered the “Grill-Roasted Rib Eye” and had nothing but rave reviews of it, so I’d recommend trying that dish if you visit.
Dessert brought us to the Chocolate Encounter: chocolate meringue & chocolate mousse, rum sorbet on chocolate soil. This was dark, bold, and intense—a real treat for the chocolate lover. I’d come to the restaurant for one decadent bite. Of the three desserts on the menu that I sampled, this is the only one that I’m still thinking about.
On Saturday morning, the group headed to the Pearl Farmers Market, located on the grounds of the historic, newly restored Pearl Brewery.
The area that surrounds the market is home to some great restaurants, the CIA, apartment buildings, and a handful of cute shops and boutiques.
The farmers market is limited to producers only, so you’re assured that all of the goods available are harvested within 150 miles of San Antonio.
When we finished browsing the market, it was time for Culinaria’s Sabado at Casa Hernan with Chef Johnny Hernandez. Barbacoa, chilaquiles, tamales, mole negro…
The night before, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Casa Hernan and join Chef Johnny Hernandez in his outdoor kitchen in preparing the traditional Mexican barbacoa for Saturday morning’s brunch (it’s pictured in the bowl at the bottom right of the picture above). I watched as he grilled massive agave leaves, wrapped those around well-seasoned and herbed lamb, then submerged the lamb into an eight-foot-deep pit, where the meat cooked over wood and charcoal for 10 or so hours, absorbing the the sweet juices of the agave leaves all the while.
Now, I feel I should mention that Chef Johnny Hernandez is one of those people who seems to be smiling nonstop. You wonder how anyone could be so jolly so much of the time. It’s infectious and it’s telling. His brunches and restaurants are as popular as he is.
The barbacoa that I watched Chef Johnny prepare on Friday night was served in a way I’d never experienced or expected. After the lengthy cooking process down in the pit, he made a broth with the meat drippings, then shredded the meat and dished it up in small bowls with garbanzo beans and finely chopped onion, ladling the broth over the top like a soup. It was spectacular. Tender, aromatic, and flavorful, it was something I feel lucky to have been a part of, to have tasted.
Chef Johnny hosts this delicious, authentic brunch at his home, Casa Hernan, once a month. The day and time is always changing, so if you’d like to attend, check his Facebook page for up-to-date information. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
This boozy course was, I discovered, as fantastic a mid-day pick-me-up as a venti Starbucks coffee. We explored a bunch of modern, creative cocktails that can be made even better with wine.
White wine spritzer
Arcade Midtown Kitchen believes in hand-chipping their own ice blocks into perfectly round “ice balls” that fit neatly into cocktail glasses. These balls ensure that the ice does not melt too quickly and dilute the drink, thus preserving the integrity of the cocktail. Slowly melting ice also allows for longer, more leisurely sipping (it will take approximately 30 minutes for the ice to begin to melt). Now that is attention to detail and dedication to quality.
“The Arcade” cocktail, my favorite. Blanco, grapefruit, simple syrup, Peychaud, Champagne. (One thing I discovered in Texas is that the grapefruit here—and perhaps all citrus fruit for that matter—is killer.)
I really can’t say enough good things about Arcade. I’ve sampled a few appetizers there (the meatballs were memorable) and now have had my fair share of their fine cocktails, so I feel confident recommending this spot for a visit when you’re in or around the Pearl—be it for drinks or dinner.
Culinaria’s Grand Tasting
Saturday evening’s Grand Tasting was touted as the main event, the highlight, of Culinaria. For nearly two hours, I strolled around the convention center where it was held and sampled the creations of all of the brilliant chefs and restaurants featured this year. The fare ranged from classics to contemporary and trend-oriented. More than 100 wines from across the world were there for sampling.
Carrot cake macaron!
Peanut butter pie.
*Disclosure: All of my travel and accommodations were covered by the Convention and Visitors Bureau of San Antonio. All of my entry fees to attend Culinaria events were paid for by the CVB as well. All opinions expressed are entirely my own.
Question: Have you ever been to a food festival or a “Grand Tasting” of sorts? If so, what was it? If not, would you ever travel to attend a food festival? What kind of food would you want to be featured?