A sunny Saturday morning in the beer garden of San Antonio’s just-off-Pearl District’s Tuk Tuk Taproom finds a free (donations welcome) yoga session in progress, with some 20 tank-top attired folks in downward-facing dog poses, surrounded by flowers and other greenery.Tantalizing aromas waft from the kitchen, and noses are sniffing away. Tuk Tuk, marketed as a Southeast Asian street food/beer garden venue, came to town last September, courtesy of 36-year-old chef-owner David Gilbert and his business partner, Steve Newman.When the yoga session ends, everyone heads inside for refreshments within the restaurant’s unusual space — Gilbert and Newman transformed a 50-year-old mechanic’s garage into an über-cool space with wooden beams, exposed brick and a state-of-the-art draft beer system.We exercisers feast on a tangy, delectable Vietnamese papaya salad accompanied by Tuk Tuk’s fizzy, fermented kombucha tea, while some take advantage of the restaurant’s 60 craft beers on tap. It’s a dining experience far afield from the stereotypical fare of the “Alamo City” — no nachos or burritos smothered with dripping yellow cheese here. Yes, great Tex-Mex still reigns supreme in this town, but culinary diversity has taken San Antonio by storm — as per the demands of the city’s internationally savvy population.With a culinary and cultural heritage that’s a rich melange of Mexican, Spanish-American, German and various other groups, San Antonio is known as the birthplace and continually evolving home of Tex-Mex, but today, what was once the largest Spanish settlement of Tejas offers so much more to its throngs of newcomers and old-time residents. Here’s a snapshot of three special spots that are helping to define the flavoral scene that awaits should you embark on a gastronomic journey to this nearby city.• Tuk Tuk Taproom, as one of the city’s newest Asian-inspired eateries, is said to be growing in popularity partly due to armed forces members who served in Thailand, Korea and Vietnam returning home with a hankering for the exotic dishes they encountered in those countries. Other restaurants like Kimura, Umai Mi and Hot Joy cater to this crowd with modern and traditional Asian dishes, and Gilbert — as Tuk Tuk’s chef — says he lived and traveled extensively in several Asian countries and opened Tuk Tuk to “expose others to his love of traditional Southeast Asian food.“We do our dishes in smaller quantities and offer 12 items on our menu at a time,” he explains. “They take longer to produce that way, but we don’t sacrifice quality.”Gilbert is writing a Southeastern Asian cookbook and notes that co-owner Newman is a craft brewmaster who manages Tuk Tuk’s generous selection of wines, cuvee coffees and craft brews in addition to making the house kombucha.The restaurant’s exotic beer-friendly fare ranges from khao hor bai bua with naam chim thala (seafood and sticky rice steamed in bamboo leaves with sour-charred Thai chili dipping sauce to ya rou mian (crispy tofu tossed with egg noodles, Sichuan chili, scallions and sesame-soy dressing). 1702 Broadway, San Antonio, 210-222-8277 (TAPS); tuktuktaproom.com. • Éilan Hotel & Spa’s Sustenio brings a new Mediterranean flair to the flagship restaurant in this posh Tuscan-inspired property at the edge of the Texas Hill Country — just moments from the La Cantera shops and golf club. Chef Mike Collins, an unusually affable guy who delights in chatting up patrons, says he thrives on “reinventing Texas classics” with a farm-to-table mission. Collaborating with Texas celebrity chef Stephan Pyles, Collings takes dishes such as locally raised Angus beef tenderloin and marries it with a Moroccan chermoula spice blend, kumquat chutney, candied sweet potato and broccoli rabe. An in-house charcuterie includes succulent jamón ibérico (Iberian ham), pancetta and wagyu bresaola (salted beef), along with wine pairings, freshly baked crusty breads, high-end cheeses and creative condiments. 17103 La Cantera Parkway, San Antonio, 210-598-2900; www.eilanhotel.com/san-antonio-restaurants.aspx. • Cured is worth a visit for its gorgeous environment alone, but why miss a sumptuous repast? Set smack in the heart of the cool Pearl District in a beautifully restored 1906-era brick building that was originally the Pearl Brewery’s administrative office, it charms passers-by with a sweet little green lawn.Chef Steve McHugh arrived in San Antonio about four years ago, when he opened Luke with famed New Orleans chef John Besh. Then, last December, he opened Cured and named it to honor his successful battle with cancer.The restaurant specializes in locally raised, organic meats, with a dozen charcuterie selections. It has a distinctive Southern influence as well, with dishes like a fried green tomato poboy served with shrimp remoulade and house-cut fries. Other signature items include smoked pork gumbo made with Heritage hog, andouille and okra; shrimp and grits with tasso ham, and slow-cooked pork grillades. About 85 percent of everything served at Cured is bought from farmers markets.“We buy the whole animal,” McHugh says. “That way, we have less processing and more quality control.”On my recent visit, appetizers included a variety of smoked duck loin, lamb and citrus terrine, smoked veal wurst, whipped pork butter, duck pastrami, country style paté, mortadella salami and more — all made in house.The charcuterie boards can be custom-designed by patrons, with either three, six or nine selections. 306 Pearl Parkway, Suite 101, San Antonio, 210-314-3929; www.curedatpearl.com.
Cooking like a pro
I looked much more professional that I felt while embarking on the Latin American Boot Camp class at the Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio and its Center for Foods of the Americas. Some 20 of us were dashing in our spanking new chef toques and aprons, recipes in hand, on a recent Saturday morning. Somehow, within a five-hour stretch, our motley crew was to create some 16 or so dishes from all over the South American continent. Chef and Director of Latin Studies Sergio Remolina gave us a brief overview of the cultural and gastronomic diversity found there, as well as some history of the ingredients we’d be using, and then separated us into groups of three or four, each charged with a few recipes each. We dashed off to our separate, immaculate and well-equipped kitchens and delved into our tasks of prepping, washing, cutting, chopping, etc. “Make sure your group reads the recipes together, at least twice,” Remolina instructed.
So, we did. Our group’s recipes included ceviche de camarones con maní (Ecuadorean-style shrimp ceviche), salada de xuxu com palmito y laranja (chayote salad with hearts of palm and oranges) and anticuchos de cordero (Peruvian lamb skewers marinated in ají panca.) With none of us having much, if any, experience with the ingredients, each of us chose a job — mine was to “julienne” the Mexican chayote squash. At times, things got hectic, but our chef and his two assistants deftly managed the constant questions from each group and made the rounds, teaching us new techniques and correcting faulty ones. I felt a bit abashed when I asked where to find the orange juice needed for a recipe, and was told firmly, “You need to squeeze it yourself!”
Some four hours later, I was amazed to find a beautifully laid out buffet of vibrantly colored and carefully garnished platters. Somehow, we hungry novices had created a banquet — each dish more delicious than the last, and we didn’t leave a shrimp or garbanzo uneaten. I am eager to try to recreate some of them with my family and friends at home (donning my toque and apron, naturalmente.)
NAO: New World Flavors is the school’s student-staffed formal dining room, opened in August 2012. With a Latin American emphasis, a visiting Latin American chef program and a menu that changes every six weeks, NAO also offers an impressive, reasonably priced wine list. The CIA Bakery Cafe dishes up more casual fare and delectable baked goods.
The Culinary Institute of America, San Antonio, the third campus of the CIA, opened in 2008, and offers classes for all levels of foodies. Programs range from one-day workshops to five-day boot camps. 312 Pearl Parkway, Suite 2102, 210-554-6400, http://www.ciachef.edu/texas/.