30 October 2008

eating in san antonio -- day 3

my hubby mike is the guest blogger again today,

Yesterday was a good food day, and it would be difficult to match or beat.

After walking Caryn to the Westin next door for her morning meeting, I decided to ask the Westin concierge for a breakfast recommendation. His first suggestion was this deli around the corner called Schilo's. I said, "Yes, I'm a fan, ate there twice yesterday." His next suggestion was the Blanco Cafe. It is a Mexican place about 6 blocks that way. I'm thinking: do I want to walk 6 blocks for breakfast at a Mexican restaurant when I frequently eat the excellent $0.99 breakfast tacos from the restauant across the street from my office? The concierge continued to describe the restaurant, and when he mentioned fresh tortillas hot off the grill, I think I hit the door in a full sprint. Which direction was that again?

There is a side story here. When I was very young, the lady that kept me made fresh flour tortillas for me every day. I don't remember much about staying with her except sitting in her kitchen, watching her make the tortillas and eating them right when they had cooled off just enough. So, for my entire life the litmus test for an exceptional Mexican restaurant is whether they have great, fresh flour tortillas.

So, with that description from the concierge, how could I not go? I was not disappointed.

After perusing the menu, I settled on Machacado con huevo. For those not familiar, Machacado is dried brisket that is scrambled with eggs. The waitress asked if I would like it "a la mexicana," which would be with pico de gallo mixed in and likely very spicy. I passed and told her I would like it normal. "Oh yeah, can I have some extra flour tortillas?"

After a short wait, out came the Machacado. It was served with crispy fried potatoes, refried beans, and a good, spicy Salsa Verde on the side. I don't like refried beans, so I didn't try them, and the potatoes were good, but I only ate a couple because that is not what I came for. The Machacado was beefy and a little salty, which is how I like it. I've never had bad Machacado, and this was no exception, but in my book it is only a compliment to the most important part of the meal -- the tortillas.

So how were the tortillas, you ask? They were hot, soft, thick, and just a little crispy on the outside so that you know they just came off the grill. In a word -- wonderful. It was just what I was looking for. The waitress came and refilled my coffee about 5 times as I enjoyed my tortillas in a trance-like state.

After getting some work done at the hotel, I decided to take a look at the tapas menu in the bar downstairs. I had a rather big breakfast, and I knew that our dinner would also be filling, so I thought a smaller lunch would be good. The restaurant at the Hotel Contessa is called Las Ramblas, which is a Spanish style restaurant. After agonizing over several appetising choices, I settled on the frisee, pear, and manchego cheese salad. The salad also has candied walnuts, dried cherries, and is dressed with a sherry shallot vinagrette.

I ordered a Dos Equis to drink with the salad. The waitress tries to pull a Dos Equis and comes back, "all out of Dos Equis." I look again at the taps and decide on a Stella Artolis. The waitress tries to pull a Stella and says, "Sorry, no Stella either, would you like a Sam Adams or Shiner?" "Sam Adams," I respond, hoping they have some. I'm not sure how well a Shiner Bock would go with a salad. Thankfully, I didn't have to find out because they did have Sam Adams.

The salad had pear slices on the bottom with dried cherries on the pears. There was a huge mound of frisee with candied walnuts scattered on top and manchego cheese shredded over it all. The dressing was so light you could taste it but you couldn't see it. Just about perfect.

Growing up, my grandparents would send us the Harry and David fruit of the month thing for Christmas. I remember eating those pears that melt in your mouth and leave juice running down your chin. Well, these pears weren't as good as that, but I can't complain.

I could have used some more manchego cheese, but I happen to like manchego more than the average person. Overall, it was an excellent salad. I would have liked to have a Dos Equis with it rather than a beer as "hoppy" as Sam Adams.

After lunch I decided to go out and see the sights west of the hotel, having been east to the Alamo yesterday afternoon. I left hoping to see the San Fernando Cathedral and the Spanish Governor's Palace. The Cathedral was cool. It was started in 1738. The marker said it was the oldest cathedral in the US.

The Spanish Governor's palace was less palatial than I imagined. It is a one story adobe structure with three bedrooms, a small "ballroom," chapel, family room, kitchen and "chamber of law" room. The house did have large courtyards and gardens. I suppose in the 1700's this would have been a very large residence.

When Col. Travis fired a cannon at Santa Anna's quarters from the Alamo, Santa Anna raised a red flag over the San Fernando cathedral to indicate that no-one would be spared. The Battle of the Alamo weakened Santa Anna's army and held them up for 13 days while Sam Houston assembled the army that ultimately defeated Santa Anna's much larger army at the Battle of San Jacinto, which was the final battle in the war for Texas Independence in 1836. Ok enough history lesson, back to the food.

After cruising through the cathedral and the governor's palace, I realized that I still had about 2 hours to kill, so I decided to continue on to El Mercado. I walked through the Alameda art museum and coninued into El Mercado and saw Mi Tierra restaurant and panaderia (bakery). Caryn loves pan dulce, which is Mexican sweet bread. She has not been able to find decent pan dulce in Waco, so she is always on the lookout wherever we go. I picked up some pan dulce for Caryn, three campechanas for me and some dulce de leche. After texting Caryn about my find, I walked back to the Westin. Hanging out on a patio overlooking the riverwalk, I broke out the campechanas and tried one. A campechana is like a turnover made with a type of pastry dough. They are filled with various sweet fillings. I bought one pineapple, one apple, and one vanilla creme. I ate the vanilla creme campechana, and I am saving the other two for breakfast tomorrow. The campechans are dusted with sugar before they are baked, so the sugar carmelizes on top. So you get a flaky, crunchy, sweet bite with a smooth, creamy filling. It pretty much cures whatever ails you.

We had previously arranged to meet some old friends for dinner at PF Changs. We started off with drinks. I had sake and Caryn had a poolside. I'm not sure what all a poolside entails, but she seemed to think it was good.

We had barbecue spareribs for an appetizer. They had a sweet Chinese barbecue sauce and were cooked prefectly. Caryn ordered a grilled shrimp salad that had big shrimp and walnuts on a bed of mixed greens. It looked good. I had the Singapore Street Noodles. This is rice noodles with chicken and shrimp, cabbage and tomatoes with a curry sauce. This sounded better on the menu than it tasted in my mouth. I wasn't a fan of the texture of the rice noodles, a little too half-cooked for my taste. I could have used more chicken and less shrimp in the dish as well as a little more sweetness to balance out all that heat from the curry.

Don't get the impression that dinner was a bomb, though. We had great conversation and banana spring rolls for dessert. Banana spring rolls are just what they sound like -- 3 inch banana slices wrapped in spring roll wrappers and fried. It is served with ice cream, strawberries, and caramel sauce. It's why we keep going back to PF Changs.

I don't want you to think I am knocking the entree I had at PF Changs. As far as I can tell, the dish was prepared exactly as it should have been by the kitchen, it just did not suit my taste exactly. If you are not willing to try things you don't like, you will never find anything new that you do like.

So overall, another very good food day.


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