After roasting six poblano chiles on the grill, chef Brian West showed me how to remove the skin. I de-seeded the chiles, cut them lengthwise into strips, and, in a large skillet, added onions, crema Mexicana and semi-firm panela cheese. Dressed in the requisite chef’s hat and apron, I presented the finished dish, rajas poblanos, to my group, which rewarded me with rousing applause.
Boot Camp at the Culinary Institute of America was thoroughly enjoyable, especially when we dined on our gluttonous feast of authentic Mexican treats, including Baja-style fish tacos, fresh tomatillo and avocado salsa, traditional guacamole, refried beans, Acapulco ceviche and much more. The Latin American theme is an integral part of the relatively new CIA campus in San Antonio’s blossoming Pearl Brewery district.
When Kit Goldsbury purchased the defunct Pearl Brewery in 2001, the neighborhood two miles north of downtown had already become an urban eyesore. Goldsbury, who made his fortune from Pace picante sauce (which he sold to the Campbell Soup Co. in 1995), had a fondness for Latin cuisine and wanted food to be the cornerstone of his redevelopment of the area.
He set his sights high and went after the most prestigious cooking school in America. The CIA was not easily swayed, especially having just opened a second campus in Napa Valley. So the former purveyor of spicy foods learned to sweeten the pot, offering free land and a $35 million check, the largest donation the school has ever received.
In 2006, a pilot program was formed in San Antonio and the first group of students graduated. Two years later, CIA San Antonio became an official branch of the school. A 30,000-square-foot expansion was completed in late 2010, and today, 75 students are enrolled in the Associate Degree in Culinary Arts program with an emphasis on Latin cuisine.
The CIA campus is undoubtedly the lead resident of the Pearl Brewery neighborhood, but Goldsbury’s vision didn’t end there. He persuaded two acclaimed San Antonio chefs, Andrew Weissman and Johnny Hernandez, both CIA Hyde Park graduates, to open restaurants. He also approached retailers he admired, including Twig, the city’s largest independent bookstore, and nonprofit organizations such as the Nature Conservancy. Today, the two-story Full Goods building, a former shipping warehouse, is a mix of retail and office space and the core of the 22-acre district.
Goldsbury has also benefited from the 2009 Museum Reach expansion of San Antonio’s beloved Riverwalk. His property sits directly on the San Antonio River, no more than a 15-minute bike or jog from downtown on the paved trail. Or you can grab one of the water taxis that cruise the river and be dropped off at the Pearl. This has led to an influx of traffic, especially during Saturday’s farmers market or the concerts held at a small outdoor amphitheater that overlooks the river.
I picked up a bike from one of San Antonio’s bike-sharing stations downtown and pedaled to the Pearl on a quiet weekday. Quiet, that is, except for the many construction projects underway on the site. In fact, a bevy of new offerings is about to erupt in the neighborhood.
In late May, the CIA opened its first student-run restaurant, called NAO: New World Flavors. Directly across from NAO, the former red-brick brewery boiler room will be a farm-to-table restaurant called Boiler House, hoping to be unveiled by the end of the year. A cocktail bar called the Bluebox Bar also debuted in May. And two brothers are planning to open a barbecue-and-beer joint in August in the former 19th-century home of the brewery’s chief coppersmith.
Avenue A is home to a row of 300 new residences, already being rented by young professionals and boomers moving back to the city. Just behind the apartments, in the original 19th-century brewhouse, a 140-room boutique hotel will emerge in 2014.
My first stop in the Full Goods building was the Twig Book Shop, where I was eager to browse through the extensive Texana collection. The store also features a large children’s book section. And manager Claudia Maceo notes that she promotes readings by authors who might have a connection to the people working in the building; a book on modern architecture, for instance, would please the American Institute of Architects San Antonio upstairs.
Next door, the Melissa Guerra store is an ideal venue for the many professional or amateur chefs learning about Mexican cuisine at CIA. She sells stone molcajetes for making guacamole and grinding spices, along with cast-iron tortilla presses, Gorky Gonzalez porcelain jugs and plates, and ingredients such as Mexican beans and chiles.
Across the hallway, Marla Mason Ross runs Adelante, a boutique first opened by her grandmother more than 35 years ago. She features colorful dresses, pillows with a butterfly motif, Mexican wall hangings and locally made jewelry.
For lunch, I strolled over to Sandbar Fish House & Market, one of two Andrew Weissman restaurants at Pearl. I grabbed a seat at the counter around a raw bar and ordered a delicious salmon sandwich topped with ripe avocado, bacon, sliced egg, tomato and onions, served on toasted brioche bread. Weissman’s second restaurant is the popular Italian eatery Il Sogno Osteria, which serves wood-fired pizzas, salad and such entrees as pan-seared halibut and homemade ravioli.
When I returned to the Pearl for dinner on another evening, I decided to dine at the casual La Gloria, chef Johnny Hernandez’s paean to Mexican street food. You can sit indoors or dine al fresco, overlooking the river, but I chose to watch the cooks work their magic at the open kitchen.
I started with camarones aqua chile, a shrimp ceviche, washed down with a margarita, then moved on to tacos al pastor, rich with marinated pork and pineapples, and an entree of arrachera en salsa de tomatillo, beef skirt steak in a not overly spicy green tomatillo sauce. Hernandez traveled throughout Mexico for more than a decade, scouring the countryside to find the most authentic dishes. It’s obviously working, since a second La Gloria is set to open in a San Antonio suburb next summer.
Kit Goldsbury’s vision of a thriving neighborhood north of downtown is coming to fruition in a relatively short time. Drive, bike, jog or boat to the Pearl neighborhood and your reward is a meal you won’t soon forget. Or maybe one that you might even cook yourself.
Jermanok, a Boston writer, can be reached at www.ActiveTravels.com.