SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
Nikki and Mike are friends and co-workers of Mike when he worked for the San Antonio Spurs. They were married on a beautiful warm Saturday evening at The Dominion Country Club in San Antonio, Texas in September 2009. Kira and Matt are friends of ours who traveled with us to attend the wedding.
We arrived in San Antonio on a Thursday afternoon hungry and ready to start off our food adventure. I specifically wanted to visit Taco Taco, where Bon Appetit magazine voted this place the BEST Taco in America. I guess they pride themselves on that because they posted it on the sign outside their place and it's all over their website. I was craving the Beef Norteno taco because it looks like a philly cheesesteak in a taco - crispy grilled beef, grilled onions, green peppers and cheese. Oh, heaven.
After getting our rental car, we headed straight for Taco Taco on Hildebrand. Coincidentally, it's located down the street from Trinity University, where Mike went to college. We pulled in the parking lot, and... darn time change. They close at 2:00 PM and we arrived just a little bit after that. BOO! At least I got the picture of the sign. Next time, Norteno taco.
Mike suggested that we go to Panchito's down the street to reminisce about the times where he ate here quite often. Funny, because Panchito's used to be at the Taco Taco location before they expanded. Panchito's is a family-owned restaurant since 1980. When we walked in, Mike pointed out the eldest son who he recognized him as a teenager back in the day. Now it looks like he's one of the managers.
The menu is pretty simple with Tex Mex specialties like fajitas and chile con carne. Everything sounded delicious. Immediately, the server brought us fresh tortilla chips and salsa. Mike said to me, "Wait until you try the salsa." Oooh, the salsa was nice and warm. Yum. It had the right consistency for a red salsa and just enough heat to give it a little kick.
"Throwdown With Bobby Flay" on the Food Network featured an episode where it was "Puffy Taco" throwdown in San Antonio. Not at this restaurant, but hey, a puffy taco is something that you can't get in San Diego. I ordered two puffy tacos, one steak and one chicken, with Spanish rice and beans. My tacos arrived and they glistened from the oil they fried the shell in. I happily noticed that they served "creamy beans", which I LOVE. My order also came with two warm flour tortillas, which were not the usual store bought tortillas. They were thick and definitely tasted homemade. The tacos tasted delicious. The meats were well seasoned and were very tender. I did end up eating them with a knife and fork because the oil from the shells seeped through and the shell easily broke in my hand as I took the second bite. I was stuffed that I couldn't even eat all of the tortillas. I managed to eat about a half of one.
Mike ordered three tacos a la carte, two Chicken Fiesta tacos (grilled with onions, chile, and tomatoes and one Olmos taco (grilled chicken, creamy beans, and Monterey Jack cheese). All were served on the homemade, thick flour tortilla. Yup, brought him back to his days at Trinity were he spent late nights munching on these guys.
After lunch, Mike took me on a tour of his university, which was very close by. Trinity University is a private institution that was founded over 140 years ago. Having a total of 2,600 students compared to the 32,000 students at San Diego State University, it was certainly a different type of "scene" on campus. Classes were in session, but to me, it looked like no one was on campus. Trinity is a beautiful campus, with lots of greenery and amazing brick buildings. The top of the Murchison bell tower is the highest point in San Antonio.
After walking through the humidity for about an hour, we stopped by Bill Miller Bar-B-Q for a Texas sweet tea! This marked beginning of drinking sweet tea every day since we arrived in Texas. I love the stuff. Bill Miller BBQ is a a drive-thru BBQ joint. What? Only in Texas, right? Reviews at this place on Yelp say that the food here isn't great, but someday I would like to try it myself. We were full from Panchito's, but the sweet tea was cool and refreshing!
We were en route to The Westin La Cantera Resort to check in our hotel room. The resort is HUGE and beautiful. Upon check-in, we were having small talk with the front desk guy and was envious of how we live in San Diego. He upgraded us to a nice suite that had a view of the city without us asking.
That evening while Mike was out with the guys (aka the bachelor party), I met Kira and T for a really late dinner at Steinheimer's Bar in the hotel. Since we were awake and on California time, we met up close to midnight. It was the only restaurant in the hotel that was open.
The bar menu (food) had limited choices (and no queso for Kira - boo) so Matt and I ordered a simple cheeseburger & fries and Kira ordered the club salad. The burger was okay. It was good, but nothing that special. The fries seemed like the frozen shoestring kind too. Kira's salad seemed like it was put together in a hurry, but she said that the flavors were good. We talked about our upcoming road trip to Austin and called it a night.
Austin, Texas is about an hour and half away from San Antonio. Kira used to work for the University of Texas, Austin (UT) in the Athletic department. Our trip consisted of us taking a UT athletics tour (including a stop of the trophy room), Central Market (the original location out of eight Texas locations), and lunch at Threadgill's.
We were out and on the road early in the AM with a coffee and pastry in hand from the Starbucks located in the lobby of our hotel. I had the old fashioned glazed doughnut and a grande iced hazelnut coffee with milk. Mike ordered the blueberry muffin and a Frappuchino.
Traffic into the big city was heavy for a late Friday morning, but Mike says traffic is always like this because Interstate 35 is the only interstate that takes to you to Dallas from San Antonio. We quickly drove pass that bridge with the bats on our way to UT. We drove through the busy mini streets of UT to find a paid parking garage to park our rental and hopped in Kira & Matt's car to drive to the original Central Market.
Central Market is a high-end specialty food store, part of the H-E-B Grocery Family. Mike has ties with the Butt family who owns and runs H-E-B and has always been telling me that I would love, love LOVE Central Market. Glad that Kira is a foodie also, because she wanted to go to this location. Unfortunately, I did not take pictures inside the store (felt kinda weird to do so), but I can tell you that it is a food lover's dream. Equipped with high-tech weight systems for fresh produce, a huge bakery section with fresh baked bread samples, gourmet candy, dip bar (assorted dips & sauces), olive bar (ick), fresh meat, poultry and fish, a culinary school, coffee bar, take home gourmet meals, and a HUGE beer & wine aisle... we were in complete heaven. It was immaculate and very busy. I really wish they had something in that same capacity here in San Diego. Whole Foods is similar, but does not come close at all.
Kira suggested that we have lunch at Threadgill's Home Cookin', which was down the street from Central Market. Threadgill's has been open since 1933 and is a venue where country music and home cooking lives. Janis Joplin is said to have developed her country and blues voice singing at this very location.
The server sat us and passed out menus that say "Eat Your Vegetables" on the front. We soon find out that they consider the following a vegetable: garlic cheese grits, macaroni n' cheese, red beans and rice, sweet potato fries, au gratin potatoes. Yum! Now, that's what I am saying!
The "World Famous Chicken Fried Steak" was calling our names. I mean, if it's world famous, how can we pass that up? Other southern, comfort classics included fried catfish, po boy sandwiches, fried green tomatoes, popcorn shrimp and fried oysters. I love chicken fried steak, so I thought I'd give it a try. So far, the best I've ever had it is a Texaz Grill in Phoenix so I wanted to see if this one blew it out of the water.
We each had a choice of two "vegetables" with our country fried steak, so I ordered the potatoes au gratin and macaroni n' cheese. Mike and Matt had the mashed potatoes with gravy and macaroni n' cheese. Kira got the cheesy garlic grits and mac n' cheese. We all had similar cravings this day, so that was funny.
We ordered a round of sweet teas, for Matt a beer, and waited for our food. They brought out a basket of baked goodies as an appetizer. It was filled with dinner rolls, sourdough bread, and cornbread muffins. Those dinner rolls which are shaped like a blueberry muffin were SO good. They were light, fluffy, and warm. They also had an interesting sweetness to them. I must get the recipe. I may write to Bon Appetit. The butter was soft and melted onto the baked good. I could have eaten a whole basket of those dinner rolls. The other goodies were OK - that's because they didn't stand up to the rolls.
Our food arrived in a timely manner and it looked downright yum in the tum. Here are different shots of our similar, yet somewhat different versions of our country fried steak meal:
I immediately cut a small bite of my steak and thought, "Tender, crunchy... but horribly under seasoned". I didn't say it out loud until Kira said something and put salt on her steak. I felt bad for the world famous chicken fried steak and wished that the cooks remembered to season the meat and/or the flour. That's all it took for it to be delicious. I rather not add salt to any dish because it doesn't bring out the flavor as much as when you cook something in it. However, because it was not seasoned at all... I ended up taking the salt shaker to my steak more than I would have liked to. I mean, the bed of gravy on top didn't seem like it was seasoned either. *sad face*
The au gratin potatoes and macaroni n' cheese were really good. They were both creamy and melted in my mouth. Overall, the experience at Threadgill's was good because of the company of Kira and Matt and the fact that it was my first time in Austin.
It was time for our UT Athletics tour, which we were excited about. Thanks to Kira's former co-worker, he took us behind the scenes at Texas Stadium where they were getting ready for the big game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders the next day. We visited the press box and the coach's box. We got to go inside the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center were the football trophy room awaited us. It was pretty darn amazing. Our tour ended when her friend took us on the golf cart to where they were getting ready for NFL Game Day.
Compared to SDSU and even Trinity, this campus has school spirit and so much culture that it was great being in that environment. Everyone was wearing their burnt orange and rushing to class. We had to say goodbye to Austin because we had to head back to San Antonio for the pre-wedding dinner.
As I describe the Rudy's experience to my fellow Californians, when the words "connected to a gas station" comes out of my mouth, they always made a face. Seriously, though, the brisket here is TO DIE FOR. I mean, brisket, white bread and creamed corn is all I need for my tummy to be happy for weeks and weeks. If anything, Rudy's boosts gas sales, so it's a win-win situation!
The morning of Nikki and Mike's wedding, we met the G. family for lunch at the very place that I've been wanting to visit for a while, Rudy's "Country Store" and Bar-B-Q. The first trip to San Antonio years ago led us to another BBQ place, which was good, but just OK. So forgettable that I forgot the name.
The experience starts off by ordering the delicious smoked meat by the freakin' half pound. I say freakin' because that's just awesome. They have brisket, turkey breast, ribs, smoked sausage, chicken, and pork loin - all smoked in-house using oak.
Since there was five of us, we order family style: brisket, baby back ribs, smoked sausage, tub o' creamed corn and potato salad, a sliced dill pickle for Raquel, and of course, sweet teas. It's similar to a cafeteria ordering system. When you order, you start off with sides, then meats, drinks, and then you pay at the end after the cashier plops multiple slices of plain white bread in your plastic basket (similar to a small crate) lined only with wax paper. Yup, no plates - and only pieces of wax paper used as our "plates" and little paper boats for our sides, the ones you use for a small side of nachos at the fair. Our cashier even gave us a small sample of the smoked turkey breast and placed it on the crate. Bonus!
There is outdoor seating and seating inside the "Country Market". The square footage is very large and has multiple family style picnic tables inside lined with the traditional checkered plastic tablecloths. There's a large fountain drink station in front of the cashier, aisles of souvenirs for sale like Rudy's BBQ sauce, and the usual beverage refrigerators. I noticed that there's additional seating in the back of the country store for those busy days. Lucky for us, there was a lot of seating.
We situated ourselves inside the store and grabbed our beverages. I was ready to chow down. Unlike Phil's BBQ in San Diego, all meats are dry rubbed and smoked. There is Rudy's signature BBQ sauce on the table in these large bottles. I put a little bit on the meats to see if I like the flavor. I took a little bit of everything to create my plate and went to town.
The ribs were just OK. They were a little dry and not as fresh as I thought they would be. The taste of the meat was very good and I can taste the oak that they smoked it in. The sauce was tangy, not too much vinegar, and a great addition. The sausage was delicious. It was juicy and very flavorful. My favorite, like I mentioned, was the brisket. Every piece of the sliced brisket melted in my mouth. It was warm, delicious, and very tender. I put a few slices between the soft white bread and ate it slowly, cherishing every heavenly bite. Give me a 1/2 pound of brisket and I'll eat it all by myself.
I've never had creamed corn before. Apparently, all the reviews I have read tell me the same message: "get the creamed corn", "creamed corn is a must", and "I LOVE the creamed corn". So, we got the creamed corn. Sweet corn kernels in a creamy sauce? Simple, may sound boring, but so darn yummy. I'm set with brisket and creamed corn. Yeah! The potato salad was also very flavorful, but nothing special.
It was wonderful catching up with Chris, Raquel, and their little man, Matthew. We enjoyed great company and yummy food at the "worse BBQ place" in Texas.
Mike and Nikki had a beautiful, intimate ceremony in the garden of The Dominion Country Club. The cocktail reception was held outside near the fountain. We enjoyed savory hors d'oeuvres and mingled with Kira, Matt, and Mike's old Spurs friends.
Inside the beautiful ballroom, Nikki and Mike were introduced as Mr. and Mrs. and immediately went into their first dance as husband and wife. Soon after, an elegant dinner was served.
Roasted sirloin, chicken wellington, and a mixed green salad were the main courses of the night. I, of course, chose the roasted sirloin and so did Mike. Next time, we're going to get something different so we can try each others entree. That's what Kira and Matt did. Very smart, if you ask me.
The salad was refreshing and good for a warm night in Texas. I usually do not like fruit in my salad, but I thought the cranberries added the right sweetness to the tartness of the vinaigrette and bitter greens.
The sirloin was a medium well, but close to the well done side. I usually like my steaks cooked medium, but it's a wedding, not a restaurant! It was very flavorful and still very tender. I was surprised at the portion side because it was a lot of meat. I didn't even finish it. The vegetables were cooked perfectly because it still had a crisp to them.
Although I did not take a bite of the chicken wellington, I took a picture of it. It looked delicious! The orzo pasta looked fluffy and very appetizing!
We celebrated the couple's new life together and danced in the "secret" club room that they unveiled. We ended the evening back at Steinheimer's Bar in the Westin for more drinking (not me) and conversation.
It was a wonderful trip to Texas to see old friends, spending time with our good friends, Kira and Matt, and sampling the food of San Antonio and Austin. There's still so much to explore in Texas. I'm looking forward to going back to catch a Spurs game, eat a Norteno taco, and experience the music scene in Austin.