San Antonio Travelogue

I’m sitting in front of my monitor wondering if trying to document a recent getaway to San Antonio while in a COVID-induced brain fog is a good idea. But at least this time I have an excuse for any weirdness that you read. Also, be forewarned…this is a loooonnngg post. After all, I have nothing better to do, unlike you, dear reader. Proceed at your own risk.

Debbie and I celebrated her birthday and our wedding anniversary by spending three nights in one of our favorite Texas destinations: the Pearl District in San Antonio.

Thursday, July 14: Settling In

We checked into the Hotel Emma on a hot afternoon, thankful that the special room package included complimentary valet parking. After unpacking we headed down to the Library for the Emma’s traditional welcome margaritas, and then browsed through the small gift shop.

The gift shop always has some new and interesting (aka “expensive”) items, and this time they included a collection of bow ties and pocket squares made by a company called Brackish. They really were beautifully made, but I’m not a pre-tied kind of bow tie guy, and especially not for $200+. But I did visit the Brackish website where I saw a rattlesnake skin bow tie (named “Tex“), made from “sustainably sourced” snakes. I’m don’t know what that means; maybe Brackish owns a snake farm.

Photo: Bow tie made of feathers

Dinner that evening was at Southerleigh, which is physically connected to the hotel, although not associated with it. It’s one of our favorite “comfort food” eateries in the area. It’s not the most exotic or romantic dining experience for an anniversary dinner…but we’ll make up for it later.

Friday, July 15: Serendipitous Discoveries

Running along the River Walk is one of our favorite activities, but we had to get an early start to beat the heat. We were out around sunrise and ran the two miles south to the downtown area and back again. Breakfast at the hotel was unmemorable.

Although we had no real agenda, we did want to check out the options for paddle boarding on the San Antonio River. During previous visits, we had seen at least one rental business somewhere along the Mission Reach (the miles-long section of the river south of downtown that starts at the King William District, if you’re familiar with the city), so we endeavored to seek it out.

We failed miserably.

Despite googling up a location around Roosevelt Park, and walking for a couple of miles up and down the southern part of the River Walk, we found no evidence of any rental opportunities. However, we did walk past an impressive structure (see below) which is part of San Antonio’s even more impressive flood management system. I never realized that there’s a 24 foot diameter, 3 mile long tunnel running >100′ below the surface and alongside the river that is designed to divert floodwaters.

Photo: Part of the outlet portion of San Antonio's flood control system (near Roosevelt Park)
This is at the end of the massive flood control system, near Roosevelt Park.

We were hot, sweaty (is that redundant?), and hungry by the time we finished our fruitless search, and the air conditioned car felt like a tiny bit of heaven. We started back to the Pearl but were pleasantly surprised when we found ourselves driving past one of our favorite lunch spots, Tito’s Mexican Restaurant. I knew it was somewhere south of downtown but couldn’t remember where…and it appeared like an oasis mirage. OK, that’s a bit over the top, but we did enjoy an excellent lunch, including overhearing the chica at an adjacent table order a double shot of Fireball. Seriously, though, if you find yourself famished and/or thirsty on South Alamo Street, near the King William District, Tito’s will be your refuge.

After lunch, we remembered that there was another intriguing destination nearby. Just a block or two north of Tito’s is a gem of a artisanal shop called Garcia Art Glass, where expert glassblowers craft some amazing works, both functional and beautiful.

The storefront consists of a showroom as well as the hot shop where the pieces are made. While we were peering through the window of the door leading to the shop, the office manager came up and offered to give us a tour. We jumped at the chance. (We’re fans of the Netflix series Blown Away, which pits glass blowers against each other in a series of competitions; season three just got underway this week.)

The Garcia artisans were working on a special project — a large heart-shaped piece that was commissioned by a local nonprofit as a gift for one of its volunteers. The team was basically experimenting to see how their design might look.

We watched as they first created a series of small “squigglies” of various colors which would be used to form the base of the heart. Then, they poured a thick layer of transparent glass on top to complete the piece. While we didn’t get a close look at the finished piece — they had to rush it into the annealer where it would be slowly cooled — what we did see was beautiful, and the process mesmerizing.

Photo: Action in the hot shop of Garcia Art Glass
Hand-picking the multi-colored pieces to form the base of the heart.

Photo: The massive oven in the Garcia Art Glass hot shop
The massive natural gas-fueled oven is heated to 2400°F, and runs 24/7.

Photo: Pouring the clear glass over the colored pieces
The transparent molten glass is poured over the colored pieces. A metal form is used to maintain the heart shape.

Photo: The finished piece before cooling
The finished (and extremely hot!) piece is slid onto a wooden paddle and rushed to the cooling unit.

The Garcia hot shop actually has a small set of metal bleachers where observers can view the artisans at scheduled times, but we felt privileged to get a personal tour. (We did purchase a set of four hand-blown glasses on our way out.) This is a highly-recommended stop whether or not you think you’re in the market for glassware.

We finally returned to the hotel, where we immediately headed to the rooftop pool and snagged the lone remaining covered “bungalow” complete with ceiling fan (which, frankly, did nothing to relieve the heat). After an hour or so of testing the water and pretending to read books behind closed eyelids, we went back to the room in preparation for dinner.

Brasserie Mon Chou Chou was our destination that evening for our combined anniversary/birthday celebration. This was only our second time to dine there — it’s a relatively new addition to the Pearl District, and very popular — and it didn’t disappoint. (I did learn something new; it’s part of the same group that owns Southerleigh, where we ate the preceding night.) They treated us with complimentary flutes of champagne and offered complimentary desserts, but we opted for something off the menu that better suited our tastes.

It was a very good day.

Saturday, July 16: Getting Lost/More Serendipity

Once again, we were up and running around sunrise. This time, we headed north from the Pearl, and the plan was to run about a mile that direction, then turn around and complete ~four miles on part of the same route we took the previous morning. But we hit the one-mile mark and just kept going until an unpaved trail leading into the woods which are a part of Brackenridge Park — a 120-year old, 350 acre public park — caught our eye. We jumped off the known path and headed into the unknown for a mile or so, then decided to head back, certain that we knew exactly where we were. As it turned out, we didn’t.

Long story made short: after running through strange neighborhoods and unfamiliar streets, we actually had to stop and ask Mr. Google to tell us exactly where we were. It’s a good thing we stopped, because we were heading in the opposite direction. Mr. Google tried to lead us back via I-35, but we ignored his directions, other than to use them to orient ourselves to the goal, and ended up adding only about a mile to our intended run. That may not sound like much, but keep in mind that I was just a week removed from a bout with pneumonia and my stamina was a wee bit less than ideal. Ah, but our adventure ended without a crisis or a call to 9-1-1, and we’ll someday look back and laugh about it.

We changed clothes and walked a mile down the river for breakfast at Tia’s Taco Hut, which has become our favorite breakfast stop north of downtown. Yes, it’s a chain restaurant but the breakfasts are surprisingly tasty, the store is comfortingly clean and bright, and the prices are gratifyingly low. The coffee is good, too.

The plan for today was to try to get on a paddle board on the river. During our walk to breakfast, we passed a popup kiosk where rental kayaks and stand up paddle boards (SUP) were available, and could be used on the Museum Reach of the River Walk. The Museum Reach begins at the Pearl District and runs southward for about two miles to the AT&T Lock and Dam (everything has to have a corporate sponsor nowadays). Most of their rental customers were kayaking; we never saw any SUPers on the river during our stay.

We rented two inflatable paddle boards for an hour ($35 each…pretty pricey), and set out to explore the river from a different perspective than we were used to. If you’re new to paddle boards, this is a very non-intimidating way to try it out, as the river is calm, slow-moving, and you’re usually competing with nothing but the occasional kayaker. The water along this route is quite shallow, and while it looks murky when viewed from the sidewalks, it’s actually pretty clear when you’re on it.

Photo: Paddle boarding on the San Antonio River
The building you see is the Hotel Emma.

Debbie and I paddled in a most leisurely fashion north to the Pearl, then back down near the lock and dam (we weren’t allowed to get really close, unfortunately), then back to the launch point. That took almost exactly an hour, and that was plenty. There’s not a lot to see in the river itself…a few turtles and fish, ducks, the occasional grebe (but Debbie did spot a small snake). The more interesting interactions came from people walking along the river, several of whom had questions about paddle boarding in general, and specifically about the rental details. I think we were even photographed by a few onlookers who apparently had never seen such a spectacle.

Photo: Paddle boarding on the San Antonio River
Heading north on the river

This activity took us to the lunch hour, a time when we normally would head for La Gloria, a nearby Mexican restaurant, but today we decided to try something somewhat different.

We had passed by a restaurant called Velvet Taco at the end of our ill-fated morning run, and it looked interesting. It’s just a block away from La Gloria, within easy walking distance of the hotel, so that’s where we headed.

Velvet Taco is kind of the anti-La Gloria. The latter specializes in authentic Mexican “street food,” the kind that gringos like us sometimes have to ask the server to explain. Velvet Taco, on the other hand, skews trendy, with taco offerings like chicken and waffles, Korean BBQ, or Cuban pork. The beer is overpriced ($10 for a 12-oz Dos Equis? Really?) and their margaritas are drawn premixed from a fountain dispenser. But, the tacos are big and pretty darn tasty, if not exactly Mexican kosher, IYKWIM.

We left the restaurant sated and stepped back into the blazing sun…and spotted another type of blaze directly across the street.

Photo: Knife-making lesson taking place in front of Caylor Forge
The gentleman in black was teaching the youngster how to make a knife.

The blue-painted warehouse-looking building is the new home of Caylor Forge, a blacksmith/knife-making/leatherworks shop and studio. Their original location is still active in New Braunfels.

On this particular Saturday, they had set up a small forge under a tent on the sidewalk and one of the blacksmiths was teaching a boy of about 12 years to forge a knife from a horseshoe while his parents looked on with obvious pride (although the mom later expressed a bit of concern about the possibility that her son was about to fall in love with an expensive hobby).

Photo: Knife-making lesson taking place in front of Caylor Forge
They took turns hammering on the heated horseshoe.

We watched the action for a while, then went inside to check out the shop…and once again were invited to a tour of the workshop in the back of the building. The owner himself, Chad Caylor, Sr., showed us around and told us about their plans for the new location. The forge was not yet finished, as they awaited access to the rest of the newly-leased building, but it was obvious that the shop would be well-equipped.

We then spent some time perusing the large and varied inventory of handmade knives, as well as the room containing a myriad of tools, accessories, and raw material for the knife-making aficionado. One entire wall was devoted to various material to be used in making knife handles and scales (let’s not get into the details of why those are different terms).

Photo: Knife handle material for sale at Caylor Forge
Knife handle material for sale

And, as with the glass shop, we walked away with a purchase…or, rather, Debbie did. She found a pretty little custom-made paring knife, and it became one of our romantic anniversary gifts.

The photo below shows the location of Caylor Forge as seen from our room in the Hotel Emma…it’s the blue building at upper left. It’s a short stroll down Grayson Street.

Photo: Location of Caylor Forge as seen from the Hotel Emma

We thanked the folks for their kindness and patience, and headed back to the hotel for a nap. We had a late evening ahead of us, and it had been another long day.

That night we dined (for the first time) at Cured, a carnivore’s dream located in the former Pearl Brewing administration building, another restaurant located a two-minute walk from our hotel. I had the best venison I’ve ever tasted, but otherwise, the meal was unremarkable, and the atmosphere was overly noisy for our tastes. But that wasn’t the end of our evening.

We almost never travel to San Antonio without a visit to Jazz Texas, the speakeasy in the basement of the former Pearl Brewing bottling building. We had reservations for the 9:30 show, so we ate beforehand…normally, we eat at Jazz Texas because the food is really quite good, but that’s getting to be too late for a meal for us. In the future, we’ll consider going to the earlier show and having our dinner there, too.

I’m not sure how many times we’ve caught Doc Watkins and his orchestra’s act — I’d say at eight-to-ten times, perhaps — and, frankly, it’s getting to be a bit repetitive. The playlist changes very little, especially when Meg Bode is not the vocalist. As a singer, Doc is a fantastic bandleader and pianist. He’s also a gifted arranger, and works with other gifted arrangers and I’m not sure why they’re not swapping out old tunes for new ones, unless they don’t think they get a lot of repeat customers. It’s a mystery.

But, and it’s a huge “but,” the skill and enthusiasm of the musicians is never boring or repetitive, and that’s what keeps us coming back.

Photo: Doc Watkins Orchestra at Jazz Texas
The boys in the band know how to boogie.

The show ended promptly at 11:00, and we walked back to the hotel. We decided to enter via Sternewirth, the Emma’s bar, and we were reminded of our age. While we were headed to bed upstairs, the approximately 10,000 “kids” in the bar were just getting started. But I’ll bet none of them were up at 5:30 that morning. (I have no idea what that really says about any of us, to be honest.)

Sunday, July 17: Homeward bound

We did sleep in the next morning…meaning until just after 6:00, I think, and walked back to Tia’s Tacos for one last San Antonio meal before heading home by way of Bee Cave. There, we met up with dear friends from Horseshoe Bay who treated us for brunch at Cafe Blue in honor of Debbie’s birthday. It’s good to get away sometimes, but it’s also good to get home.