In the not-so-distant past, most people thought dining in San Antonio meant either Tex-Mex restaurants or tourist traps on the Riverwalk. But today, while remaining ground zero for the culturally-relevant Tex-Mex cuisine, the culinary map in the Alamo City started to change a few years back, becoming more adventurous, diversified and eclectic thanks to a growing number of forward-thinking chefs and restaurateurs. That’s why those of us familiar with the scene were not surprised to learn that it had captured the attention of StarChefs.com, who bestowed 2012 Rising Stars Awards upon four of the city’s brightest.
Austin foodies have been swarming around the news of the StarChefs.com Rising Star awards gala set to hit the Capital City next week. (Ticket info here.) Known as one of the top food industry insider publications, the online magazine has selected both Austin and San Antonio to celebrate the cream-of-the-culinary crop. We may know and love the Austin chefs who have garnered the national publication's attention. But how well do you know the Rising Stars of San Antonio?
Attendees to Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival events and the like are no doubt familiar with Chef Jason Dady, winner of the 2012 San Antonio restaurateur award. I for one, am a big fan. Not only for his handful of top notch restaurants including Tre Trattoria, Bin 555 and Two Bros. BBQ Market, but also because of his commitment to the San Antonio and Central Texas community through donations of his time and culinary talent to events and particular causes that mean something to him. Recently, Dady closed The Lodge, his first endeavor and perhaps one of the game changers for the San Antonio’s fine dining scene, to focus on his other concepts and his foray into mobile vending with the DUK (Dady’s Underground Kitchen) truck.
“It’s an incredible honor with incredible company,” he says about the award. “It validates years of hard work and the effort our staffs put into our restaurants and their guests every day. It’s great for San Antonio to be able to showcase the up-and-coming chefs and the envelope they are pushing every day. Humbled and proud to be a part of such a talented group of chefs and hospitality professionals.”
“San Antonio reminds me of a late blooming teenager whose parents purchased clothing items three times too big. For me, this is just the beginning.” - Jaret Peña
The sentiment is matched by Quealy Watson, one of said up-and-coming young chefs whose out-of-the-mainstream cuisine earned him a well-deserved award. His venue, The Monterey, is a relative newcomer to Southtown — an artsy neighborhood just south of Downtown — which won me over on my first visit and has become a must whenever I am down that way. The laid-back, modern space is a perfect setting for Watson’s unapologetic avant garde cuisine, which features local ingredients from small producers married in eclectic flavor combinations.
Case in point, a small plate of corned beef tongue with an Asian-style sweet chili glaze topped with jicama matchsticks. His diverse and affordable list of wines-by-the-glass is an added bonus.
“Just for [Starchefs.com] to come down here means a lot,” says Watson, a San Antonio native who is excited that his hometown caught their attention in the shadow of Austin. “I grew up reading StarChefs online, so I am aware of who gets mentioned and know what Rising Stars means. Personally, it is recognition of my many years in the industry and validation for doing what I do.”
Also handpicked by StarChefs.com editors is talented cocktail wizard Jeret Peña of the Esquire Tavern who won the award for best mixologist. Another young San Antonio native, Peña is doing more than his fair share to garner national attention for San Antonio. He has been instrumental in the rebirth of historic Esquire Tavern downtown, which has helped transform a quadrant of town known more for its knife fights than its night life. The tavern is now one of the city’s loveliest outposts for bar craft, and co-organized the recent San Antonio Cocktail Conference. “This award is bigger than me and represents an undeniable truth about my city,” he says, alluding to the city's burgeoning food and drink renaissance. “San Antonio reminds me of a late blooming teenager whose parents purchased clothing items three times too big. For me, this is just the beginning.”
Michael Sohocki, chef/owner of Restaurant Gwendolyn and winner of the Sustainability Chef award, agrees. “The award is proof that San Antonio is coming up and beginning to be recognized in the international arena as a place with credentials,” he says. I have yet to visit his much lauded restaurant, located in the stunning building that formerly housed Le Rêve, but since its opening, everyone has been clamoring in for a table if not for the flavor of his food, then for seeing the magic in the way he prepares it. Embracing a bold approach that is more a revolutionary act than a restaurant concept, Sohocki uses only ingredients and utensils that were available in San Antonio before the industrial revolution — circa 1850. “That was the last time that food was honest,” he says.
Sohocki shuns electrical appliances, sources every perishable ingredient from within 150 miles of the city, and consults historical cookbooks for reference and inspiration for the menus. Under his guidance, members of the kitchen staff butcher and cure their own meats, render the fats they use, and preserve fruits and vegetables each season, all in true Victorian style.
While this may sound gimmicky to some, Sohocki is the real deal, a man honestly passionate about returning food to a time of simplicity and sustainability. That’s why he named the restaurant after his grandmother, a woman he describes as the last of an era shaped by limitations. “Limitations give identity,” he says. “We need our identity back.”
If the Rising Star selections from StarChefs.com are any indication, I'd say San Antonio's dining scene is well on its way toward achieving a fresh identity, and the world is finally taking notice.