Saturday, May 19, 2012

On the Texas Chili Trail

Streetlights cast shadows over the dusky, silent buildings on San Antonio’s Military Plaza. It’s a far cry from the nights of yore, when this was one of the rowdiest places in Texas. Trail-hardened cowboys rode in from the range and headed straight for the Plaza, where the “Chili Queens” lit mesquite fires, hung bright lanterns, and dished out fiery ten-cent “bowls o’ red” all night long.

Though San Antonio is now one of America’s largest cities, its Mexican character and laid-back pace linger at its core. Colonial buildings such as the adobe Spanish Governors’ Palace and San Fernando Cathedral resonate with history, and four of its beautiful 18th-century Spanish missions are still active places of worship.
The fifth is better known as the Alamo, site of the heroic battle in 1836 for Texan independence. For modern contrast, San Antonio has the delightful downtown River Walk, lined with bustling restaurants, cafés, and entertainment, but with quiet stretches that let you enjoy the city’s natural beauty. There are also fine art museums and lovely parks and gardens.
Chili is the official state dish of Texas, and San Antonio is the city where it was probably invented.
Texas chili remains in a class of its own: the hottest you’ll find anywhere, scorching the taste buds, stinging the sinuses, and sending chili-lovers into a state of bliss. In 1828, Houstonian diarist J. C. Clopper became the first person to describe it, writing of seeing poor families stewing a little meat into “a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as pieces of meat.” This blending of spicy peppers from Mexico with the pioneer love of beef made chili the earliest Tex-Mex dish. Chili became a trail food for Texas cowboys, who hammered dried beef, peppers, suet, and spices into bricks that could be boiled into stew. While preachers decried the “soup of the Devil, hot as Hell’s brimstone,” writers such as O. Henry immortalized the “Chili Queens,” formidable Mexican women who served chili from their wagons on San Antonio’s central Military Plaza. When the San Antonio Chili Stand opened at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, chili went national.
By the 1930s, almost every town had a chili parlour. When the ornate City Hall was built on Military Plaza, San Antonio’s street life moved to nearby Market Square, today lined with the colorful shops and Mexican restaurants of El Mercado. During the many Hispanic festivals held in the square, the Chili Queens return, and the mouthwatering, piquant aroma of Texas chili wafts through the heart of San Antonio once more.

An evening river cruise is a perfect way to experience the music, color, and lights of the River Walk

Best Places to Eat Chili

Casa Rio

Casa Rio has been serving food down by the river since 1946 and still sticks to its tried-andtested recipes. It was the very first business down on the waterfront, and the boats and canoes that would arrive here, bringing hungry diners, helped build up the area to the River Walk that exists today. Colorful umbrellas shelter tables that are right by the water alongside one of the bridges, making it one of the prettiest dining spots around. Casa Rio serves the whole range of Mexican dishes, with starters including a tortilla soup, nachos, flautas (wheat-flour tortillas), and a chili con queso (with cheese). There’s a range of chili options as main dishes, but if you only eat here once, you must have the Regular Plate of chili with Mexican rice and refried beans, which has been on the menu since opening day in 1946. If you get a second shot, then the slightly grander Deluxe Dinner is the local favorite.
430 E. Commerce Street; open 11 AM–11 PM daily;

Chunks of prime beef, not ground beef, are used in an authentic chili, with soft beans tempering the fire of the spice
Also in San Antonio
Although San Antonio is regarded as the birthplace of chili, it can be surprisingly hard to find it on restaurant menus, perhaps because it’s so strongly associated here with family recipes and festive gatherings. The best place to eat it is in just such an environment, so look for street fairs, festivals, and chili cook-offs going on around – and at weekends outside – the city, which are usually open to everyone.
Also in Texas
The Texas Chili Parlor (www.txchiliparlor. com; inexpensive) only opened in Austin in 1976 but it seems like it’s been there forever. It’s a popular student and sports bar that has a great chili section on its menu. You can choose from mild, spicy, or hot-hot-hot, have a chili taster of three different bowls of their best recipes, or try a white chili made with pork or even a vegetarian chili. In Grapevine, near Dallas, Tolbert’s (; moderate) on Main Street has won all kinds of awards and accolades for its chilis.
Founded in 1976 by Texan journalist Frank X.
Tolbert Sr., it’s a lively place with music several days a week and a menu that includes house Original Texas Red Chili, and a chili pie too.
Around the World
You can get your chili fix in London at Automat, a chic little American brasserie in the heart of Mayfair (; expensive). Their chili con carne, served as an appetizer or a main course, is made only with premium Nebraska corn-fed beef.
True “Texas Red” Chili
The term chili con carne (with meat) is superfluous here, for meat is the key ingredient – usually beef, but anything from bison to armadillo has been known to go into the pot. For real connoisseurs, beans are a travesty, and even tomatoes don’t feature in the original dish.
In Texas, the Chili Appreciation Society
International (CASI) sets the rules for cooking true Texas red. Their biggest event is the World Chili Championship, held east of San Antonio in tiny Terlingua. On the first weekend of November, over 10,000 chili-hounds flock to this dusty ghost town. Country music plays, barbecues sizzle, and beer flows freely from coolers perched on groaning tailgates. Competition is intense, but the cooks and judges take the heat while a good time is had by all. Get yourself a pickup truck and come on down!
A Day in San Antonio
Many of San Antonio’s sights are downtown, within walking distance of each other, including the Alamo, the fashionable River Walk, and the bustling Market Square. South of downtown, the atmospheric La Villita and King William historic districts are fun to stroll around.
MORNING : Visit the Alamo, where frontier heroes including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were besieged for 13 days by the Mexican army in 1836 and gave their lives for Texan independence. Then make your way via the French-Gothic San Fernando Cathedral to Market Square and El Mercado, the vivid Mexican marketplace filled with colorful merchandise, crafts, jewelry, and lilting mariachi music.
AFTERNOON : Drive to the South Side, where four lovely colonial churches lie within the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. On the way back, catch the sunset from the observation deck of the landmark Tower of the Americas in Hemisphere Park.
EVENING : Stroll along the River Walk, where the twinkling lights of the many bars and restaurants make a romantic end to the day.

Getting to Texas

San Antonio International Airport is 7 miles (11 km) north of downtown; shuttles, a bus service, and taxis run into the city center. Once there, the downtown can be walked, though a rental car is useful for exploring farther afield.

Where to stay in Texas

Bonner Garden (inexpensive) is an awardwinning B&B in the Monte Vista Historic District.
Crockett Hotel (moderate), a historic building, is just steps from the Alamo and has a friendly atmosphere.
Omni La Mansion del Rio (expensive) is an historic gem offering rustic-style luxury.
317 Alamo Plaza;

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