Hopped a dining car bound for Jalisco last night via the Olmos Park roundabout – Mixtli

It was a short two-hour journey, packed with tantalizing flavors aboard a parked railcar behind a strip center on McCullough that has proven the downfall of many a restaurant owner.

But, thanks in part to the major impact of the Culinary Institute of America’s campus at Pearl as graduates emerge to challenge San Antonio’s collective palate, the chefs undertaking this venture called Mixtli quickly have created a buzz well beyond San Antonio. Chef Diego Galicia is a product of CIA Texas and has had stints at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Moto in Chicago and Lüke in San Antonio. Mixologist Jesse Torres is poised to graduate this spring from the San Antonio campus. Chef Rico Torres has extensive catering experience, and wine partner Veronique Cecila Baretto of Vinously Speaking loves to seek out small-production vineyards around the world.

What they are offering San Antonians is something remarkably different. For one, there are only 12 seats at one community table each night. And the table is right next to the open kitchen.

Portions are small, which is great because having somewhere between eight and ten different courses, each with different beverages, would be impossible to swallow otherwise. The menu is fixed, drawn from a single state in Mexico for a period of about six weeks. Descriptions on the menu are deceptively simple, but you have no choices to make anyway.

Traditional dishes are deconstructed and given radical makeovers with locally sourced ingredients from operations such as South Texas Heritage Pork Farm, Koch Ranches and Ferrra Coffee Roaster. Ancient techniques, such as roasting cacao beans for fresh chocolate and soaking corn in an alkaline solution – nixtomal – for fresh masa, are combined with contemporary presentation and approaches to cooking, such as sous vide.

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A trio of petite sopes, cakes of masa, featured three different toppings – one with swordfish, one with a scallop and one with a smoked oyster and caviar. Traditional ingredients of caldo michi, a seafood stew, never met the broth and were molded into a tiny timbal of seafood, chayote, radish and celery. The standard torta ahogada, or drowned sandwich, of Jalisco was transformed into a capped roll stuffed with braised beef with a salsa of chile arbol and a warm tomato sauce on the side for dipping. The cerdo al pastor rose far above street-food presentation to become a falling-off-the-bone-tender pork rib topped with pineapple and dabs of a cilantro salsa.

The greasy, goat birria – a chile stew – we encountered in Guadalajara many decades ago left me never wanting another meeting. But, in the hands of the chefs at Mixtli, it was translated into a moist, rare lamb chop prepared sous vide, with the guajillo chile salsa on the side. The thick tejuno, a coarse beverage made from fermented corn masa, was catapulted with an unexpected layer of flavor from a scoop of lime sorbet in the center. For dessert, yes, you do finally reach that destination, burnt sugar is hardened and cracked atop a snake of vanilla custard topped with bursts of flavor from dehydrated berries.

Beverages were harder for me to keep track of…. But all were all consumed, including cucumber and mango agua fresca; an on-premise carbonated bottle of tequila and grapefruit juice; a tequila anejo rimmed with salt combined with ground chile, salt and charales – tiny fried fish; Mexican coke; beer; Viognier white wine; Cabernet Sauvignon; a concoction of cacao and tequila; and Chiapan coffee. A deadly sounding combination of beverages if not served with food and in small quantities.

Sorry. There is only one seat available for this destination, and the last trip for this particular culinary adventure departs tomorrow night at 7 p.m.

But next week, the crew will be ready to magically transport you to the Yucatan. Tickets, including all food and pairings, are $80 per person. All aboard!

March 26 Update: Mixtli’s menu for the Yucatan experience is now posted: http://restaurantmixtli.com/menu/.

New World Wine Festival Shifts to New San Antonio

The New World Wine and Food Festival gets underway on Wednesday, May 12, with Sip, Savor & Shop.  Shop?  Stop.  What is happening?

Only four months ago we were cruising around the river bend, courtesy of JoAnn Boone of Rio San Antonio Cruises, enjoying appetizers from Boudro’s while listening to Richard and Bunny Becker talk about their vineyard’s wines, including their best-seller, the cleverly named Iconoclast.  This was part of the 2009 version of the New World Wine and Food Festival.  

But it seems that the festival has succumbed to the strong polar pull that makes San Antonio’s growth so lopsided.  The festival is linking up with the Valero Texas Open, played on the AT&T Oaks Course, which means much of the festival occurs at the brand-spanking new JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa.

Sipping and savoring while saving on shopping at La Cantera, including the VIP Bubbles Event at Tiffany’s (sorry, no breakfast), will probably be extremely popular; as will Burgers, BBQ, Beer and Texas Spirits at the resort on May 13.  The burger event should easily be a sell out in fact.  It will appeal not only to those on retreat at the resort, but they are bringing in Robert Earl Keen, who attracts rather large numbers of rambunctious fans.  Amazingly, the price for a package, including a spectator pass for Round One of the Texas Open, the 6 p.m. burger event and the Keen concert, is $55. 

$55 also admits one to Round Three on Saturday, combined with The Best of Mexico, “celebrating all the treasures of high end Mexican haute cuisine,” and entertainment at the resort’s music pavilion.  Hopefully, JW’s kitchen will be ready to pull all of this off by May (Read Ed Tijerina’s initial review .) and somehow manage to exude the San Antonio flavor the festival advertises.

Although JW does boast of its “1200-foot lazy river”  – unlike the real thing, chlorinated – the New World Grand Tasting Friday night, May 14, takes place along the actual San Antonio River (well, technically an extension of it) in the Convention Center Lagoon.  No golf package offered that day.

Ever since the time of King Tut, the common folk have swilled beer while the upper crust sips wine; so I guess it only makes sense to follow the money northward.  Maybe this post is all sour grapes because I tend toward a phobia that Lynne Rosetto Kasper of Public Radio’s Splendid Table once referred to as oeno-something-phobia, defined as “fear of an empty wine glass.” 

While the road might go on forever without the party ending for Robert Earl, Texas law dictates the party has to end when one has to drive forever to get back home.  I prefer to walk into town to attend wine-centric events; no need to have a designated walker to return home. 

The New World Wine and Food Festival organizers are trying to ease the pain for commuters by reducing the price for designated deprived ones:

To ensure a fun and safe time for everyone, The NWWFF* offers a special Designated Driver Ticket. These heroes help transport their friends and family to and from the festival safely.  These guys pledge not to drink alcohol at our festival events, and are rewarded with 50% off admission special ticket!  Designated Drivers enjoy all other aspects of the festival including great food, demonstrations and lectures, but any Designated Drivers found consuming alcohol during the event will be asked to leave. NWWFF continues our partnership with taxi services to provide alternate transportation for those who may need it.

Somehow I had envisioned the evolution of the Wine Festival centering around single-proprietor restaurants and the Culinary Institute of  America at Pearl, not a Marriott Resort.  But, no double bogey here, the festival probably is hitting the financial equivalent of a hole in one and will emerge securely in the black as a result of deciding to combine with the Texas Open.  I only hope attendees get some sense of being in San Antonio.

The best way to make sure out-of-towners attending the Wine Festival experience San Antonio hospitality is to up and volunteer to extend it.  They need you. 

*The Wine Festival’s choice to use initials, not mine.  Please discontinue.  That alphabet-combo will remain meaningless for the public.