Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Architectural excellence heightens flavorful experience

Somehow it seems like cheating. The food offered in a restaurant inside a former industrial structure sculpturally rehabilitated by an internationally acclaimed architect seems destined to taste good. And it does.

La Purificadora Hotel and Restaurant inhabit a former purified ice factory dating from 1884. Architect Ricardo Legoretta left industrial touches intact, playing with the interactions of light, open spaces, water, recycled wood, black and white punctuated with accents of “bishop purple.”

We enjoyed two meals at La Purificadora during our month-long stay in Puebla: one to see if it was special enough for my upcoming birthday celebration and again because it was. While not expensive at all by American standards, the tab can add up because the setting makes you want to linger from cocktails through dessert. Chef Enrique Olvera created a menu that balances the traditional heavy chile poblano with some almost-spa-like dishes.

The presentation of most plates is as artistic as the surroundings. My mouth takes great pleasure in amuse-bouche openers: a bright fresh caprese and a piece of seared chile-encrusted tuna among ours. Fried zucchini blossoms filled with goat cheese are not to be missed among the appetizers, but decadent nibbles can be offset by something refreshingly light, such as the fresh watercress salad with mango and watermelon.

The only dish that did not work for us was the combination of appetizers jumbled atop a plate too small to house them. All the elements taken individually are appealing, but not in such close company with one another. Piles of meat infringing on the space of seared ahi tuna is not neighborly, particularly with fried squash blossoms thrown atop the mound.

Grilled asparagus are wonderful as a side dish for the robalo (sea bass) or salmon. Instead of chicken smothered with an overdose of mole poblano prior to serving, a generous pitcher of the rich, nun-invented sauce is provided on the side, freeing up more than enough to share with a side of roasted vegetables.



How could you possibly save room for dessert? By ordering a luscious light palette of color, a raspberry and blueberry terrine with puffs of meringue and a scoop of coconut sorbet.

Yes, this all would be order-worthy in a lesser setting, but the surroundings contribute much to the pleasurable experience.

All this makes me hungry for even a casual café right here in San Antonio in the gallery space under the shimmering Dale Chihuly sculpture in our Legoretta-designed Central Library. Imagine, taking a break from research in Texana to pleasantly partake of something delicious, flavor-enhanced by inspiring architectural surroundings….

Of course, close to home as well, I still need to experience Chef John Brand-developed restaurants of San Antonio’s Hotel Emma, adapted by Roman and Williams and opened this past week at the former Pearl Brewery.

It’s a long way until my birthday, but maybe we need to do a test-run to see if it’s good enough for the next celebration.

Lost and Found Art and a Closing Celebration

As an architect, he has received recognition from the Texas Society of Architects; and his annotated drawings of San Antonio landmarks are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey published in the 1980s.  His 1985 poster design for Fiesta San Antonio Commission was one of my favorites. 

These things are but small parts of Roland Rodriguez’s past he would prefer I not share.  It is not like I am revealing any sordid secrets, but I feel as though I am betraying him by mentioning things from a quarter of a century ago even in passing.

Roland emailed me:

Generally I refrain from re-stating the past.  When I do it is usually in non-specific terms.  I’m not too fond of being tied to dates or places.  People seem to think they know something about you with that kind of information and to me it just misses the real truth in living life.

Artists participating in an event such as San Antonio’s Luminaria Arts Night design their site-specific art well aware of its ephemeral nature.  But Roland created two murals in San Antonio he thought would be enduring.   

One combined San Antonio’s landmarks in what itself became a landmark – “Victory and Triumph” – clearly visible in HemisFair Park and to drivers traveling north on the interstate.  Roland’s work had been selected through a competitive design process I had worked on with Dianne Powell when she was executive director of the now-extinct San Antonio Business Committee for the Arts.

Installation of the mural cost close to $100,000, much more than we had anticipated, because of the rough texture of the southern walls of the Arena.  “What Arena?,” you might ask.  The Arena deemed unsuitable for renovation that was torn down, its former site now covered by the continually expanding Convention Center. 

The late David Anthony Richelieu wrote about the mural’s uncertain future in his October 22, 1996, column in the San Antonio Express-News

When it was announced the Arena would be razed to expand the Convention Center, city officials and staff promised the mural would find a new home at the expanded convention complex.  Last Friday, I went out to Kell Munoz Wigodsky Architects for an update on the latest design work of the $175 million expansion project. 

At one point I asked:  “And where’s the mural going?”  That eventually prompted the architectural equivalent of “Houston, we have a problem.”  City staff and officials, however, insist the design team was formally told to incorporate the mural into the new complex and are certain it will be done.”

Well, it was not done.  Although the panels were photographed (wish I had some of those photos to share) and carefully removed by the City, they never have resurfaced. 

Riding up the escalator under Dale Chihuly‘s shimmering “Fiesta” in the Central Library, it still feels miraculous that words I put on paper for a grant for the San Antonio Public Library Foundation translated into something so incredibly beautiful.  On the other hand, I am saddened my work on the mural competition seems to have been completed in invisible ink.  PASA,  the “Winged Victory” and mission spires of Roland’s mural truly merit resurrection. 

The location of the second mural, which was privately commissioned, is more mysterious.  The late  Arthur P. “Hap” Veltman asked Roland to create the “River Corridor Mural” for a pedestrian linkage he opened in the 1980s between Losoya and Alamo Streets in the Alamo Plaza South project.  Downtowners became accustomed to utilizing the shortcut in an otherwise long block to pick up a sandwich from Elton Moy or access shops at Rivercenter.  They regarded both the pedestrian walkway and the mural as public, but, alas, they were not.

While the visionary Hap was willing to maintain public right of way through expensive Alamo Plaza real estate, more practical successive owners found that of little appeal.  The pathway is now the entrance and enclosed courtyard of Pat O’Brien’s, and locating the mural might require an art sleuth as persistent as Clarence Epstein.  

From 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31, C4 Workspace, located at 108 King William Street behind the Filling Station Cafe, will be the site for a celebration of not only Roland’s current artwork, an exhibit closing that day, but of the fact that Roland is able to continue to create art at all.

Here is Roland’s story:

Last year (almost exactly 12 month ago) I was in the emergency room in the best hospital in Oakland at 3 a.m. undergoing a spinal tap.  This was after collapsing at my friend’s home (I’d driven from Los Angeles to San Francisco the day before, in spite of feeling horrible.). 

The level of protein in his spinal fluid led Roland’s neurologist to diagnose his condition as Guillain-Barre, which affects only one in every 100,000 people.  Roland continues:

The following day (less than eight hours later) I started aspirating as my lungs started failing.  Emergency intubation with induced coma as everything started shutting down.

According to the National Institutes of Health:

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. In many instances the weakness and abnormal sensations spread to the arms and upper body. These symptoms can increase in intensity until certain muscles cannot be used at all and, when severe, the patient is almost totally paralyzed. In these cases the disorder is life threatening – potentially interfering with breathing and, at times, with blood pressure or heart rate….

Roland spent nine days in a coma:

Waking up in the ICU I had a sense of coming upon a vast prairie after living my entire life in a forest.  With the sense of rebirth came the realization that I could barely move.  A sobering moment for someone used to walking eight miles every day and relying on manual dexterity for many creative activities.

Regaining movement was a slow process.  King William neighbors watched his determined progress from barely walking with a cane to sitings blocks away. 

Concrete Abstractions on display at C4 represents his return.  Join in the celebration on Wednesday and experience his artwork with newfound recognition that this art could have been lost as well.