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/.

Don Draper Would Drink Here

My father had the hat, always had a cigarette going in an ashtray in every room and favored old-fashioneds.  His resemblance to Mad Men’s Don Draper ends there. 

When faced with the classic cocktail menu of Bohanan’s Bar, 219 East Houston Street, it would seem an old-fashioned would be a sentimental favorite.  But I must have sampled a few too many sips during one of my parents’ parties, because, even if “Dapper Don” himself were buying, I just cannot go there.

Mad Men is credited with igniting the classic mixologist craze; so it seemed fitting to order a drink invented by ad men with the swagger of Don “What-you-call-love-was-invented-by-guys-like-me-to-sell-nylons” Draper.  The Moscow Mule.  The refreshing drink with fresh lime and a strong ginger flavor seems more tropical than its name that reflects the Russian origins of the product the mule was supposed to push to gin-drinking Americans, Smirnoff’s vodka.

According to Cocktail Times, the Moscow Mule was invented in 1941 by Heublein executive, John G. Martin, and the owner of the Cock ‘N’ Bull Bar, who wanted to bolster his flailing ginger beer franchise:

They ordered specially engraved copper mugs and Martin set off to market it in the bars around the country. He bought one of the first Polaroid cameras and asked barmen to pose with a Moscow Mule copper mug and a bottle of Smirnoff vodka.  Then he would leave one copy of the photo at the bar and take a second copy to the bar next door to show them that their competitors were selling their concoction.  Between 1947 and 1950, thanks to their invention, Smirnoff vodka case columns more than tripled and nearly doubled in 1951.

Surely, Don Draper would approve.  Bohanan’s Bar seems to have the original drink down pat, even offering it in a copper mug General Manager Scott Becker says they had custom-made in New York.  My friend and I are hooked.  But wait, Lainey told us we had to try the food.

Mark Bohanan sheds some of the formality of the restaurant upstairs by offering a selection of traditional sounding sandwiches with upscale twists:  the BLT features Kurobuta – the Kobe beef of pork – bacon; the grilled cheese has aged gouda, heirloom tomatoes and basil; and the roasted lamb has caponata, goat cheese and arugula.  He even makes a nod to that traditional San Antonio snack, Frito pie.

We headed for other sections on the menu.  Raised on the Atlantic Ocean by the Chesapeake Bay, I tend to be more than a bit snooty about crabcakes.  The Bar at Bohanan’s makes a great Old Bay-seasoned one dominated, as it should be, by the flavorful lump crabmeat itself.  The Bar’s take on a Nicoise salad features several small rounds of perfectly seared sashimi-grade tuna, and the blackened snapper arrived blanketed with freshly prepared vegetables.  We bucked all wine-pairing rules and enjoyed a glass of a Chilean Carbenere blend from San Lorenzo Estates.

Jill Giles worked with Bohanan’s on the interior design, and the care she lends any project with which she is connected is clearly evident in the Bar.  The traditional dark wood used for the bar and trimmings is counterbalanced by the large storefront windows fronting on Houston Street and overlooking the courtyard.  Seating and tables vary in size and arrangement, creating comfortable spaces for couples or groups of friends. 

Attentive service, fresh presentation of food and cocktails Don would drink are all good qualities.  But what makes a body want to return to the Bar at Bohanan’s is that it is quite simply a great place to talk.

Note added on April 23:  Perhaps we had never heard of the Moscow mule because McCarthyism and the Cold War dampened enthusiasm for anything Russian.  Booze News offers a more extensive history of the impact of politics on the drink, including the following:

In particular, the drink caught on with the Hollywood crowd until 1950 when not unlike a few Hollywood screenwriters, Smirnoff and its flagship drink, the Moscow Mule, took heat for the Russian association.  Assuming that Smirnoff was a Russian import, unionized bartenders in New York announced a Moscow Mule boycott, refusing to “shove slave labor liquor across the wood in any American saloon.” 

Smirnoff rushed to testify that its vodka was not, and never had been a member of the Communist Party.  In support, Walter Winchell wrote in 1951, “The Moscow Mule is US made, so don’t be political when you’re thirsty.  Three are enough, however, to make you wanna fight pro-Communists.”