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.

‘New York Times’ Making Amends?

Austinites gloated, but San Antonians exploded over the blasphemous claim made by John Edge on March 9 in The New York Times:

When it comes to breakfast tacos, however, Austin trumps all other American cities.

What? 

I have tried to refrain from jumping on the anti-Edge bandwagon, but….

Theoretically, Edge comes with impeccable foodie credentials, such as the upcoming Truck Food Nation (I confess.  I love this website.) and the fact that he currently is a finalist for the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation. 

But Edge was way off base with that line.  Reminiscent of the old Pace Picante advertisement blasting Cookie for serving “foreign” hot sauce (“This stuff is made in New York City.”), the headline itself is a dead giveaway:  “Tacos in the Morning?”  That is not a question; it is an assumption for a huge percentage of San Antonians and has been for their entire lives. 

Personally, I am partial to Tito’s thick, freshly made-by-hand, white corn tortillas way-overstuffed with chilaquiles, but there are a multitude of choices in virtually every neighborhood.  Veronica Flores-Paniagua of the Express-News writes that the paper’s food editor, Karen Haram, received nominations for more than 200 different breakfast taco destinations as the “best” in the city this past year.  San Antonians probably were eating breakfast tacos before upstart Austin was founded.

Dan Saltzstein‘s article, “36 Hours in San Antonio” in today’s New York Times, makes the paper more palatable to pick up again.  Saltzstein wandered far and wide off the beaten track to spotlight both upscale and quirky spots in San Antonio (although no breakfast tacos are mentioned).   He recommends a platter of the “succulent, charred-on-the-outside brisket” at The Smokehouse on Roland Avenue and the Texas burger, a Texas Monthly cover girl, at our favorite car wash, The Cove.

He dined on shrimp enchiladas at Aldaco’s Stone Oak, and waited in line for wild mushroom lasagna at Andrew Weissman’s Il Sogno.  He hit the Green Lantern on Stone Oak Parkway and wandered into Casbeers for a bit of “church music that goes way beyond hymns.”  In this whirlwind trip, he squeezes in museums and shopping at The Twig Book Shop and Melissa Guerra’s at Pearl.

Phew!  How could anyone do all that in 36 hours?  Saltzstein must have been zipping around faster than a New York minute, a phrase Barry Popik claims actually originated in Texas.  But, more importantly, why would anyone spend only 36 hours in San Antonio?  Then I looked back; the vacation schedule, despite the headline (Who writes these headlines for the Times?), stretched out over a 48-hour period – actually even longer because it ended up precisely 48 hours later upon arrival at the San Antonio Zoo, which has way too many acres of animals to see in a New York nanosecond.

Hey, New York, thanks for extending us a Texas minute to explore some of our charms.  Next time, try the breakfast tacos.

Some recent great meals around San Antonio, from a non-New York perspective:

  • The Cool Cafe, 123 Auditorium Circle:  A crepe filled with spinach, mushrooms and liberal amounts of olive oil served with sweet and crisp roasted potatoes; huge chunks of salmon cooked shish-kabob-style and served over basmati rice; half-price wine on Sunday.  Better hurry, because the new owners of the Havana Hotel seem inclined to want the Mediterranean cafe out of the way.  Liz Lambert has completed work on the hotel to instill it with the same coolness factor as the San Jose in Austin, and I am happy to learn the great basement Bar will no longer be filled with dense clouds of cigar smoke.  If Lambert can make a former “motor court” hip, she certainly should be able to make a building with the architectural bones of the Havana inviting.  Did I mention the Cool Cafe knocks 50 percent off all wine on Sundays?  Call first to be sure it has not been evicted:  210.224.2665. 
  • Tre Trattoria, 4003 Broadway:  Considering I have not been blogging long, it might arouse suspicion for me to mention this meal again.  Sorry, but this is my vision of a perfect Saturday lunch for making a couple feel as though they are on vacation:  grilled radicchio with lemon vinagrette; a pizza topped with goat cheese, pistachios and balsamic cippolini; and a bottle of A Mano Primitivo.  One might think Jason and Crystal Dady were bribing me, but they would go broke if everyone who came in placed such a budget order.  Price for two, including the bottle of wine:  $41.30.
  • Azuca Nuevo Latino, 713 South Alamo:  For a while, the kitchen seemed to suffer from attention-deficit as management focused on a northside location, but everything appears back on track.  Few restaurants present food with more artistry.  Would highly recommend garlicky tostones, tender grilled squid and the tropical fruit garden for dessert, much more decadent than it sounds.  The caipirinha is a nice change from margaritas or mojitos.
  • The Filling Station Cafe, 701 South St. Mary’s Street:  The place to grab a sandwich, such as the turkey habanero on rolls made in the teeninsiest kitchen.  There might be all of three tables tucked inside, but there is additional seating outside.  Have used Jon’s services several times to provide sandwiches for meetings, and everyone always raves. 
  • Zinc Champagne, Wine & Spirits, 207 North Presa:  The name immediately lets you know the beverage side of the menu is well-stocked; yet the bartenders do not complain about making something off-menu – such as what I have christened a “tequito,” a mojito with tequila instead of rum.  Zinc is open during the week for lunch, but seems to be trying to keep that secret.  Pears, goat cheese and pecans perk up a small Zinc salad, and the portobello patty melt with spinach, nopalitos and cheese is hearty fare.  The sweet potato fries arriving on the same plate keep me from exploring the menu much farther, despite the high praise friends lavish on the Texas salmon salad with pearl couscous. 
  • Easter lunch was bountiful, but my sister-in-law asked me not to give out her address.
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Pearl Farmers Market

On Sunday afternoon after the San Miguel Writers Conference, I had been charged with fetching some freshly made sauce and pasta from Natura on my way back up the hill to Chorro.  Sunday, however, meant it and seemingly all of the neighborhood tiendas were closed.  I asked an ex-pat at the conference where to head, and, much to my disappointment, she recommended the Mega.  Naturally, I headed in the opposite direction, to the old market house in the heart of downtown San Miguel de Allende, where produce and flowers are artfully displayed, even on Sunday.

Upon my return to San Antonio, the Saturday market at Pearl Brewery provided a welcome transition back to reality.  While pop-up tents perched in a parking lot are not as colorful as the old market house, the produce and fresh meats were bountiful.  Children were dancing to the live music, and the browsers – arriving not only by car, but by bike or on foot – came armed with their reusable cloth sacks  from home.

The vendors Pearl has assembled seem to be have chosen with great care.  Last Saturday brought rustic breads from Sol y Luna Baking Company; artisanal cheeses from Humble House Foods; jams and soaps from Imagine Lavender of Vanderpool; guajillo honey pecans form Al’s Gourmet Nuts; luscious-looking jams produced by Watson Farms of Stonewall; and olive soaps and oils from the Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard near Elmendorf, site of Les Dames d’ Escoffier San Antonio Chapter’s second annual Olives Ole! festival on Saturday, March 27. 

I might just have to return to Pearl for another transitioning session when I return from Merida next week.