Remembering the Alamo: Dispatches from San Antonio

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A convention brought me and a group from my work to San Antonio at the beginning of July. We spent our days working hard and our nights exploring our nation’s 7th most populous city.

What follows is not a travel diary, per se.

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The Alamo

On a blisteringly hot Texas afternoon, hundreds amassed outside a mission-turned-fortress. They wanted blood.

Unlike a three-week stretch in 1836, these individuals would not get their wish. They were boxing fans and they were outside The Alamo hoping to catch a glimpse of Floyd Mayweather, arguably the most-famous, most-talented boxer in the world. He would be there for a press conference with his opponent in an upcoming fight.

Dan, Megan and I were just there to lay our eyes on a piece of American history.

Seeing the Alamo is startling, no matter which direction you approach from, even when it isn’t besieged by hundreds of gawkers and boxing fans. It is this small, old building at the feet of skyscrapers. It would be demolished were it not for its historical significance.

The Alamo is just kind of there.

We walked past the crowd and got in a line. There is no fee to visit the Alamo, although donations are accepted. If you are like Megan and you don’t remember why this building is significant, large signs report the bravery of the men who fought there and held the under-siege building for three weeks while being vastly outnumbered by the Mexican army. Though those heroic men lost their battle, their story inspired others to take up arms and claim Texas once and for all.

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After about 20 minutes in line, we entered the main building–it is windowless and ringed with historical artifacts–it basically looks like the inside of a dungeon and doesn’t really allow for much quiet reflection on the events that make it a destination.

Outside the building and within the gates is a scenic, tranquil courtyard this size of a city block and–because this is America–a super-sized gift shop. We saw long-dead cannons and incongruous koi fish. After about a half hour, it was time to go.

We felt how you always feel after visiting a landmark; somehow richer, but ready for something else.

We didn’t stick around for Floyd, but we heard he was over an hour late … keeping his fans waiting in the punishing Texas heat, not quite in the shadow of a building around which nearly 800 men lost their lives.

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The Riverwalk

When in San Antonio, one cannot avoid The Riverwalk. It is ubiquitous. In fact, The Riverwalk was easily accessed from our hotel, The Grand Hyatt. It was just out the door. In a more label-consious world, the Riverwalk would likely be called the Rivereat.

The sheer number of restaurants on the Riverwalk is startling. I would imagine the most common question asked in those below-street-level corridors is “what do you want to eat?”

It is one we found ourselves asking each other repeatedly.

I expected to find a lot of commercial places there, and we did: Joe’s Crab Shack (since I’ve never been, I couldn’t resist going there for a steamer pot of crab and other assorted goodies), Coyote Ugly, Hard Rock Cafe, Rainforest Cafe and Dick’s Last Resort, had all snapped up some of the prized property. This isn’t surprising, it was the design group that created Disneyland that initially suggested turning a bunch of narrow waterways protecting the city from flooding into a destination.

The Esquire

The Esquire

It wasn’t all commercial though. We found some gems.

The Esquire Tavern is the kind of place I’d be hanging at if I lived in San Antonio. We didn’t eat there, though the menu looked appetizing–upscale bar food like inventive sandwiches and fried sides. They specialize in craft beer and had a band playing–the bass player was using a stand-up. Very hipster. A lot of character. One evening, Dan and I sat on their patio overlooking the Riverwalk and enjoyed a cigar while Megan reminded us smoking cigars is gross.

Casa Rio

Casa Rio

My favorite meal on the Riverwalk was lunch at Casa Rio. It was standard mexican fare, however the salsa was something special … it was pink in color and was spicy and fresh … and the view was spectacular. We also tried The Original Mexican Restaurant with our team, the food was decent, but the best part of that meal was our waitress, who was originally from New York, and brought the sass to prove it. She made the meal fun, especially when I called New York “The Garden State” and she bellowed back, “THAT’S JOISEY!”

Yes, this was $15 and it was  wonderful!

Yes, this was $15 and it was wonderful!

Truly, there is not much to do on the Riverwalk unless you like eating and drinking. Another favorite dinner spot was called Charlie Wants a Burger. Like Milwaukee-favorite, AJ Bombers, their burger is a blend of a number of different cuts of beef and is juicy and savory.

Another must-stop spot was Ritas on the River where I enjoyed a mammoth Beer-rita. The beer and the margarita mingled well, although Dan wouldn’t be able to comment, because he was too afraid to try it.

Sadly, this was not our driver.

Sadly, this was not our driver.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Riverwalk without taking a trip on the famous boats. The tour was a nice mix of local history and sightseeing. It lasted about 40 minutes and was under $10.

We didn’t go until one of our last days there, but it might have been great just to hop on the boat right away and get the lay of the land.

The tour really underlines how the river is weaved artfully among the tall building–the most vibrant part of a vibrant city. We only scratched the surface during the five evenings we spent in San Antonio.

The Riverwalk really is a must-see, although, it would be nearly impossible to go to downtown San Antonio and miss it.

Bill Miller Bar-B-Q next to The Alamodome

Bill Miller Bar-B-Q next to The Alamodome

BBQ vs. Bar-B-Q

When I asked my friend, Jeff Rice, if he knew of any good BBQ in San Antonio, he replied:

“Dude, you’ll be in the heart of Texas. You could walk into a laundry mat and get a great tasting pulled pork.”

I’m more of a beef brisket guy, but on our first night in town, Dan and Megan were game to join me for some BBQ. We headed to a place called County Line BBQ on the Riverwalk. While my compatriots opted to try a number of different meats, I chose to go all in on the brisket.

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We hungrily devoured a free sausage appetizer (secured through Yelp) and bread, and were still hungry when our platters came. For $18.99, I received two sides–potatoes and beans–and a reasonable, but not overwhelming amount of brisket. The star of the show was the BBQ sauce, which was rich, smokey and tangy. By the time we finished our meals, we were full.

I liked the meal, but it failed to live up to the Cindi Principle, which states “When you spend a lot of money on a meal, you want to feel like it would satisfy you if it was your last meal.”

So, on our last day, when I proposed another BBQ run, we decided to check with the concierge at our hotel. He pointed us toward Bill Miller Bar-B-Q. After a 20-minute walk, we approached a place that looked unsettlingly like a KFC.

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At Bill Miller, we didn’t have to wait to find out if we’d made the right choice … diners order their food luncheon-style. Within a minute I had $8.59 of brisket drowned in BBQ, three sides and a Texas Sweet Tea in a jumbo glass.

As if the lesson needed reproving, you can’t judge food by the building it is being served in or by cost. The food at Bill Miller was amazing. My brisket was hot, juicy and smokey.

Dan and Megan were lucky we didn’t discover Bill Miller earlier, I would have insisted we eat there everyday.

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World’s Fair Grounds

If you’re like me, you have a google news alert set for World’s Fairs. In that case, you know that one of the ongoing challenges cities who’ve hosted these events have is how to make use of the space once the fair ends.

Forty-five years after the HemisFair offically ended, the city is still giving the grounds the old college try.

The centerpiece of that fair still holds a prominent place in the San Antonio skyline. The Tower of the Americas is a 750-foot observation tower that includes a restaurant, observation deck and, at its base, a gift shop and theater (showing perhaps the single cheesiest 3D movie of all-time).

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Upon our walk in, the park was mostly deserted. As we rose in the elevator, it became even more clear though the park was spacious, sometimes beautiful and filled with interesting things, it just didn’t hold a lot of interest from locals or tourists.

In the tower’s restaurant, we enjoyed a beverage and appetizer and then headed up another floor to get a 360-degree view of the sprawling city of San Antonio, and its surrounding hills and suburbs. I hate heights, so I lurched around the open-air observation deck while Dan and Megan laughed at me.

Back on solid ground … in the gift shop, I was saddened I could not find a book commemorating the ’68 Fair–an event that courted the eyes of the world and would be completely forgotten if not for this 98-acres of proof.

Independence Day

If I had to spend a holiday away from my family, I’d want to spend it drinking Miller Lite on a public street in a great American city with two good friends, surrounded by thousands, including one affable drunkard, sipping from a hipper and repeatedly shouting “rock ‘n roll.”

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Later that evening we ended up at Mad Dogs, an England-themed bar on the Riverwalk, where Dan wormed his way on-stage with the live band to sing “Creep” and Megan and I laughed and laughed.

God bless San Antonio!

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