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Fighting with the speaker at the Taco Cabana drive-thru near my house never gets old for me. It is the same scenario every time I go to buy a breakfast taco – I drive up, I order, and then I try to ask for salsa. The poor guy on the other end asks if I mean hot sauce. “No,” I say, “I want salsa. You know the red stuff with chunks of tomato?” “Ah, pico?” he asks. I sigh . . . “No, I’ll just take some red hot sauce.”

I usually give up in the end and simply ask for the hot sauce (which I always think of as salsa foolishly or not). Recently, though, I’ve been noticing it more in my culinary travels around San Antonio. Hot sauce or salsa? The tomato, pepper, and tomatillo concoctions – freshly-made and chunky – used to be salsa in my mind, but so many San Antonians seem to call that creation hot sauce. To me, hot sauce is the thin, spicy, red or green liquid which contains plenty of vinegar: Tabasco essentially. I needed to get the story straight, and maybe spare the poor man at Taco C.

First stop – the professionals. Elizabeth Kossick, a CIA Chef-Instructor and Latin Cuisines Specialist, seemed confused by my query. In interior Mexico, “salsas can be either green or red. They can be spiced with chilis, or they can be mild,” she says. “You could say salsa picante, but there is no specific term for hot sauce. It is under the umbrella term of salsa, and salsa can be made with anything and everything.”

“You know, I have more background on Mexican food, but what I think hot sauce means in San Antonio is a sauce that contains a vinegar,” fellow instructor and Latin Cuisines Specialist Iliana de la Vega says. “Everyone relates [hot sauce] to bottled ones – Cholula or whatever brand like that.”

That’s what I thought, too – where were the wires crossing? Mary Lou’s Café’s manager, Elena Joch, had a similar answer: “A hot sauce is not salsa. Salsa is a mix with tomato, and hot sauce is more of a liquid.”

Maybe the owner of Chris Madrid’s Nachos and Burgers, Chris Madrid, would know. Madrid’s serves house-made salsa with his famous tostada burger. “Sometimes we just say hot sauce. Sometimes we call it our homemade salsa,” Madrid said. “Years ago, I think when we did tacos and enchiladas, we called it salsa. Now for our burgers, we just call it hot sauce.” But when he looked at his menu, he realized that Chris Madrid’s menu says salsa goes on the tostada burger.

“Salsa’s definition is a sauce, especially a hot sauce containing chilis. It means basically the same thing [as hot sauce],” he said. “All the taco places I go to, I always ask for hot sauce.”

Madrid admitted to me that he had never really realized that there was this discrepancy before I asked him. I racked my brains trying to think of someone who might have noticed it as well. Diana Barrios, the owner of Los Barrios, a long-time San Antonio Tex-Mex establishment, perhaps. “We call it hot sauce for some people and salsa for others. We call it hot sauce because we have a bunch of different salsas that we use for topping different dishes,” she says.

So the different nomenclatures could be a distinction between types of sauces in general – like the sauce that you dip chips in verses the sauce you put on your taco.

“I know exactly what customers want when they ask for either one,” Barrios says. “It is just how people were brought up and what region of the country you are from . . . Some people will ask for cheese sauce, and I’ll say ‘Oh! Queso!’ because here in San Antonio that is the only thing we call it.” Having spent some time living in New England, I know what she means about queso being “cheese sauce,” but different from, say, a European-style “cheese sauce.”

I had to go back to the root of my problem – Taco Cabana – to confirm culture was the cause. Julian Ortiz, a TC manager, thought he knew the reason. “I think that [some employees] consider hot sauce and salsa to be the same, not really knowing the difference, whereas there are people who know the difference between hot sauce and salsa,” he said. “Maybe they weren’t raised with the difference.”

Phew! While I know that many individuals will forever have to succumb and ask for hot sauce at the Taco Cabana drive-thru when what they really mean is salsa, at least it is because of cultural diversity.

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/10/2009. Read it here.

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After stopping by the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market, I took a morning stroll down the riverwalk extension with my organic coffee in tow. Sadly, most of this was spent sweating and hiding under a shady overpass alongside fellow San Antonians. While beads of sweat fell into my eyes, I looked out at the plants stuck on the scorching hillside and realized in horror that the plants could never join me in the shade. Drought resistance only takes you so far.

Thankfully seven years of tedious effort, planning, and design created the Museum Reach riverwalk extension. “The project itself stared as a vision as far back as 1998. The San Antonio River Authority, the City of San Antonio, and Bexar County created the San Antonio River Oversight Committee [the citizens’ stakeholder group],” Steven Schauer, manager of external communications for SARA, says. When the design and construction phases of the project began, Ford, Powell, and Carson (an architectural firm) designed the extension, and Zachry Construction Corporation implemented FPC’s design – a plan that took our rain-filled Texas weather (just kidding) into account.

“[The landscape] was always meant to be irrigated, but even with a lot of irrigation, you still have to have plants that can stand full sun. They tried to select a lot of plants that were colorful and drought resistance because that’s what you want to see,” says Mark Sorenson, SARA’s project manager for the San Antonio river museum reach urban segment.

Although right now drought resistance seems the only important feature, other important elements are the plant’s aesthetics and their ability to prevent erosion, according to Cullen Coltrane, the landscape architect employed by FPC. No one wants to see an ugly garden, especially one that cost 61.1 million dollars. “As you move further toward Pearl Brewery, you get less tropical and more hill country in style,” Coltrane says.

Yet keeping that lovely hill country garden alive is another story.

Now the extension is open to the public, and the ISS Grounds Control (employed by Zachry to maintain the landscape) works tirelessly to inch the landscape along during our painfully extended drought.

“They will actually be maintaining the whole system for a year. Zachry was required as a part of their bid to insure the entire project for a year,” says Sorenson. “At this point, ISS is taking care of plants for the year [because they were the subcontractors].”

“We have one full time gentleman that is down there every day,” says Chris Pais, ISS project manager for river extension project. “He is in charge of basically maintaining it to the owner’s standards.”

With a degree in landscaping and golf course management from Carleton State University, Timothy Devries is the on-site go-to guy. “We’ve had to pull weeds by hand because the chemicals dilute and are not effective with the way we’ve had to water,” he says. They water daily for shorter periods of time instead of four days a week for longer periods – this process lets the water sink into the ground more effectively says Devries.

For those of us who can only water our lawns once a week, don’t worry, you aren’t getting cheated. “Luckily the water that we are using is recycled water, so the water restriction doesn’t affect us until stage three,” Devries says.

“Our irrigation system has control boxes throughout the river walk . . . if it notices something is not functioning properly, and then it sends me an email,” he says. It’s something out of the Jetsons – plants that harass you when they are dehydrated.

Even with ISS’s unflagging vigilance, a few plants simply can’t take the heat. “Some things might look happy going in but they might not be as happy as they look,” says Coltrane. “You are going to have some [plant] decline from transplanting the material, and you are dealing with nature as well.”

“90 percent of it is drought tolerant,” says Pais. But drought tolerance doesn’t happen as soon as roots hit dirt. “Once it is established it needs less water, but we are still in the establishment phase.”

Around the time of the extension’s grand opening, a 50 foot stretch of Cardinal Flowers died, and Pais is uncertain of the cause. However, he wants to eliminate one possible cause for their death – Pais is waiting until the replacements are fully grown before he puts them in the ground. “We want to make sure the plants are at their proper growth period,” he says.

Overall, the plants are plucky and have stuck it out. Less than 8 percent of the plants struggled, according to Devries, and he takes heart in the irrigation, hard work, and the sky. “As long as things stay wet, we can limp it through the summer,” he says. “Let’s hope god blesses us with some water.”

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 08/05/2009. Read it here.

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That little old man on the John the Greek salad-dressing bottle, smiling jovially from the shelf at grocery shoppers, always seems to make the dressing aisle at H-E-B more cheerful. I discovered recently that this tasty vinaigrette — made with mystery herbs, olive oil, vinegar, and garlic — originated from an eponymous local restaurant.

The day that Fast Foodie visited John the Greek, tucked in the back of the Thousand Oaks strip mall, a bird’s nest in the sign above the door and some trees off to one side of the entrance gave it a homey feel, fitting for a family-owned restaurant open since 1999. A friendly, alert server seated us almost immediately in the small dining room, which was busy but not crowded with lunch customers.

After extensive deliberation between traditional Greek dishes such as moussaka (layers of ground beef and eggplant topped with a béchamel sauce) and avgolemono soup (chicken soup Greek style, with egg and lemon), my friend ordered a gyro and a side Greek salad for $7.50. I decided to branch out and try the Arni Me Agginares ($13.99), braised lamb with artichokes and the house egg and lemon sauce. My accompanying Greek salad came with the namesake dressing, which is tangy, refreshing, and pungent, a well-balanced complement to the tomato, olives, feta, and shredded iceberg and romaine lettuces.

My friend declared the meat in her gyro very tender without any mushiness, and the toppings of tomato, onion, and tzatziki were fresh and not overdone. She proclaimed her meal “fit for a king.”

Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for my dish. The lamb, which was served in small chunks, had the consistency of cubed cheddar cheese. The artichoke hearts lacked flavor and were overwhelmed by the egg-lemon sauce. But perhaps I just had a bit of bad luck; the dishes being carried to other tables looked very appetizing, and my French fries were salivatingly crisp and minimally greasy.

With many other classic Greek dishes to try and the platters of Greek pastries at the front counter calling to us, we resolved to return. We might even get to meet the happy man on the salad-dressing bottle.

Published by the San Antonio Current on 08/05/2009

http://www.sacurrent.com/dining/review.asp?rid=13862

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Simplification is key. If you take a complex idea and condense it into something comprehensible, everyone can move on with their lives just a bit easier. Yet in the effort to simplify the city’s convoluted tree ordinance, the main goal behind the Tree Canopy Preservation Ordinance revision, simplification could be considered a death warrant for San Antonio’s older trees.

At the stakeholder committee meeting on Tuesday, July 14, no one probably intended a death warrant. People from both the developer and the conservation perspective make up this committee. According to a Development Services official who helped select the committee, Fernando De Leon, City Planning works frequently with the groups that provided the committee members: the Independent School Districts, The Citizens Tree Coalition, The Greater San Antonio Builders Association, etc. “We feel that we’ve created a balanced committee,” said De Leon. The committee’s schedule indicates that the revised ordinance should be submitted to the City Council by February of 2010.

The revision was proposed to tidy up the ordinance and preserve our tree canopy, according to Tom Carrasco, the committee’s mediator from Development Services. “There are a couple of issues. We had the tree canopy study that was completed by a private firm, American Forests. That report said San Antonio had to reach a certain canopy percentage to maintain our tree preservation,” said Carrasco. “Our current ordinance, right now, is somewhat confusing, and PDSD staff has spent a lot of time explaining what the ordinance means.”

“[Simplification] is important in that everybody needs to understand the rules, so that we can actually enforce the rules,” said Michael Nentwich, a committee member and a city forester from San Antonio Parks and Recreation. “There were some confusing components of the ordinance like sometimes the counting aspects of it. Legal terminology can be confusing.”

One central change is that the percentage of trees developers must preserve is based on the tree canopy alone. While it might not appear too dangerous at first glance, many environmentalists are wary because this adjustment potentially allows for favoring new trees over the older more beneficial trees.

Since the amount of trees preserved will be based on the tree canopy instead of tree species and trunk width, developers have the option to consider details such as the species and age of a tree if they feel the monetary savings warrant the preservation of older trees. At last Tuesday’s stakeholder meeting, only Paul Johnson, the regional urban forester from the Texas Forest Service, voiced the potential negative consequences. “Species have a lot of impact on how much that tree does for us. A big tree cleans more air, filters more water, and captures more water than even a small collection of newly planted trees,” Johnson said.

“Looking at the tree canopy is one of the things that [foresters] do as an initial stage, but what you really want to know is what size and species there are to know what action to take,” said Johnson. “You have a better idea of where a building should go if you know that on the east side of the property you have a stand of smaller shorter-lived trees and on the west side you have larger longer-lived tree species which are those that will give us the most environmental benefit.”

“The forest service has realized that kinds of trees are be important not merely canopy,” Loretta Van Coppenolle, conservation chair for the Alamo group of the Sierra Club, said.

Since specific tree measurements will not be mandatory, “It leaves it open to too many abilities to not know or not care,” Johnson said.

The cost of a lost tree can be very applicable to San Antonian’s daily life. In an article titled “Trees Can Bring Us More Rain” written by Van Coppenolle, the ability of trees to reduce pollutants is emphasized. Trees absorb particulate matter and other pollutants which decreases the formation of ground level ozone.

“Ozone is a much bigger threat to San Antonio [than other pollutants],” Brenda Williams, a projects manager who focuses on air quality for AACOG, said. “Government EPA sets standards for how much ozone is allowed into our air. For a year now we have been really close to that standard, which could mean violation,” said Williams. “So far, we’ve managed to avoid it.”

Despite the worries of environmentalists, Norman Dugas, a former Greater San Antonio Builder’s Association board member and local real estate developer, remains confident that residential builders will still try to preserve trees due to incentives and humans’ the natural desire to not cut down a tree if they have a choice. “In the residential context, we save every tree that we practically can because every tree we save makes the lot more valuable and the house easier to sell,” Dugas said.

If they preserve a heritage or champion tree, they get more canopy cover credit than if they were to plant a new tree, and preserving trees saves them money. In general, “[the revised ordinance] adds a lot of cost to every site because of the huge increase in planting requirements that are in this proposal,” said Dugas. While they used to only have to plant two trees per lot in the original ordinance, builders would now have to plant six trees per average residential lot, according to Dugas.

However, the simplification could save on housing costs. “[The original ordinance] was complex and convoluted in the process of compliance. It was very expensive to go through the process,” said Dugas. “It is important to understand the cost of all this is born by the new home buyer.”

There are threats and there are benefits from both sides of the line. “No one I know wants to remove trees, however the fact is, it is a balancing of needs,” said Dugas. “The need to preserve verses the need for roads, hospitals and the benefits of urban society.” The divide might not be as severe as Dugas suggests, and as to which need is greater, the opinions vary significantly.

“It could work just fine or it could be a real disaster,” said Johnson. “We won’t know until after the changes occur and they will be extremely difficult to reverse.” What appeared simple at first could create some very complex problems.

The date of the next stakeholder meeting is still unknown because the committee asked Development Services for information concerning how the revised ordinance would affect the city of San Antonio. Until this research is finished, the meeting will be delayed.

If you want to have your voice heard, attend the next committee meeting whose date, when determined, will be posted on http://www.treecoalition.org/canopyordnce.htm.

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/17/2009

http://www.sacurrent.com/blog/queblog.asp?perm=69837

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To the great surprise and dismay of Texas Campaign for the Environment members and the Texas House Representatives involved, Governor Rick Perry vetoed the TV TakeBack bill. However, the legislature cannot override Perry’s decision even if they wanted to.

By Texas law, if the legislature presents a bill to the governor less than 10 days prior to the close of the legislative session, the governor has 20 days to take action. A bill is considered “dead” if it is vetoed after sine die because a veto must be overridden within the same session it was created.

Officially, the 2009 TV TakeBack bill is dead, but it lies in the minds of its creators. Rep. Leibowitz has already distributed his personal response to Perry’s veto, and he plans to keep this initiative going in the next legislative session. “He intends to work with the stakeholders and the governor’s office to find new legislation that everyone can agree to and pass,” Rob Borja, Leibowitz’s Chief of Staff, said. “I assume it would be with joint and co-authors, the senate, and then the senate sponsors and co-sponsors . . . It’s just trying to find the language that everyone can agree to.” And that includes the Governor.

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/02/2009. Read it here.

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Texas doesn’t like you to burn its flag or Uncle Sam’s — disincentives run up to $4,000 and a year in jail. But the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson ruled that if you’re lighting up Old Glory to make a statement, you’re protected by the Constitution. Well, what about foreign flags?

David Bohmfalk was cited in May 2007 for illegally burning rubbish — rubbish which just happened to be our southern neighbors’ tricolor bandera — in front of the Alamo to protest legislation that would have granted undocumented workers amnesty.

Bohmfalk was detained by police officers and, says lawyer Jason Jakob, treated poorly. “He was spit on. Some tourist made death threats, and the police did not do anything except say ‘Move along,’” Jakob said. “[The officers] stated that he violated several state and federal laws, [but] none of those charges wound up sticking.”

Bohmfalk is suing the City of San Antonio, two Park Rangers and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas for violating his First Amendment rights, claiming false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.

“One cannot miss the irony of such an appalling lack of constitutional protection at a location so known for a person’s right to defend its land from others,” stated Bohmfalk’s original petition.

“Under the First Amendment,” Jakob said, “he had every right to burn the flag.”

Published online by the San Antonio Current on 07/01/2009. Read it here.

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Whenever Italian food is the topic of conversation, the first thing I think of is the film Moonstruck — the mood, the moonlight, the happily-ever-after for a cynical 38-year-old. Yet walking into Joe’s Italian Grill, ready for a delicious meal, my initial reaction was skepticism, not romance.

The exterior of Joe’s Italian Grill is not the most alluring, and the entrance opens onto an extremely spacious dining room — almost too spacious for comfort. Waiting for the server, I hoped that the many excited twitterings I had heard about Joe’s pasta and glorious New York-style pizza were correct.

Ordering a glass of wine was not an option because Joe’s is still acquiring its liquor license, but customers can bring a bottle of vino, and there’s no corkage fee.

My first two courses arrived after a short wait. The garlic cheese bread ($2.95) was the perfect balance of garlic and cheese. The toasted bread was not soggy from the butter, and the taste of garlic was potent but not overpowering.

The kitchen had run out of Parmesan, so I had a Caesar salad ($5.95) minus the cheese. The salad’s croutons were the perfect cubes that one can get from a bag at the grocery store, the lettuce was torn in large chunks, and the fishy flavor of the dressing indicated the strong presence of anchovies — great if you’re a Caesar-dressing purist.

When my Florentine pizza ($20.45) arrived, any lingering misgivings were washed away. The perfectly circular pie had a thin, crispy, but not crunchy, crust in classic New York style. There was no need to blot grease — not that I ever blot grease — and the toppings were in harmony, as on the garlic cheese bread. A burst of flavor alerted me to a few basil leaves scattered over the pizza, slightly crisped and pungent.

The pizzas might be a bit pricier than Papa John’s, but even if you don’t get Joe’s military discount, the quality is well worth the few extra dollars. And pizza is not the only item on the menu. I’ll be back soon to try the steaming bowls of baked pastas with mozzarella on top and the classic spaghetti and meatballs.

Published by the San Antonio Current on 06/10/2009. Read it here.

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