Monday, June 4, 2012

Beating the Tourist Blues in San Antonio

Barriba Cantina
111 West Crockett St.
San Antonio, TX

One unalterable rule you quickly learn as a Suit in Strange Places is that you have to get away from the tourist mobs to find the coolest places to eat and drink.

Places packed with tourists 365 days a year feel no need to offer creative, interesting cuisine or exciting beers.

On the San Antonio Riverwalk the tourists will come – no matter what slop you throw in front of them and no matter how much you charge them for it.

And boy did they come in droves on this Wednesday night.

By the time I made my way past the Alamo and got down to the Riverwalk at 10pm, there wasn’t a bar stool or dinner table to be had. Anywhere.

But getting away from the tourist throngs doesn’t have to mean driving for miles out into the countryside down dirt roads in search of a long lost fish camp, ice house or dance hall.

Sometimes you don’t have to travel more than 25 feet.

Just when I resigned myself to hiking back to my hotel and calling Dominos, I heard the wailing of a harmonica above the tourist din.

Up a cobblestone set of stairs, set about 25 feet above the Riverwalk, I found myself in Barriba Cantina – with plenty of vacant bar stools.

Belting out the Texas blues was the Bob Bass Band, entertaining a small, but enthusiastic crowd downing margaritas.

Gourmet street tacos, local microbrews, good music and the Astros-Braves game on the giant flat screen.

No doubt about it – my evening was officially salvaged. Suit757 was in his element!

Now, don’t get me wrong. Barriba Cantina is no secret locals’ hideaway. When Bob Bass asked the crowd who was actually from San Antonio, only one hand went up in the entire place.

It’s just that 25 feet of stair climbing provides just enough of a disincentive to lazy tourists to ensure I have a place to plop myself on a busy Wednesday night.

That 25 feet of stair climbing also provides Barriba Cantina just enough of an incentive to offer fare a notch above the lowest common denominator tourist traps down below.

Trust me, the extra effort is well worth while.

On suggestion of the bartender, I ordered the “Chipotle Pork Carnitas Tacos”.

Just a few bites of marinated pork laid on three corn tortillas, the meal was a little skimpy for ten bucks. But there is no doubt the chipotle slaw, caramelized onions and avocado tomatillo salsa on the side conspired to generate an explosion of flavor.

Each bite produced a tantalizing ensemble of sweet and spicy from the slaw and onions.

Bowing to the delicate palates of the tourists, Barriba Cantina wisely provides the taste bud tingling hot salsa on the side. I gleefully poured it all over my three tacos.

And kept ordering beers to douse the fire.

First up, I tried a couple offerings from Real Ale Brewing Company in Blanco, Texas. The first was their “Full Moon Pale Rye Ale,” which surprisingly had no trace of the spicy hop kick you normally find in an ale made from rye grain.

The “Rio Blanco Pale Ale” wasn’t much better. Kind of boring.

But at least they are trying. Let’s face it. Texans value liberty, guns, big trucks and chicks with huge…er…hair.

Good beer? Not so much.

Most Texans I know subsist on a strict diet of Coors Light.

A few Yuppie-wannabe Texans drink Shiner Bock. Of course Suit757 is too polite to point out that Shiner Bock basically tastes like Coors Light with brown food coloring.

Texans just aren’t into flavorful real beer. So you have to take what you can get in the Lone Star State.

My final beer of the evening, a St. Arnold Amber, brewed in Houston, was the best of the bunch, by far. Amber style beers normally don’t pack much punch, but this one stood out – probably because my first two beers were so lackluster.

Local brews, tasty tacos and kickass Texas blues. I almost forget I was in a tourist hang out above the Riverwalk.


I was quickly reminded when I got the check and realized they were charging me five bucks for each 12 ounce bottle.

But then it dawned on me. Isn’t a Suit in a Strange Place always a tourist, by definition?

Yep. I guess that’s why I happily paid the tab, threw a few bucks in the band’s tip bucket and went back to my hotel thoroughly satisfied.

And you know what? The next time I find myself in the Alamo City, I’ll gladly climb those 25 feet of stairs to Barriba Cantina and do it all again.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt.

Barriba Cantina on Urbanspoon

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