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Lots of Laughs and Plenty to Eat in the New, Improved San Antonio

May 05, 1991|BARRY ZWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Zwick is a Times assistant news editor. and

SAN ANTONIO — Jose Saragosa, riverboat pilot supremo in tank top and shorts, yawed his tourist-packed cruiser to the starboard side of a sister ship, and he asked its captain:

"Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"

San Antonio has become a city of infinite jest under Mayor Lila Cockrill, who has set about to create a world-class tourist mecca, an international city. Already she has brought San Antonio its first major-league art exhibit--"Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries"--and she has persuaded Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to make a state visit, the first by a Mexican president to San Antonio since Texas declared its independence in 1836.

You can even eat here nowadays. San Antonio, where the Frito was invented in 1942, was once the national capital of cop food: nachos, chicken-fried steak, onion rings and doughnuts. And it wasn't even good cop food. As former LAPD Sgt. Jack Emery put it, "You could get better Mexican food at a Taco Bell."

Tex-Mex platters in the old San Antonio were runny and brown, not to mention lardy and underseasoned.

Be ready for a drastic change. New restaurants on the River Walk do wonderful things with oysters and redfish, and light cuisine has made its mark. Where the choices once ranged from bad margaritas on the rocks to Lone Star beer, today you'll be handed a sophisticated wine list--with fine Texas wines amid the Napa/Sonomas.

Until recently, you couldn't be too choosy if you wanted to eat along the River Walk, the 2 1/2-mile flagstone and cobblestone path along both sides of the San Antonio River. Today, you still get the mariachis, the flowers, the lush tropical foliage, the gondolas and the joyous al fresco dining, but you also get the stunning redfish mojo y ajo, the smoked shrimp enchiladas and the grilled scallops on a bed of jalapeno fettuccine at Boudro's.

Two blocks from Hotel Row, at the edge of the posh King William District, you can enjoy the glorious sopa Azteca at El Mirador, but you'll have to stand in line. Sopa Azteca ? A thick, fragrant soup of chicken, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, peppers, cheese, tortilla shreds and a hint of maybe cilantro and cumin.

The view is the thing at the revolving restaurant atop the 750-foot Tower of the Americas in HemisFair Park--the front yard of the Plaza San Antonio hotel--site of the World's Fair of 1968, and the blackened prime rib is worth the dizzying elevator ride.

San Antonio even has a nightclub district these days, along St. Mary's Avenue between Josephine and Magnolia streets. Bands play everything from zydeco to blues to hard rock. You won't find any slow nights, not even Mondays. At the hugely popular Tycoon Flats, Ize Box will rock for you while you eat French fries for $1.75 a pound and drink Pearl Beer from long-necked bottles.

The liveliest spot in town is the ground floor of the Embassy Suites at San Antonio airport. Like other hotels in the chain, this one serves unlimited free drinks and popcorn to hotel guests and their friends from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. every day. Unlimited corn chips and salsa too.

But this Embassy Suites issues trays, so you can pick up two hours' worth of drinks at once without standing in line again. I met one Trinity University student who ordered 10 whiskey sours--and watched him drink them all. How many of the hundreds of drinkers are actually hotel guests is anybody's guess; I never saw a bartender ask anyone to show a room key.

Hotelkeeping has turned into something of an art form here. At Plaza San Antonio, just south of the Alamo, pheasants stroll the gardens, and concierges order up bicycles for you along with salmon-in-dill-sauce picnic lunches and hand-drawn maps of suggested routes through the historic King William District, where huge Victorian mansions stand dressed for summer in their cheery pastels.

A waiter at Boudro's touts the guest amenities at La Mansion del Rio, a refurbished mansion on the River Walk. "For just a few dollars more," he says, "you get true European service." La Mansion will arrange, for a fee, romantic river barge dinners with tropical fruits and sorbet and champagne for two.

What he knows about true European service is not readily apparent, however. When I refused to order the $42 bottle of wine he suggested, he whisked away our wineglasses, turned his back on our table and was off like a prom dress.

The San Antonio that awaits today's visitor is 55% Latino, and Latinos are among the city's First Families. San Antonio, after all, was Spanish and then Mexican long before it was part of the United States. The Mexican Constitution was drafted here.

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