San Antonio and the Perfect Margarita

San Antonio—it’s almost as fabulous as a trip to Mexico, except there’re no border crossings or language barriers. The most idyllic place to start is at the historic Riverwalk downtown, where semi-tropical flowers and stately cypress trees compete with manmade splendor to usher you into Texas’ own version of Venice, Italy. Sit down on a stone bench to people watch or refresh yourself at any of the dozens of cafés and restaurants featuring everything from classic Mexican to Australian grub. Even at this time of year you’re likely to have temperatures moderate enough to allow you to eat al fresco along manicured river banks that overflow with flowers and greenery year round.

Or rest those tired holiday feet and see the waterway on a colorful paddleboat that wends its way under arched bridges, and past stone grottos where wrought iron balconies drip with bougainvilleas and delicate lights of the season. If you’re in the mood for some serious shopping, get off at the mall which features the monumental Imax Theater as well, now featuring Star Wars: The Last Jedi as well as Alamo:The Price of Freeedom.

At night throughout the year the Riverwalk comes alive with lights and color that surpass even the day’s kaleidoscope of brightness. But at Christmas it is a sight not to be missed. Delicate electric orbs hang from the trees like frozen fireflies, illuminating the rainbow of café umbrellas and casting a puddle of warmth in the water. Can you think of a more romantic place to share a drink or dinner? For the children it is like a trip to Disneyworld, without the admittance price.

But when I’m the mood for some serious, shop to drop fare, complete with south of the border flair and authenticity, I leave the Riverwalk’s well-known paths for The Market, "El Mercado," reached by a San Antonio Streetcar for a mere 80 cents. There you will find two enclosed buildings brimming with jewelry, textiles, pottery, and just about anything you could ask for in Mexico itself. My husband, a man who can never have enough blankets, finds a tasteful blue one for only $6.

One booth looks almost as if they are expecting a visit from those Red Hat Ladies --you know the ones who are inspired by the poem “Warning,” by Jenny Joseph. It’s about a woman who looks forward to old age, insisting she will forget the fashion police and other various arbitrators of conduct in her golden years:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people's gardens . . .

If you’d rather deck your house instead of yourself with color, you will find unlimited opportunity. Forget those gray winter skies and pick up some vibrant pillows, flowers, or throws to keep you cozy by the fire this season. Whether you favor Aztec designs or elegant European inspired sophistication, you can take your pick of collections that hang from the ceilings of shops like so many medieval banners.

Did I mention the jewelry? Shimmering earrings drip silver and turquoise; some even jingle if you shake your head in laughter. Large stones make for dramatic necklaces in every color, from sea foam green to cerulean blue. Warm reds and ambers are there too. Some are the real thing at pretty reasonable prices, while others are excellent faux pieces so affordable you could have a jeweled ring for each finger or day of the week.

The Mercado also gleams with Talevera ware, that exquisite blend of Mexican, Spanish, Arabic and Asian influences that got its name from Talavera de la Reina in Spain. The handcrafted pottery is made from three types of clay, which are kneaded by foot before being fired at extreme heat. The primitive techniques used through history are still used today by the people of Puebla and Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, but the clay all comes from Puebla. Select a jar or plate to charm your kitchen or for a truly unique and exotic bar or bathroom sink, try one of the colorful hand painted basins.

Experienced shoppers or their sympathetic spouses will by now be a little tired, not unlike the three young girls here waiting their turn to perform on the center stage located among the shops. So pull up a chair and watch skirts switch, and shoes tap a staccato beat as the Ballet Folklorico entertains.

Like a butterfly blooming before your eyes, the childlike steps of the young dancers gradually become the precisioned grace of assured performers Samantha and Geena, whose taffeta skirts will take you back to medieval Spain and Colonial Mexico. Close you eyes and listen to the music, the swish of starched skirts, the tap of leather soles, and you will be transported to a place long ago and far away.

By now you should have worked up an appetite, so venture out to the adjoining cobbled streets and treat yourself to some of the local delicacies cooked up fresh for you. You can sip some aquas frescas, Mexican coolers made with fresh fruit, flowers, and herbs. Just the thing to wash down a deep fired “gordita” or little fat one, a pastry filled with ground meat and topped with cheese and lettuce.

As you munch away, you can listen to the sweet sounds of Incan music recreated on authentic wooden pipes by Wayanay Inkas. If you cannot make the live performance, you can purchase these wonderful tapes or CD’s on their website. Founded in Lima, Peru, in 1984, the group aims to “express through our song, not only the customs, ways of life, and images of the Andean culture, but also to reflect fully the people who inhabit these lands, sometimes full of pain and sorrow, yet always with their hearts full of hope. Experience has shown that the music of a people reflects their innermost being; and this is why we feel compelled to allow our songs, with their poetry, to become merged with our people's historical journey.”

Now, to cap off to a wonderful day, Mi Tierra: Café and Panaderia. Behind the shining glass cabinets in the entry is a grand assortment of Pan Dulce, literally “sweet breads.” I recommend the pumpkin empanada, kind of a sandwich version of pumpkin pie, though not quite as rich. You can also find empanadas filled with apple or vanilla custard. “Conchas” are huge seashells topped with chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry frosting. And you might want to try a “marranito,” a soft gingerbread cookie in the shape of a pig.

Since it’s way past breakfast, I feast only with my eyes and enter the bar, probably the most festive and splendid one this side of the Mississippi. The massive wooden bar is decked by high ceilings and a balcony that overlooks it. Costumes of mariachi performers glitter behind their frames on the wall, but are also worn by real life strolling musicians who favor us with a sweet rendition of “La Paloma.” The festive Christmas tree is a full twelve feet high, a glorious glittering excess of gold and silver that would put a mile wide smile on even Ebenezer Scrooge. And if not the tree, then the Margarita, made from fresh limes and served with a flourish by our favorite waiter, a gentleman of years who shuns retirement even though he seems at one with the ancient oak beams overhead.

I open my sack and review my baubles like some pilgrim on the ancient Spice Route inspecting his exotic wares in amazement. The light edge of salt touches my lips and the frozen Margarita is tart and sweet. I remember the day in shades of amber and blue, silver and gold, swishing skirts and mellow wooden pipes. San Antonio has performed its magic once again to bring its glow to the season of light and hope.

The Perfect Margarita

“What do we really know about the history of the Margarita? An early Margarita was made with Cointreau, tequila and lime juice. It was mixed by Margarita Samas in 1948 at a poolside party at her Acapulco vacation house. Then there's the account of it originating across the border from El Paso, Texas in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico where Francisco "Pancho" Morales poured the first one in 1942. And yet another source tells us that Red Hinton, a bartender in Virginia City named it after his girlfriend (Margarita Mendez) who hit someone over the head with a whiskey bottle & died in the crossfire that pursued. No matter what it's origin, we're glad it's here!

Your tequila the most important item in your Margarita. With all the different styles, it is merely a question of taste, but a 100% blue agave is recommended.

Most bar recipes call for just tequila and triple sec for spirits. That is because of bar costs and it makes an adequate margarita. Grand Marnier has a very distinctive flavor and is great if you are a fan. You could also try Grand Marnier & Cointreau together. Blue Curacao can also be used & if show is what you're looking for, it makes a delightful Blue Margarita. Sour mix or commercial Margarita mix can be used, but fresh squeezed limes and lemons are the best. Add a dash of simple syrup if you prefer them on the sweeter side."

Frozen Margaritas

  • 6-ounce can of frozen limeade concentrate
  • 6 ounces tequila
  • 2 ounces triple sec
  • 6 ounces lemon-lime soda
  • 5 cups crushed ice
  • lime slices
  • margarita salt

Pour limeade concentrate, tequila, triple sec and soda into large plastic container, and stir to mix. Fill blender with 5 cups crushed ice. Add limeade mixture to ice in blender and blend until slushy. Pour into salt-rimmed Margarita glasses. Garnish with lime slices.

Note: Squeeze half a lime into a small bowl with a flat bottom. 
Dip each glass into the lime juice and then into the margarita salt.

Recipe source: Texascooking.com