Bundled in their warmest winter attire, more than ten thousand San Antonians gathered at the Pearl Brewery Complex last December for its first annual Tamale Festival, a colorful celebration of a unique holiday tradition: tamales for Christmas. Friends and families shared bites of tamales and empanadas, pulled meat tacos, and sugar-drenched buñeulos while exploring the complex’s grassy public spaces and industrial, eco-friendly buildings. Mariachi bands sang in unison on several makeshift stages while live cooking demonstrations beguiled epicureans of every age.
One ambitious idea and years of planning preceded this festive event and the many others that regularly occur on the historic brewery grounds, including a biweekly farmers’ market. Locals are learning to enjoy a new type of culinary experience through the Pearl Brewery Redevelopment, a project that marries old San Antonio with its future as a culinary destination.
San Antonio is one of the oldest and largest cities in the United States, although its center feels more like a small town than a thriving metropolis. Transformation occurs slowly here: many thoroughfares are seemingly frozen in time, characterized by low, flat roofs and old-fashioned storefronts. Successful business owners know their customers—and cautiously approach change. Risky and short-lived are flashy newcomers, poorly attuned to San Antonio’s regard for preservation.
Cityscapes are typically marked by some towering edifice, but San Antonio’s legendary landmarks sit beneath the skyline. Eager tourists wait in line at the historic Alamo and flood the narrow banks of the San Antonio River, which meanders through downtown and beyond to a lone smokestack and steepled brew house.
Boasting more than one hundred years of near-continuous operation, the Pearl Brewery was the only San Antonio brewery to survive Prohibition. Beer flowed until 2001, when Pearl’s parent company shut down its enduring outpost, the closure of which surely interested opportunistic developers, the type that employ today’s successful formula of chain restaurants and stores encased in generic aesthetics. But that’s not how this story goes.
Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, the man who bought Pearl Brewery and the surrounding 22 acres, is not a real estate developer. He’s an accomplished businessman who wanted to “build a culinary village” that would promote Latino culture and enterprise, community education and connectedness, and environmental sustainability. Goldsbury’s focus on Latino culture stems from his own personal and professional experiences, including frequent vacations to his ranch in Mexico and his success running Pace Foods. He put salsa on the map and now aims to do the same for Latino gastronomy.
In the Lone Star State, Tex-Mex eateries are a dime a dozen, but authentic Latin American cuisine is much harder to come by (the same could be said about the ratio of Latin American restaurants workers to successful Latin American chefs). These disparities inspired Goldsbury’s $35 million gift to create the Culinary Institute of America’s third campus at the Pearl complex. Here expert chefs collaborate with a Latin Cuisines Advisory Committee to develop curricula; the goal at the CIA San Antonio being to “elevate Latin American cuisines to their rightful place among great cuisines of the world.” The facility will soon offer a specialized certificate in Latin American cuisine and hopes to develop a parallel master’s program, the first of its kind.
Not only is the campus a hotbed of culinary genius, so too is the complex, home to several renowned restaurants. In fact, all of Pearl’s dining establishments are run by San Antonio natives who studied at CIA’s New York campus. Chef Johnny Hernandez drew inspiration from “the passion and the flavors that flow through Mexico” when he created La Gloria Ice House, a colorful throwback to Mexican street fare and the Texas ice house.
Pearl’s other flagship restaurants were created by Andrew Weissman, another San Antonio native and CIA graduate. Weissman, who ran the highly acclaimed Le Rêve for many years before shutting its doors (he was exhausted by grueling hours and wanted to try something new), transferred its sister restaurant, Sandbar, to Pearl. He simultaneously opened Il Sogno, keen to offer “great food in a fun, relaxed, more-inclusive setting.” Weissman chose Pearl for the site of his restaurants because of the project’s transformative nature, “I think it’s changing the cityscape in a unique way by creating a more-urban feel.”
San Antonio residents have always celebrated food, whether making tamales at home on Christmas Eve or sharing meals at lively, Tex-Mex eateries, some of the country’s best-kept secrets. The Pearl promotes such traditions by creating a sophisticated yet accessible meeting point where culinary excellence and enthusiasm for all things local herald a new and exciting phase for the Alamo City.
For more information on the Pearl Brewery Redevelopment Project, go to atpearl.com. The mixed-use property is located on the San Antonio River, in north downtown. It can be accessed by boat, car, and bike or on foot from the Museum Reach of the River Walk or via East Grayson Street (just west of U.S. Hwy 281 and Broadway).