In many ways, the histories of San Antonio and Schilo’s are intertwined. Reflective of the city’s mid-19th-century German roots, the venerable delicatessen was established by Papa Fritz Schilo in 1917, and, despite a couple of moves before arriving at its present location, seems not to have changed a whit. Only the occasional ding of a microwave and the name tags on the waitresses — more likely now to be Leticia than Hildegard — suggest that this is the 21st century. Implacable in the face of fast food, iconic dishes such as Mama Schilo’s split-pea soup remind us that if we are to appreciate change, we must also have benchmarks against which to judge it. Pea soup as a cultural guidepost? You bet. And let’s throw in potato pancakes while we’re at it.
My own German grandmother made split-pea soup a lot; it was one of those hearty dishes that could stretch a penny to feed a family. She always put summer savory in hers, but not to worry, I’m flexible. Mama Schilo’s recipe, thick and earthy-green, accordingly provided a bit of comfort when I first arrived in San Antonio. Occasionally I’d add in the franks or knockwurst, but equally often they seemed beside the point. A bowl of the soup alone, served with dark rye bread and butter, costs $2.30 today and makes for the kind of humble and satisfying lunch it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of when sitting down to a plate of lush and luxurious crab cakes decorated with a roasted-red-pepper sauce. There, that’s my lecture for today.
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424 E. Commerce
Price Range: $3.00-$8.95
Even heartier, but equally humble, fare is the stuff of the daily lunch specials, and though one friend of German ancestry swears by Thursday’s chicken and dumplings with green peas and carrot salad, I have to say that Tuesday may be even more expressive of the deli’s roots. Tuesday is corned-beefand- cabbage day, and there’s no way you won’t know that the moment you walk in. Now, it needs be said that authenticity and sheer pleasure aren’t necessarily bosom buddies. Schilo’s cabbage, and there’s lots of it, is relentlessly plain, and the mild, thinly sliced corned beef doesn’t come across as house-made; it apparently comes from one of the packages of Hormel corned beef unashamedly displayed in the refrigerated deli case along with the in-house deviled eggs and cheesecake. Yet there’s something right about the combination, which also includes simply steamed potatoes with a little butter and what I suspect is dried parsley. Do feel free to play fast and loose with a little salt, some pepper, and maybe a squirt of Schilo’s own hotstyle mustard. A frosty mug of “our famous” root beer, creamy and just carbonated enough, will help ease it all down. And if dessert in the form of a blackberry cobbler should impose itself, let me suggest you have it with a scoop of ice cream to balance the sweet-tart fruit.
Hot or cold plates with an included side (those deviled eggs are irresistible, but so is the hot German potato salad) include a world tour of wursts, ham hocks, and even beef tongue. And naturally, as befits an establishment with deli derivations, there are sandwiches, such as the classic Reuben (corned beef, sauerkraut, and swiss cheese on grilled rye), the Papa Fritz (ham, turkey, Swiss and American cheeses on rye with potato salad and a cup of soup — a deal at $5.95), and numerous more pristine possibilities such as a straight hard salami or timeless egg salad. (The one overt menu change from founding times is apparent here, by the way; it’s a vegetarian croissant sandwich that even includes sprouts. Papa Fritz must be spinning.) Evening menu specialties, which I haven’t tried recently, include German-Austrian standards such as wienerschnitzel and Vienna paprika chicken, but if I were to pick one, it would be the sauerbraten with its sweet-sour gravy. In a perfect world, the beef shoulder or chuck this is made from would have been marinated for up to four days in a vinegar mixture with bay leaves, peppercorns and onions, and I can’t claim that Schilo’s takes it this far — but I’m willing to give the dish a chance regardless.
Sauerbraten was not a part of my grandmother’s repertoire, though her homemade sauerkraut, concocted in a crock on the back porch, is something I remember fondly to this day. But she was a pancake person. Stacks and stacks of lacy-edged cakes were our breakfast lot during visits to her quirky Victorian house with its intriguing back stairs and endlessly fascinating attic. Though she probably made them, I don’t remember potato pancakes, however; for that, Schilo’s is now the source. Three of them, the taste of shredded spud still faintly apparent, are served with syrup and a side of chunky-sweet applesauce liberally sprinkled with cinnamon, all of which makes more of a breakfast than I normally care to eat. But nostalgia drives me to it from time to time, just as nostalgia most likely makes me appreciate the time-capsule setting — the multi-colored mosaic-tile floor, the festering finish of the varnished paneling flanking booths under an array of national flags, the dark wood tables and chairs under a squadron of ceiling fans … And, if you’re susceptible to such things, the pendulum clock on the wall marks the passing of time more forcefully than any digital device ever could. Consider it the essence if this institution and appreciate both accordingly.