Hemis-Fare: Food playing a key role in revitalizing downtown San Antonio's decades-old Hemisfair

If activities surrounding dining spots such as Dough Pizzeria Napoletana and Box St. All Day are any indication, food is helping pave the way to greatness.

click to enlarge CommonWealth Coffeehouse occupies one of the historic cottages at Hemisfair. - Ron Bechtol
Ron Bechtol
CommonWealth Coffeehouse occupies one of the historic cottages at Hemisfair.

It's been more than 50 years since the last visitor exited San Antonio's HemisFair '68, and it might be tempting for some to suggest that little of importance has happened there since then.

Yes, a new and much-appreciated children's area has materialized at the 40-acre site in the shadow of a recently completed residential unit, and construction is finally underway on the park and hotel development at the corner of South Alamo and Market streets. But numerous re-use studies have languished on shelves, and an inventory of vacant and underutilized historic buildings — the remains of the neighborhood demolished to make way for the fair — greets the current-day curious.

Yet there are signs Hemisfair might yet become "one of America's great urban spaces" as signage tacked to construction fences now proclaims. We'll need to put up with mess and blocked circulation paths for a time, but one thing is apparent: food is helping pave the way to greatness. That is, if activities surrounding Hemisfair dining spots such as Dough Pizzeria Napoletana and Box St. All Day are any indication.

Eating establishments have taken up residence in existing structures since the World's Fair's closing — a Polish restaurant dimly springs to mind, and other sources mention Cajun food, a crêperie, an Irish restaurant and The OK Bar and Saloon. However, none has been as long-lived or well-reviewed as Dough, which occupies the historic house at the corner of South Alamo and César E. Chávez Blvd. that was once the saloon's home. Visibility might have had something to do with its initial success, but the menu and hospitality are what keep people coming back.

Pizzas from the traditional Neapolitan oven are naturally the strong suit, but the house-made Signature Burrata with truffle essence is not to be missed. The oak-roasted olives also make a perfect companion to wines, especially reds, from the Italian list — a bargain on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when many are half-off.

Hemisfair's newly opened Box St. All Day, the brick-and-mortar manifestation of a popular food truck, offers further proof of food's power to reinvigorate both people and places.

Unless you're fond of waiting, don't even think about arriving without a reservation on the weekend. Even on what I assumed would be a sleepy Wednesday, there was a 35-minute wait for a table at noon. Fortunately, seats were available at the bar, where a boldly seasoned order of Brussels sprouts hash arrived with surprising speed — right after my sweet and spiked frozen horchata. The rice drink hits hard with cinnamon, but it may be the perfect brunch beverage. It also calls out for one of the daily handmade donuts.

click to enlarge The boldly seasoned Brussels sprouts hash is one of the many items available at Hemisfair’s Box St. All Day. - Ron Bechtol
Ron Bechtol
The boldly seasoned Brussels sprouts hash is one of the many items available at Hemisfair’s Box St. All Day.

CommonWealth Coffeehouse occupies another historic cottage, where it's perfectly OK to drop by for just coffee and croissants. But more substantial fare is available too. Just step in to place your order and have it delivered to your table in the dining room or on the pleasant patio. Breakfast is available from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and lunch overlaps it starting at 11 a.m. I figured that a classically French croque madame — ham, melty fontina, béchamel and a fried egg on handmade pain de mie — would bridge the two time zones, and it did so admirably.

Your stroll around Hemisfair can be enhanced by an icy treat from Paletería San Antonio. I can recommend the spicy-cool mangonada, and I can also recommend consuming it quickly if you want to retain you own cool on a sultry day. An ice cream sandwich from Lick, the Austin ice cream shop we first experienced at Pearl, also shouldn't linger in the sun, but it too provides a great antidote to heat and humidity — assuming anyone needs an excuse.

The park's Re:Rooted 210 Urban Winery also offers relief to strollers in that it's cool inside. Its wines are all Texas-produced, and Jennifer Beckmann and her knowledgeable staff can lead you through a tasting flight of four wines — many of them custom-curated by Re:Rooted — that may just change your mind about the state's place in the wine world. Those already convinced might look to the dozen or so offerings on tap, ready to be paired with a charcuterie plate or a simple bowl of Marcona almonds.

But wait, there's more. Currently in the works at Hemisfair are outposts of two local favorites: Künstler Brewing, expected to open early in 2023, and Bombay Bicycle Club, with completion anticipated for spring. The brewery's satellite will be called Künstler Tap and Brat-Haus and feature German fare along with its brews.

Coming in summer 2023 is foodie favorite Jerk Shack, scheduled to occupy a meticulous replica of the historic Schultze House on Nueva Street. Sources at Hemisfair also teased the upcoming lease of the 19th-century Gothic Revival Kusch house to yet another food operation. When that information becomes available, look for it here.

In the meantime, break in those walking shoes.

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