Kitchen-hoppin' Chefs

The dirty little secret we all like to imagine is that high-class chefs sneak out for Big Macs and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches in their off hours. Sorry to disappoint you, but they wouldn’t admit it — to me, at least. The closest I came was a confession from Café Paladar’s chef-owner Brian West: “ … as for the staff and me, we are all addicted to junk food.” So if it helps bring things down to earth to imagine cooks snacking on Fritos as they assemble your tony tapas, be my guest.

But when West and his wife Mary Esther do have a little time off, they hit both the highs and the (relative) lows. At the elegant end, it’s the Lodge, where, West says, “I let Jason `Dady` choose the menu, and he has never let me down.” Of course not; they’re part of the same fraternity.

Less lofty by some lights would be his choice of Chuy’s, “and I always get the Elvis.” (No, the Elvis Presley Memorial Combo doesn’t include peanut butter. It’s composed of a Tex-Mex beef enchilada, a cheese ranchero enchilada, a chicken tomatillo enchilada, a crispy taco, and chile con queso.) West and his wife also love Italian food, but admit “we go out of town for that.” They don’t have to get outta Dodge for barbecue, however. “I really feel myself going in the Texas barbecue direction,” West say. In this case, his off-hours infatuation will actually influence his day-to-day work, as he anticipates having “a second place that is all about Texas.” Stay tuned.

Given that this is San Antonio, after all, Mexican food does loom large even in the eyes of classically trained chefs. Los Robertos, open 24 hours at 281 and Bitters, “is the most consistently great food I’ve had in San Antonio; it’s rock solid.” enthuses Jason Dady, who might want to get the Wests to visit his newly opened Tre Trattoria.

“The guy has passion,” he continues,” and the chile-relleno burrito is the best $4 you can spend.” (Chile-relleno burrito? This I had to try, and it is indeed amazing. You lose track of the fact that it’s a relleno fairly quickly, but there’s no doubt it delivers bang for the buck. A tall horchata makes for good liquid accompaniment.)

Dady admits his favorites change all the time, but that a current one is Doug and Lori Horn’s Dough Pizzeria Napoletana. It’s casual, close, and has good ambience, he says. Close to work (and open late) is an issue with chefs exiting their own kitchens after a long dinner stint, but when feeling the urge to splurge, Sandbar is Dady’s destination. “I could go to my grave with their lobster roll,” he says.

Dough came up in conversation with chefs several times, which should come as a surprise to no one. Damien Watel of Bistro Vatel, Ciao Lavanderia, La Frite Belgian Bistro, and two new restaurants plus a bakery soon to open might seem like a man with little free time on his hands, but he says, “I have to try the new guys.”

“`Dough` was good,” he says, with characteristic Gallic deference. And though he admits that he’s eating at home more and more, he also likes “wine-friendly places with munchies” that are open late, so he heads for Zinc or 20Nine when the urge strikes. Asian food is also a favorite target — especially sushi at Sushi Zushi, which is “right around the corner” from his house. And he will occasionally make the trek out Bandera to Kim Wah for duck. (Kim Wah was once the darling of chefs such as the Biga bunch and Andrew Weissman’s crew from Le Rêve, but it fell from favor due to a change in administration. Word is it might be back on an upswing.)

A subset of Watel’s chef clique is of course French, so he has also blessed Philippe Placé’s Coco Chocolate Lounge and Bistro at 281 and 1604, “even though it’s not convenient.” Such is the power of fraternité.

Chef Scott Cohen, formerly executive chef at La Mansion del Rio, has been on a sabbatical of sorts while his own restaurant, Brasserie Pavil, is under construction on Loop 1604 near WildFish and Roaring Fork. (A November opening is anticipated, but we all know how these things go.) So when not tweaking recipes at food purveyor Ben E. Keith’s test kitchen he has had at least a little time to test other places as well. “My new favorite is Dough off Blanco,” he says. “I think this is a great example of the new breed of restaurants that are opening in San Antonio. I’m not sure how it would have done 10 years ago, but it is really a hit.” He adds that the Italian wood-burning oven makes the food “hard to imitate”.

When pressed however (and not pressed very hard at that), Cohen says “I love, love, love Florio’s Pizza. They are from my hometown, in Maywood, New Jersey, and I knew them when I lived there 35 years ago. This is the best traditional pizza in San Antonio and maybe even Texas.” (There are fraternities beyond the professional, and geographic is one of the strongest, obviously.) Sushi Zushi gets another nod from Cohen. And so do Coco (Philippe was maitre d’ and general wine guy at Las Canarias during most of Cohen’s reign) and Tre Trattoria. Tre is especially touted for its willingness “to cook to the exact specifications” of a diner with allergies. “The dish `Jason` made for my guest was perfection,” says Cohen.

In between orders in Andrew Weissman’s kitchen at Le Rêve, he reminisces over some old favorites, such as Phoenix Chinese Café on Blanco (“We still go on occasion for the duck,” he says), and Jerusalem Grill near Windsor Park Mall. Weissman was also one of the first champions of the Korean BBQ House (Go Hyang Jib) in its original location (and with its original owners) on Rittiman. Sarika’s, he says, remains a favorite.

“We try everything,” says wife Maureen — and often much of the kitchen staff goes with them. (This still doesn’t make for a huge table, fortunately.) But a new ethnic joint has captured their collective fancy recently. “We found it just driving by” says Weissman of Mela Indian Bar & Grill on NW Loop 410, east of Evers Road. Weissman mentioned saag paneer (Mela also does a stir-fried paneer with onions and chilies), pakoras (fish and vegetable are available), and goat dishes as favorites.

A “roach coach” (Weissman’s, er, endearing term for a taco truck) on Military Drive is mentioned for tacos, though it seems best not to pursue this one too far. “We do like Bin 555, too,” he says in the next breath — and presumably with more comradely conviction. Some of the staff had recently tried Oloroso in Southtown, and though first impressions were generally favorable, the verdict was still out. At Le Rêve, in any case, some of the best off-duty eating comes with employment: the pre-dinner staff meal on Saturdays and the sometimes post-dinner get-together at Sandbar after the kitchen is cleaned and broken down. New dishes are tried, casual creations are whipped up, food and restaurants are discussed ... just as you might imagine.

Since Dough had been mentioned by multiple respondents, it seemed only fair to turn the tables and ask Doug Horn what he and Lori like to eat in their dolce far niente moments. Did I ever get an earful. His favorite “date-type” place (it’s good to hear that married couples actually feel that way) is Coco, and his “good-cup-of-coffee” while reading the paper joint is Sip — not altogether coincidentally a product of his former boss, Andrew Weissman and family. And in between, there is a host of would-be hangouts. They like the pho at Pho Hai An — especially under the current owners, who “are starting to get consistent.” (More consistency would be good in this critic’s opinion, though the pho is phabulous.)

For staff meals, La Michoacana on Blanco does “killer sweetbread tacos.” (This I have to try, too; I’m already a fan of the North Flores branch of this more-Mex-than-most market.) “Oh my god, they are the best I’ve had in San Antonio — so far” carnitas come from Papi’s Molino on West Avenue, in his opinion.

Amazingly, the Horns have had at least a little vacation time in the face of lines out the door at Dough, and the East Coast was their recent getaway. “Joe Buonincontri `of Luce Enoteca Ristorante in Huebner Oaks` has just opened this place on Medina Lake `called Lobster Roll at Oasis`, and his lobster roll could stand up to any in Maine or on Cape Cod,” he enthuses. And apparently I will have to get to Oloroso, since it received a thumbs-up from Horn. “I like places that have been converted from homes `in this case, an original home had already been converted, at least once, to a beauty salon`, and the chef has interesting ideas. A proprietor-run place is good in this city,” he says — not surprisingly. Yes, we are especially prone to being bound by chains.

Chef Chris Spencer of Sandbar says he usually goes home and eats there with his wife on off days. “I’m past the age when I have to go hang out with the guys,” he says, endearingly. Though not entirely convincingly. Chris admits that he did make it to (and liked) Dough, as “I worked with Doug for several years at Le Rêve.” That comraderie thing again. And he would like to hit places such as Oloroso — but their closing hours are the same as his.

Much the same sentiment was expressed by Biga’s Bruce Auden. “I go home,” he said. “I haven’t been out much lately.” But that was at the beginning of our conversation. By the end, he had recommended a place in Wimberly, where he lives, called the Leaning Pear. (Sounds worth a visit for the name alone.) “It’s run by a couple of C.I.A. grads, and there is usually a fish and meat special along with soups, salads, and sandwiches … and you can bring your own wine,” he says.

Having an occasional craft beer is also important to Auden, who will go to Blue Star Brewing Company if his path takes him south, or to BJ’s, a new place on Stone Oak at 281, if he’s headed home. (BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse is a California chain. They have their beer made, to their formula, by St. Arnold of Houston. Look for such brews as the bitter-floral Pirhana Pale Ale, and the malty Jeremiah Red.) “It’s big, loud, and for young people,” he says, “and I wouldn’t go for the food, so just in off hours.”

It’s those off hours again. Auden does try to make it to Damien Watel’s restaurants “because he’s a friend, and they’re convenient” — suggesting that there are also getting to be so many of them that one is bound to be convenient. But his is the same issue as Chris Spencer’s regarding places such as Oloroso — chef-owner Josh Croft worked at Biga “for a long time — but he’s closed when we are.” He’s also feeling a little guilty about never making it to Biga alumnus Rick Frame’s West Avenue Grill. (Rick: He really does want to get there, honest.) So here’s the clue for all you restaurants out there that want to attract the big boys of the culinary world: Stay open late — and preferably on Sundays and Mondays.