Living On the Cheap … In Alamo Heights

Courtesy photo

Pre-dating the Dominion and Stone Oak, an Alamo Heights address was often the signifier of wealth and class in San Antonio. Nowadays, the tony vibe remains, but we set out to find non-chi-chi entertainment in the Heights that doesn’t require a) club membership, b) wads of cash or c) a dress code. While I admit to stretching, ever so slightly the geographical bounds, I did find plenty to do on the cheap.

Toilet Seat Art Museum
239 Abiso, (210) 824-7791

In a more modern world, 92-year-old retired plumber Barney Smith may have been branded a hoarder, but he’s turned his propensity to collect and keep everything (foreign currency, birthday cards, Pez dispensers, etc.) into charming outsider art. For decades, Smith’s been covering the top of toilet seat lids with his collections, at the rate of one per day. His methodically arranged and catalogued output is on display for free in the Alamo Heights neighborhood. Smith himself will happily give you the tour and you must call ahead. Though he can’t charge, Smith will accept donations and delights when visitors sign his carefully organized guest book. Smith’s wife of more than 70 years recently passed away, so don’t delay scoping out this San Antonio treasure—it might not be open much longer.

Taqueria Vallarta
8234 Broadway

Alamo Heights does have some Heights-y Mexican joints, but this one stands out for its utter lack of pretension. Located in a former drive-in, Taqueria Vallarta’s menu is the kind that has photos of the dinner specials on it. Those plates, most of which are under $10, are hefty enough to share or plan for leftovers. However, for less than $5 you can also score some damned decent tacos, burritos, tortas and exceptional gorditas. Bonuses: a drive-thru window, daily happy hour from 5-8 p.m. and free wi-fi.

Olmos Basin Park
561 Devine, (210) 207-7275

If Brackenridge Park is too peppy and pristine for you what with all its damned kids and ducks and the tiny train, don’t despair. Olmos Basin Park is awash in weird, mysterious charm once you get away from the well maintained sports area. Across Devine Street from the lighted soccer and softball fields is a shady picnic spot covered in Live Oaks and almost directly underneath highway 281. There’s all sorts of vaguely clandestine places to scope out, like the “party house,” but, more promisingly, there’s a huge barbecue pit with a couple of picnic tables that you can rent for $80 a day (hours are 5 a.m. – 11 p.m.). Get seven buddies together, plunk down $10 each for the rental fee, buy the biggest piece of meat you can find and enjoy the day.

Recovery Room
1139 Harry Wurzbach, (210) 930-6612

Technically, this bar is all the way on the other side of Terrell Hills from the Heights, which means it’s about a five-minute drive away and the closest thing to a dive bar you’ll find. Most days see a premium beer and call liquor on special for $2.50, or you can fall back on ole reliable, the Lone Star tall boy. There’s also more game tables than most SA bars and a friendly regular crew of lushes and military. Ladies, come prepared to be hit on, even if you’re married. It’s that kind of place.

Chester's Hamburgers
1006 NE Loop 410

While Cappy’s may have the best burger in Alamo Heights, it’s also north of 16 freaking dollars. Chester’s, on the other hand, cranks out a lauded green chili cheeseburger for $6.29, and that’s one of the most expensive things on the menu. You can nosh on one in an atmosphere that seems not to have been updated since the 1980s (save the giant-screen TV) and enjoy one of more than 200 right-priced beers (domestics start at $2.49, imports $2.99). To really pack in the calories, round out your meal with exemplary onion rings and a honest-to-goodness chocolate malt.

416 Austin Highway,

I recently learned that, as long as you’re not sketchy about it, you can pass a lot of time just gawking at Spacetone’s sweet collection of vintage guitars, basses and some super cute ukuleles. From a 1965 Fender Mustang to a mahogany Martin, you don’t have to be a player to appreciate these beauts. If you get inspired, the store does have some models that won’t break the bank and also offers reasonably priced lessons from Grammy-winning musician Joe Reyes (perhaps better known to SA audiences for his work with Buttercup and Mitch Webb and the Swindles). Or you could just drop a 20-spot on one of the shop’s very cool logo T-shirts.

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