San Antonio: Mexican charm and cafes along the river

On my last night in Texas, I learned a stunning fact about cozy little San Antonio: that it's the ninth largest city in the United States, and climbing. All along I thought I'd been in a small town, and foreign one at that.

Such is the charm of San Antonio that, despite its 790,000 population and a creeping boosterism, you sense the moment you get off the plane you will be able to master the small and easy scale of the place. Coming from Houston, I had to wrestle immediately with culture shock. So it took me an added moment to realize as I stepped from the Eastern jet that I was on friendly tarmac and not in a covered jetway, that cocoon-like tunnel that conveys us into most airports these days. Nor was there booming freeway traffic to contend with from the airport as in Houston, where I'd finally chosen to leapfrog the congestion by flying the little commuter craft of Metro Airlines.

Though it's 125 miles removed from Laredo and the Mexican border, San Antonio is strongly Hispanic in flavor, the more so since the election in early April of Henry Cisneros as mayor. Mr. Cisneros, 33, 6 feet, 3 inches, and dapper, won a landslide 62 percent of the vote over his Anglo opponent to become the city's first Mexican-American mayor since 1842, only six years after the Alamo began to be remembered. San Antonio is 53 percent Mexican-American, but until now most of the power has been with the Anglos.

I suppose there is irony in the fact that the city that gave us the Alamo would finally have an Anglo minority. But that's just one more thing to love about San Antonio. There is Mexican influence everywhere, int he architecture and place names and particularly in Market Square, or El Mercado, just west of downtown.

Across several sprawling, landscaped blocks, a collection of shops, restaurants, 32 covered stalls, and a farmers' market has overcome the urban blight of recent years. In fact, Texans come all the way up from Laredo to shop here. There are stores with Mexican spices, onyx, wrought-iron objects; a dress shop. Napoleon's, selling the fashions of the prominent Mexican designer Gonzalo Bauer; stalls brimming with boots and ceramics.

If there is a keystone to the market it is Mi Tierra, an enormous and periodically expanding 24-hour cafe and bakery with a 45-year history. The enchiladas, nachos, and hot tripe soup called menudo,m and the tunes on the Mexican jukebox make Ti Mierra as popular with San Antonians as the Alamo is with visitors.

Pete Cortez, owner of Mi Tierra, president of Market Square, and the major force behind the revival, was in Mexico on that sunny winter morning, but his nephew at the cash register, Eusebio Trujillo, spoke proudly of the man people call the Mayor of Produce Row.

"My uncle controls the whole area, and he's opening another restaurant next week," said Mr. Trujillo as the smells of empanadas and other pastries began to inveigle me from the bakery counter. "He fought very hard to make this project work."

On the northern fringes of downtown, another civic campaign has been won with the completion, in March, of the long-awaited San Antonio Museum of Art. This is the latest example of culture in the US meeting history halfway. The museum was carved out of a disused, turn-of-the-century yellow-brick warehouse. Two glass elevators rise through five levels displaying pre-Columbian and Mexican folk art, Texas furniture and decorative arts, and contemporary works.

Kevin Consey, the 20-year-old director, said the San Antonio Museum Association had been able to display only 3 or 4 percent of its collection, at the Witte Memorial Museum, until the restored warehouse was opened. He said the city's last streetcar will be renovated soon and placed on a 1 1/2-mile course enabling people to ride to the new museum. By 1986 the San Antonio River, which winds behind the museum, will carry patrons from downtown by barge.

More than ever, the meandering little river is the city's lifeline. The shops, cafes, hotels, and restaurants along the Paseo del Rio, or Riverwalk, have multiplied since my last visit in 1968 when the river was rescued from drainage-ditch obscurity to coincide with the arrival that year of something called HemisFair. I didn't look in on the still existant HemisFair this trip, but the Paseo lured me at all hours, providing people-watching shelter in its simple cafes by day and ambitious continental meals in restaurants like the Fig Tree at night.

Only a block from the river stands the Alamo, assaulted in midday by waves of visitors, many wearing the uniforms of the half-dozen military bases in the area , but fetchingly quiet after the 5:30 closing hour. Even with the crowds, I found it pleasant to walk the grounds behind the adobe walls where just-sprouting jonquils smiled into the 70-degree January sun. I wouldn't have missed the Davy Crocket displays in the main chapel, honoring my No. 1 boyhood idol, who, with Jim Bowie and 185 others, fell before Santa Anna's 5,000. The battle comes alive in a multimedia show at the Remember the Alamo theater and museum just across the shaded Alamo Plaza from the modest little bell-topped fort.

At night the illuminated Alamo walls were just out the window of my room at the Hotel Menger, a historic relic in itself. Of the newer hotels, the Plaza Nacional with its handsome shaded grounds and La Mansion del Rio, smack on the river, looked Hispanically fetching. I haven't even mentioned the King William district, 34 square blocks of mostly flat Victorian houses. There is nothing Hispanic about King William, but it's friendly, small-scale, and attractive -- very much like the cozy little ninth largest city in the US.

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