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San Antonio hit-or-miss: Acenar, Earl Abel’s, the Barn Door, and Rosario’s

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San Antonio hit-or-miss: Acenar, Earl Abel’s, the Barn Door, and Rosario’s

Lill | Jul 1, 2004 02:31 PM

During a recent trip to San Antonio, I tried a variety of restaurants (after consulting Chowhound and several other sources). Here’s my take:

Acenar (146 E. Houston St.) was by far the worst dining experience I had in San Antonio. The place was touted in the local press, and it definitely looked like the right place to be. It’s a collaboration by Lisa Wong (of Rosario's) and Bruce Auden (of Biga on the Banks), two restaurants that I have heard are highly regarded in town. So Acenar seems perfect: a sophisticated twist on Tex-Mex in a hip, high-design setting run by seasoned professionals - how could we go wrong?

The entire meal was wrong from the initial greeting to the check. The service was Acenar’s weakest point. We were greeted dismissively and seated at a table with no place settings. Our waiter, oddly remote and nonchalant, brought chips and a (very good) chipotle salsa, but no plates. He made us wait quite a long time to order (and then to receive) our drinks. The mojito that he highly recommended was nothing special and lacked more than a shred of mint. We had another long wait to order our food, and the appetizer (buttermilk-fried oysters on yucca chips with jalapeño honey mayo oysters, to be shared by the table) arrived, again with no plates. The oysters were tasty, so we hoped for good things to come, but ended up disappointed. I ordered the corn crepes stuffed with duck and served with a tamarind cherry sauce and accompanying vegetables. After another long wait, a different waiter brought our food, exclaiming “wow, I can’t believe I found the right table!” and rushing away after setting them down without another word. Each dish was at room temperature. The consistency of the food suggested it had been sitting (NOT under a heat lamp) for some time awaiting its delivery. My crepes were soggy, and the vegetable stew was cool and cooked to a mush. Flavors were not distinct and the duck was completely overwhelmed by the sauce (though the sweet-tart sauce was very interesting). Although I cannot remember what my dining companions ordered (a chicken dish and a pork chop, I think), their meals both involved the much-touted homemade tortillas. No tortillas ever arrived until we asked about them as our waiter was dashing past. He seemed taken aback, as if he hadn't even considered their existence before. He brought them eventually, explaining rather huffily that they were homemade so they couldn’t always be ready when the food was. Not a good excuse, especially since the food was already well on the way to cold when it arrived.

When the waiter came to see if we wanted dessert, we mentioned that the food had been cold. He did not apologize, but said he would send the manager over (we hadn’t asked). I saw the manager arguing with a meek-looking older couple across from us, waving a glass in his hand and using rather menacing body language, so I was ready to just pay the bill and leave rather than lodge a complaint. Unfortunately, he left the abashed elderly couple and stalked to our table. Leaning far in, he said “so it was cold. What do you want me to do to make it up to you?” in a tone that suggested he were auditioning for the Sopranos. Put off by his aggressive and unpleasant demeanor, we said we’d just take our check. He kept on, asking over and over what we wanted (and making us feel like we were trying to get a freebie), and we continued to demur, getting more and more embarrassed. We would have paid our bill and left without a word, but he continued to harangue us for what seemed like forever. Finally he left and the waiter returned with the bill, stating in his who-cares way that “I think he took something off the bill for you.” Indeed, the price was reduced by the cost of one entree – which we would have rather paid for than be accosted. We all felt that the meal was unpleasant, mediocre, poorly served, and overpriced. Was it just an off night?

Earl Abel’s (4200 N. Broadway), on the other hand, was fabulous. It has been years since I’ve eaten chicken and dumplings, and these were almost as good as my grandmother’s version. But the cakes and pies are the most important thing. Do not miss the cakes and pies. I tried the German chocolate cake, the white cake with coconut frosting, and the egg custard pie (yes, I did). The cakes are tall heavily-iced classic beauties, with a texture as light as air. Simple and perfect. The pie isn’t far behind. Whole pies and cakes are available to go ($8 a pie, $20 a cake) and there are many more varieties. Chocolate layer cake, fruit pies, maple cream pie, chocolate pie ..... if only I had had more time to try them all. The atmosphere and service at Earl Abel’s was also stellar. It's a kitchy yet classy old place with the nicest staff imaginable.

The Barn Door (8400 N. New Braunfels) was a hoot. This is family-oriented place for steak and potatoes and lots of it. My steak wasn’t great, but the atmosphere was down-home and service was unimpeachably friendly and helpful. I ordered a “lady’s” ribeye, which was far too fatty and a little overcooked, but I enjoyed the scene and the laid-back atmosphere. Salads are served with pitchers of homemade garlic dressing. The chocolate layer cake was terrific, and the martinis were perfect.

Rosario’s (910 S. Alamo) was another great choice. I was a little unsure of this place at first, since the room was so huge and noisy and the design of the menu and the decor suggested a Mexican chain restaurant, but I loved my meal. The smoky salsa and margaritas were great. I had the chicken and sweet potato stew (camote y pollo adobado) served with cilantro-heavy rice, crema and a bowl of soupy beans seasoned with pork that were just superb. Apparently I hit on one of their best dishes without realizing it. I don’t know if they make their own tortillas, but they were great - and served WITH the meal. Dessert (chocolate flan) was a little off – tasted more like a chocolate mousse, with a chalky aftertaste (didn’t Mia Farrow have that experience too?). Come to think of it, flan is usually best just as flan, without any extras besides fruit or maybe coconut.

I enjoyed the city and its offerings, particularly the cake.

Lill

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