Just as New Orleans has Mardi Gras, San Antonio has Fiesta. The citywide, 10-day celebration is held every April, and 2019 marks the 127th anniversary of this annual party that holds more than 100 events throughout the city including parades, patriotic observances, exhibits, and of course, food-centric affairs.
Fiesta began in 1891 to honor the memory of the fallen heroes of the Alamo and the victors of the Battle of San Jacinto, both key in the fight for Texas’ independence. The inaugural event featured the first Battle of the Flowers parade, in which women threw flowers at each other as they walked around the Alamo. Today, the parade has grown to be the second-largest float parade in the U.S., and Fiesta has evolved into one of the nation’s premier festivals with more than 3.5 million people attending each year, 20 percent of whom travel from across the state, the nation and the world.
Food and drink play a large part in the celebrations, with traditional San Antonio street-stand favorites such as gorditas, chicken on a stick (a fried cutlet topped with a pickled jalapeno) and fresh fruit cups taking center stage, and margaritas flowing faster than the San Antonio river. Fiesta kicks off its culinary offers with Taste of The Republic, where 13 local chefs present the culinary expressions of the six regional flavors of Texas as described by organizing chef Brian West: Gulf Coast, East Texas, North Texas, Central Texas, West Texas and South Texas.
The Oyster Bake is a two day event where partygoers can indulge in Fiesta-themed food and oysters prepared in many variations, while the Taste of the Northside showcases cuisine from 60+ area restaurants accompanied by samples of wine and spirits. Perhaps the most beloved, NIOSA (A Night in Old San Antonio) takes over the historic La Villita neighborhood and hosts approximately 85,000 locals and visitors over four nights for live entertainment and local food representing the customs, history and culture of San Antonio. San Antonians strategize and schedule the stands they will visit for their favorite treats, and lucky visitors may find a friendly resident willing to share these secrets.
Restaurants and bars are getting in the Fiesta action, too. Bakery Lorraine will offer margarita flavored macaroons, and La Panaderia is making a tequila tres leches croissant, a take on their extremely popular tequila almond croissant, both available through the duration of Fiesta. Downstairs at Esquire Tavern, the 2016 basement addition to the James Beard nominated Esquire Tavern, launched a new cocktail menu from beverage director Houston Eaves in collaboration with graphic artist Cruz Ortiz just in time for the celebration. Each drink of the eight-part cocktail series, named San Anto Stories, is inspired by a tale that ties into the city’s 300+ years of history.
Standouts include the Flood of 1921, a large-format drink that serves 4-6 people and commemorates the greatest disaster the city has faced in modern times, which spurred the development of what we know today as the world-famous San Antonio River Walk. composed of 8 different rums that come from Jamaica, Guyana, Martinique, Panama, & the Dominican Republic. The recipe changes every week or so as the team prepares a new batch and bottle it for service. Currently they are serving a colonial-era inspired punch utilizing cognac, bourbon, rum, sherry and oleo saccharum.
Near and dear to my heart is the Johnson’s Jumper, combining a “championship rum blend” of eight different rums from Jamaica, Guyana, Martinique, Panama and the Dominican Republic, plus flavors of banana, lemon and almond. The cocktail commemorates Avery Johnson’s game-winning jump shot that sealed the San Antonio Spurs’ first NBA championship in 1999. But the Fiesta Babies, which combines high-proof tequila, pasubio (an Italian amaro), grapefruit, pear and tonic water is the menu’s centerpiece. It was inspired by the uptick of San Antonians born in January as a result of their parents’ enjoyment of the revelry of Fiesta. There are entire families whose children are all born in January, and their parents lovingly refer to them as their Fiesta babies.
“Cruz & I had really good time discussing the potential stories to share for the new cocktail menu,” says Eaves. “He introduced me to the concept of Fiesta babies, and I loved that it celebrated San Antonio’s biggest party in a bit of a roundabout way, connecting to how ingrained Fiesta has been for many San Antonio families for generations.”
According to Eaves, the ingredient selection for the cocktails is varied and relates to the story via one connection or another. “Mostly we were aiming to make the most delicious drinks possible, using the best ingredients we can, and introducing people to many of the more obscure products that we really love,” he says, adding that the menu imagery and stories behind the cocktails instill a form of familiarity “that helps to alleviate the hesitation that some guests feel when they don’t recognize the ingredients listed on a menu.”
If you like a party with a side of history, a big serving of multicultural traditions and more food and drink than you can imagine, San Antonio’s Fiesta is for you. Fiesta 2019 takes place April 18- 28.