It was a great day, as we were departing for San Antonio. It would be a great time, celebrating the fiesta atmosphere, and the centerpiece of it all- the River Walk.
We planned to make the long drive into San Antonio by road. San Antonio is a significant distance from every major Texan city except Austin, which is even then a full hour by road. Anyways, we proceeded along the highways of Texas, and since we needed a break for the lavatory, we pulled off of the highway to stop at a classic Texan rest stop.
Buc-ee’s is a chain of mega-gas station places scattered throughout the state of Texas, and it is one of the most bizarre establishments you’ll see on the roads. If you see one of their many billboards on the highway, you’ll notice the mascot, a huge beaver with large teeth and a hat in a yellow circle background. The first thing visible from the exit is a massive parking lot and huge awnings with rows of gas stations catering to drivers looking for a roadside oasis of sorts, and it feels like it inside. When you go in, there is a sea of people coming off from the roads. What a Buc-ee’s does is provide all imaginable services to travelers and drivers, ranging from sunglasses to Texas-themed memorabilia to barbecue sandwiches, Buc-ee’s brand candies and snacks, drinks and junk food. They have a soda fountain with four different beverage tanks lined up next to one another. These facilities are enormous. I used the men’s room, and it is two big rooms with identical urinals after urinals lined up next to each other on all of the walls and rows and rows of sinks and soap dispensers.
If you visit one of these places, what’ll strike you most is first the size of the place, with its endless selection of snacks anybody can choose from, and its Texas-themed atmosphere of it all. The saying goes “everything is bigger in Texas,” and it is reflected in the building and the variety of roadside amenities. One could attribute this to rampant commercialism, but it is a fun experience. It embodies the Texas theme of doing things bigger, and doing things better. These stores are clean, with impeccable bathrooms and good service, and it is so much fun to take in the size and scale of these locations and how they have adapted to understand the traveler’s needs. Yes, there are stereotypical souvenirs and products (signs proclaiming “Texas- We Don’t Call 911” with an image of a revolver) but overall, I feel like Buc-ee’s is a fun introduction to life of the Texan road and shows how the state does make things feel big- and still being unique as a strange cultural experience.
Moving on to San Antonio. From the highway, we made our arrival into downtown San Antonio in the late afternoon. Our hotel was in a convenient spot, and you could see the River Walk from prominent glass windows. And there I could spot it; a long, watery canal snaking for a few miles. This was the River Walk, as described in the book. I could hardly wait to explore. After checking into our room and attending to some business, we had a chance to go out for the night and stay out late. At seven in the evening we stepped out of the back of the hotel and walked onto the River Walk.
Because of flooding issues along the San Antonio River, a Great Depression-era project was built along a rectangle-shaped area of Downtown San Antonio. It extended east from the river, then south, then eastward back to join. The whole canal was constructed one story below street level and was crossed from above by a few road bridges connecting it to the rest of the city. It became a tourist attraction, and soon people were traveling to San Antone (don’t call it that) to experience “the Venice of America.” It was on postcards and vintage posters and everything. But in the modern-day, it feels less like a busy grand canal and more like a family-style French Quarter, but missing the marijuana and the wasted teenagers trying to haul a stolen couch down the street. Your first impressions of the River Walk are the boats, the tiered, New Orleans-like balconies and cafes, and the cigarette smoke. The eastern stretch of the River Walk, moving north to south, was where we were, and it is by far the busiest portion. It is a public park, with green, leafy trees that hang over the waters like a canopy, and in addition to that its many cafes are shaded by colorful and bright umbrellas. Overlooking all of this are tiered balconies and bars that are lit with neon signs. The most vibrant part of the River Walk that animates the zone are the people. If you sit down and watch the tourists and the locals, you see all types of people. There are people walking dogs, pushing strollers, and the best time is when a river barge cruises under a pedestrian bridge and you can watch the elderly and clueless tourists sail under on motorized vessels. Watching the barges is a delight, and they never waste a trip; once during our stay we saw an empty barge cruising down the lane with no passengers but instead a cargo of packaged sodas and snacks, likely for lunch or something of the sort. But it’s great fun to see them being a fixture of the area. When we waited for dinner for half an hour, there was another barge being readied up by fancy, well-dressed waiters ferrying wine glasses and tablecloths back and forth from the restaurant to prepare for a nighttime dinner cruise. The river barges are huge part of the River Walk experience and bring a new level of character to people-watching.
We walked awhile up and down the River Walk, and the views are unobstructed the whole time. The trees and brilliant plants give the Walk a shielded area from the sun and give it an oasis feel, and the fact that it is sunken in from the street makes it interesting to look up and observe street life from a new perspective. There are few bridges for optimum visibility. You can see the river itself well and up close, because for huge portions of it there are no handrails, making walkers stroll next to the river water. I don’t know if this is accessible to all, though. The staircases and the vertical leveling of it all make it look difficult for anyone with a physical disability to use, and I wonder if it is approved to function like this because it is complex architecture and its pathways are hard enough for me to maneuver. However, I believe the River Walk would be the most dangerous for drunk people, seeing the lack of railings on the side. Multiple bars line the eastern side of the river, and if someone took a wrong step, that person would take a serious tumble. I don’t know how the River Walk takes these situations into consideration, but it was interesting to ponder how this sprawling, forested environment was managed.
Our target restaurant was Boudro’s, a restaurant mentioned in the 1000 Places book. There was a line, and we arrived in time to put our name on the waiting list before the evening crowds swarmed in. I was worthy to see if this establishment lived up to the mention in the book, so we spent fifteen minutes in a souvenir and the remainder outside standing in line next to the entrance. The book recommended to “watch river life go by,” and that’s exactly what happened.
While we waited in line, this elderly woman pushed up against me and forced me to scoot over a step or two. She then called this other lady over and stood behind us in line. More on this later, but it was about at this time when the staff at Boudro’s invited us inside. Our table was under the second floor balcony, and there were about two tables between us and the walkway, and from there, a row of outdoor umbrella tables and then, the river. Some people say it’s best to get one up next to the river, but I preferred our positioning. It was inside, well-lit, and while you could still see it and the barges cruising by, as well as the interactions of the customers between us and them.
And we could see the most intriguing customers of all. The lady who pushed me around, and her little friend, were still standing in line, but drinking what looked like complimentary wine. It appeared they were complaining to the restaurant management out front, and their adamant behavior seemed to annoy the staff. However, they still landed a front-row seat on the riverside, teaching everybody on the River Walk that to get what you want, all you have to do is be irritating. But we would soon see that we had not even begun to watch this play out. Our table was the perfect spot to scope the whole thing out.
Our waiter was attentive and it was great to speak with him. Boudro’s was crowded, and he quipped how “it’s not a great place to work if you’re afraid of getting in people’s way.” I told him I was ordering off of the recommendation of my favorite book, and said I wanted the smoked shrimp and gulf crab enchiladas, described by the book to be “scrumptious.” We also requested some of their guacamole, and soon the waiter returned with a set-up table of fresh ingredients, with the usual parts, but also some unorthodox ones, including orange and lime juices. He proceeded to make the guacamole in front of us, mixing them and gutting orange slices with a fork so the juice would drain out. The accompanying chips weren’t salty, but they paired well with the guacamole when we tried it. The juices, avocado, and onions exploded with fiery tastes unlike any guacamole I’d tried before. It was by far the best part of the meal at Boudro’s.
I didn’t take pictures of the waiter making the guacamole, because I watched other tables and those tourists attempted to photograph and even pose the waiters as they made their appetizers. One of these tables was occupied by the two senior ladies, one of whom was the one who pushed me aside. It seemed that after complaining, the restaurant staff placated them first with wine, and then the front-row seat next to the river. But even then, that woman was not satisfied. They happened to order guacamole as well, and their server brought a table-side cart with all of the ingredients parallel to the table. This was where people-watching really was fun. That lady interrupted the waiter several times. She produced a cell phone camera and made the waiter pose at different points, but beyond that, she made him stop… and she instructed him how to do his own job. She wagged her finger, scowled, and made gestures to visualize her malcontent and how she was trying to correct him for making guacamole not in the way she wanted. It was awful to watch, but at the same time it was hilarious to see this delusional old lady tell this professional staff member how he should make his own guacamole. At our table, we predicted the woman would eat it all and still complain… and there is a ninety-nine percent chance this was accurate.
Even with this lady disrupting the functions of the place, the meal was magnificent. The smoked shrimp was as smoky as it gets, but it was a mere topping on the crown jewel of the meal- the gulf crab enchiladas. Now, I enjoy enchiladas, but I had yet to taste seafood enchiladas. For some reason, there is seafood all over San Antonio, which confounds me because of the fact that the city is landlocked and miles from the Gulf of Mexico. However, there is no denying how delicious is tastes. Boudro’s is not your standard Mexican restaurant… in fact, I hesitate to call it a Mexican restaurant because it is so random. Think of the presentation. They’re enchiladas with a meaty gulf crab filling, and they are drenched in tremendous hot sauce of some sort. The tortilla they are wrapped in is not a tortilla, but “spicy tomato pancakes.” The spicy sauce was the most overpowering part of the enchiladas, but that’s not a bad thing. It was an experience in itself. It was fantastic, and combined with the guacamole, service, and setting, it was one of the best meals I’d had in weeks.
At night, the River Walk lit up with assorted lights and colors. The barges on the surfaces turned on a layer on the waterline that continually changed colors, reflecting off the water. Ducks paraded on the banks and inebriated patrons lounged with huge drink glasses. The atmosphere was helped more by the first night of Fiesta, an eleven day party that began tonight… I talk more about it later, but tourists and locals alike wore flowery halos, sombreros, and medals (more stories to tell soon!) The night ended with fireworks over the banks to the south, a view the pushy complaining lady tried to take with her phone camera. It was a perfect night on the River Walk… but I had no idea how spectacular- and raunchy- a day in San Antonio beyond the river itself.