Fine dining is dead.
That’s what celebrated chef Mark Miller declared last October at the Culinary Institute of America’s Latin Flavors, American Kitchens conference at the Pearl Brewery.
In the foodie world, that was akin to the New York Times saying God was dead. But God survived, and so will fine dining.
Yet Miller had his point. A growing number of diners are tired of waiting through a three-hour meal while the chef serves up an array of food designed to dazzle all of our senses, not just our taste buds. San Antonio’s own temple of haute cuisine, Le Rêve, closed its doors the same month as Miller’s grand statement, a fact we still mourn.
We still want the connection to the chef that we got at Le Rêve, where we could see Andrew Weissman supervise every morsel that appeared from the kitchen. Yet we want it quickly, so we can rush back home to our video games, our DVRs and our other time wasters.
That’s why Miller hailed taco trucks as the next big thing. The trend has grown from California and New York to cities across the country, including San Antonio, where the number of mobile eateries is on the rise. Why? Because we can walk up to a taco truck, have a conversation with the cook behind the screen, and then sit down to a freshly made plate of food. No fuss, not much wait, generally great food. And we know the person who made it. We know he or she left off the onions or grilled the carnitas a little crispier than average, just as we wanted. We know that what we are eating was made especially for us.
I feel that way whenever I visit one of my favorites, Erick’s Tacos, which I will use as an illustration. This modest little converted garage on Nacogdoches has mini-tacos so good, I sometimes have to drop what I’m doing and drive over for a plate of four covered in carne asada, then crowned with onion and cilantro. Bowls of lime slices are at most of the tables, as are squeeze bottles of the habanero salsa to finish off the treats with an extra charge of flavor. The iciest Mexican Fresca or Coca-Cola substitutes for the fine French Champagne that once bubbled in our glasses. There’s no air conditioning in summer or heat, in the winter, but neither condition seems to stop people from pouring in for more. And at the end of the evening, you have enough to think about another meal.
To me, that last sentence is at the root of the matter. Our eating cycles parallel the width of our wallets. With the country experiencing economic turmoil, a great many of us turn to comfort foods. So when we eat out, we go to a neighborhood joint where we can get a burger, a slice of pizza or a plate of mini-tacos.
That’s the approach behind Johnny Hernandez’s upcoming La Gloria on the Pearl Brewery campus. It will celebrate the type of Mexican street food you find south of the border. The people behind the Pearl project have also tapped Shelley Grieshaber to lasso a few of the mobile units in town to the Pearl for a corral of treats that complements the current Saturday fixture, Saweet Cupcakes.
But is fine dining dead? No. Some of us love to treat ourselves to a regular feast or merely dine out on a special occasion. We just love to have the choice. That’s why Bruce Auden’s new venture, Auden’s Kitchen, features prices that are far less than they are at his Biga on the Banks. Yet Biga remains a beloved fixture on the scene, as do Jason Dady’s Lodge Restaurant of Castle Hills and Weissman’s Sandbar, with its Le Rêve-inspired dishes among a host of other high-end restaurants.
Making room for more flavors at all ends of the price scale is something to celebrate, with Mexican Coke or Veuve Clicquot. I’m off to Erick’s.