San Antonio – Mi Tierra & O’Henry
The Valencia offers a complimentary FIT breakfast each morning, but rather than trying to keep fit we opt for the comfort food of Mi Tierra, the Mexican institution that was founded long before I was born, the late-night haunt for fraternity brothers and their sorority dates back in the day when I was young. However, I must have dated the wrong—but right for me—frat boy, because even though I was aware of its existence I never made it here till I was very much an adult, living my life in another city.
At 9 a.m. the streets are deserted. The shops and restaurants on the river are closed and shuttered—the lights off. I notice two lone runners doing their morning thing as we cross the bridge, turning right toward the Historic Market Square and breakfast. Many of the storefronts on this part of Commerce Street are empty, devoid of any business. One that is still a bustling concern sells Mexican Guayaberas. I tell Michael he needs one.
Memories swirl again and I recall walking down these streets with friends—in the then Hispanic area of town—after class ended at the all-girls high school I attended at the edge of downtown. Not looking for adventure, we were searching for formals for military balls, proms, and just because when you are young you want to dress up and dance. The selection of ball gowns in this downtown area was less expensive and more plentiful than the stores that filled suburban malls, due mainly to the Mexican cultural celebration of the quinceañera. A fancy and formal event when a young woman was presented to the community, marking her fifteenth birthday and passage to womanhood.
Mi Tierra – My Land
This San Antonio is not the San Antonio I grew up in, and the Market Square is a prime example. What used to be long open sheds filled with tables piled high with farmed produce—trucks backed up to the tables for replenishment—and hundreds of piñatas hanging from the ceiling, is now filled with enclosed shops bordering a well kept, well-swept (the patio sweeper is beyond the camera’s eye, sweeping up the fallen leaves) brick courtyard. A few supplemental tented shops line the path we take, most of them closed. It’s charming. I understand why tourists flock to this town—a world away from their world. From my world.
Mi Tierra first opened its doors in 1941, when Pedro and Cruz Cortez began a tiny three-table cafe for early-rising farmers and workers at San Antonio’s Mercado. More than half a century later it is a famous landmark, the center—perhaps the anchor—of the current El Mercado. It is the place San Antonian’s and hungry tourists go for enchiladas, tamales, tacos, quesadillas, chalupas, barbacoa, guacamole and much, much more. A place where they are sure to receive a warm Texas welcome amid the colorful whirl of decorations from old Mexico.
This historic cafe is a happy place, filled with the sounds of morning and the smells of breakfast—Mexican style. Chock full of hungry patrons all day long, roaming Mariachi’s haunt the aisles—even during the breakfast hours—willing to sing you a song if you open your wallet. If the hour weren’t early and I had a margarita in my hand, and the song I love wasn’t so sad, I would ask them to sing La Llorona, the weeping woman.
But we are at Mi Tierra for breakfast, not a concert, and I love the bacon. Thick and smoky and salty, sometimes served with the slightest char. I’m not sure where they source it, but I’d love to find out. Whatever I order today has to include bacon. We start with coffee while I read and reread the menu, trying to decide. Huevos a La Mexicana seems to fill the bill, fresh eggs scrambled with tomatoes, green peppers and onions, served with refried beans, tortillas, and bacon if I choose. I order a side of mouth blistering salsa.
Michael opts for Chilaquiles Famosos, crisp corn tortilla strips scrambled with eggs, topped with ranchero sauce and melted cheddar cheese, served with refried beans and tortillas. He orders a side of bacon. The best of both worlds. I’ll have to remember that next time—wonder of all wonders—I can order a side of bacon.
I try not to eat the whole thing. Ignoring the soft warm flour tortillas altogether except for one precious stolen bite. You have to give up something somewhere, especially since it is only 9:30 a.m. and we have hours to go before our days indulgences are at an end.
Walking back to the hotel after breakfast, amid discussions of me asking, “I wonder what happened to the old Mercado with all of the fruits and vegetables?” and Michael’s reply of, “Google it,” we stop at the O’Henry House. Another new revelation to me. I’ve seen this old rock house before, but I never stopped to look, not until today.
“Is this the O’Henry? He lived in San Antonio?” I ask of the air. Michael hears and replies in the affirmative. How did he know this and not me? According to the sign O’Henry rented this small abode for less than two years for $6 a month while residing in the area. I’m beginning to feel like I never really lived in San Antonio, and when I did I must have been totally oblivious to the world around me. Ah—youth. But perhaps not.
Back at the hotel, our room is in pristine condition once again. I immediately plop on the bed and begin Googling. There is much I want to check out. The old farmers market of downtown no longer exists. Well, I knew that. It has moved to the Pearl Brewery area and is only open on Saturdays.
O’Henry is a different story. He existed that’s for sure; his short stories are hard evidence. But all of the brief biographies differ—telling stories of seemingly altered individuals—in what they choose to leave out or include. Reading just one version leaves you with false impressions. You must look at them all, piecing together and deciphering as you go. Residing in San Antonio was never mentioned in any one of them. Unfortunately, the historical marker made it appear that San Antonio played a bigger part in his life than a multitude of sources deemed to record. Even the two historical markers – one on top of the other contradict each other. What can I believe? And is it really important that I know?
All of this brings up more questions about more things. How many hours do I have till we leave for the museum? I check the time.
Open 24 Hours a Day! Breakfast Anytime
218 Produce Row, San Antonio, Texas 78207-4554, 210-225-1262
Staying on my grandmother’s farm as a young child my uncle would tell us tales of chests of gold coins hidden in the hollows of the giant old oak trees, the danger of coyotes (we could hear them howl), a headless horseman riding along the dusty roads, and a woman in white that would haunt the fields and woods. We were warned to stay inside, tucked in bed, out of harm’s way. The howling of the coyotes led credence to his stories, and by day I’d look longingly at the spreading oaks and dream of riches, while at night I was sure I could see the lady in white roaming the corn and cotton fields.