Boudro's -- A Welcoming Bistro on the Riverwalk
by Andrew Chalk
The San Antonio Riverwalk is back! Overflowing crowds making it perilous to pass on the narrow paths, narrowed further by market vendors selling everything from jewelry to a vivid cartoon likeness of yourself. Restaurants have reopened or been replaced by newcomers. All seem to have their tables along the bank, and on a patio outside, narrowing the path of pedestrians to almost single-file in places.
It is chaotic, it is high-spirited, it is densely-packed, but also friendly and welcoming. On every visit to the city I am in awe of how the designers made something that was meticulously planned appear to be the result of spontaneous evolution. Jane Jacobs would have been proud. Compare it with other spaces where the planners had total scope, for example the Arts District in Dallas, where planners successfully killed and killed until they had a boring, utterly sterile, urban concrete shitpit.
One of the survivors on the Riverwalk is Boudro's Texas Bistro, which describes itself as “a Texas Bistro on the Riverwalk”. I would absolutely buy that given my recent visit as part of a media event. On a Monday night, Boudro's is virtually full at 7pm. Every table on the bank of the erstwhile San Antonio River is full, the patio is full, and inside there are just a few places left. A hostess stares quizzically at a seating chart figuring out how she will accommodate parties. I ponder how many restaurateurs would give their eye teeth for these problems on a Monday!
We are seated inside, but right next to the window. So the patio is in front of us. It makes us low-budget spies on the patio people as they consume their meals. There is the Instagrammer who spends longer Photoshopping her selfie than eating her appetizer. The waiters who whip up tableside guacamole with the verve and flourish of a concert pianist. The shirtless dancing homeless man who makes periodic laps of this section of the Riverwalk before moving on (or maybe falling in the river).
Our waiter, Richard, turns out to have worked at Boudro's, off and on, since 1993. The owners have a wine bar that may reopen soon and he worked there in the past as well. His longevity means that he can reflect on how the San Antonio dining scene has changed over time. When Boudro's opened it was called Boudreaux’s, a more Cajun-sounding name. But San Antonio was not ready for Cajun so the name was altered to the current "Boudro's". Business took off following an Esquire review shortly after.
Nowadays, San Antonio is the most rapidly improving dining scene in Texas (as I have said before). Boudro's takes Texas ingredients and serves them up in a mixture of classic southern dishes, New American faves, and Mexican variations.
Helpings are generous. I and The Moll shared an appetizer and we each had an entrée and shared a dessert. That was plenty. Even then, we both chose from the seafood part of the menu for our entrées. I looked across at the steaks on an adjacent table. They stretched all the way to Austin. Order accordingly.
For our starter,we split a helping of Gulf Coast Seacakes ($16). Sea cakes is a synonym for crab cakes and these were lump blue crab meat with jicama slaw, roasted corn sauce, and serrano aioli. It was the ideal starter: light, spritzy from the aioli, and fresh with crunchiness from the slaw. It was hard to choose though, as Boudro's is best known (‘famous’ in the argot of the house) for its guacamole prepared tableside. We were torn, but settled for a ringside seat as three nearby tables selected it. We saw the preparation done equally adeptly by three different members of the waitstaff.
Our waiter, Richard, informed us that Shrimp and Grits ($36) was one of the most popular appetizers. The Moll selects it, and I help by checking out the occasional mouthful. The crack addiction element is the sauce, which is really a fusion of flavors from the apple-smoked bacon, roasted poblano peppers. jack cheese, and lemon butter. Grits are what someone in Italy would call corn meal. In West Virginia they are known as polenta. Boudro's are stone ground and mixed with pepper jack cheese, taking them from earthy starch underpinning to creamy full body medium for the shrimp.
There is no secret as to why this dish rings so many bells. It is heartwarming, soulful, redolent of dinners past. On a more component level it is fat, sweetness, chili spice, smoke and seafood.
I saw that there was a flight of fish dishes on the menu that revolved around black drum and red drum. Given the mild sweet flavor, I ordered the Herb-Crusted Fish Fillet ($34) with the thought that the crust would add flavor and texture. It sure did, but that would understate the other clever compositional details. Israeli couscous, white balls as large as Beluga caviar, form the base. Then the fish fillet is crusted with panko crumbs and herb seasonings. All topped with sauteed west coast mushrooms (cremini and shitake). The whole is then lapped with a chipotle red pepper beurre blanc sauce. It made for an unctuous amalgam of sweet sauce with sweet flesh of fish and umami richness from the mushrooms.
A word on beverages. There is a page of high-end cocktails for lovers of harder stuff to enjoy. The wine list is a very pleasant surprise with three Texas wines on a small but well-chosen main list and wines up to the league of a 2015 Harlan Estate ($1,400) on a spectacular domestic reserve disk.
Dessert, I usually skip, but this is a night of celebration on the San Antonio Riverwalk, so Richard reads us the list of four choices: key lime pie, brownie with ice cream, bread pudding and crème brûlée. They are crowd pleasers and, judging from the crowds filling Boudro's this Monday night, pleasing them is what they do.
Luckily, we have a half mile walk back to our hotel. We shall need it to digest what has been
a very filling, very rewarding, meal. Boudro's is recommended.