Sopes at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort, San Antonio
By JOHN DeMERS
Chef Troy Knapp took extra-special care of me on the long drive back from Marfa and El Paso by way of San Antonio. He gave me every flavor I needed of my beloved SA, without even making me look for a parking place downtown.
The Seattle-born Knapp, you see, is newish exec chef at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa, technically out by Sea World but emotionally a million miles removed from that busy tourist attraction, Six Flags Fiesta Texas and every other one that San Antonio offers. I hear they also have something known as the Alamo. In addition to knowing a good cup of coffee when he tastes one, the chef is also a certified sommelier who, without a bit of prompting, will choose an exquisite but totally unexpected wine to go with whatever meal you order.
Since I didn’t get in from I-10 till almost 10 at night, my dinner and my breakfast the next morning were the same, certainly through no fault of Knapp’s. There on a table in my suite were slice after slice of Spanish Manchego cheese (I’d let on by phone, when he’d asked what I might enjoy as an amenity, that I didn’t much like those “stinky” French affairs), sided by dark, reddish-brown chunks of intense chorizo. Those things, with a crisp Italian flatbread, were perfect. With the pinot noir from Germany (no, not Burgundy, not California, not Oregon – Germany!), they were even better than that. Some of all this deliciousness was still around in the morning, for a breakfast looking out over the trees from my veranda, with two cups of coffee brewed in the suite subbing for the wine.
My radio interview with Chef Knapp was preceded by a quick run around the 300-plus-acre property in a golf cart with its own GPS – can’t say I’ve ever ridden in one of those before. Highlights of the tour included a poke around the chef’s herb garden, replanted this year with help from local Girl Scouts, and a stroll through the resort’s spa called Windflower. Like everything else at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country, the spa is rustic or is made to look that way. I asked the chef about the weather-beaten boards on the floor, what their story was, and he admitted he didn’t know – having arrived from a Hyatt elsewhere only nine months ago. We were told by spa personnel that many materials used in construction came from old Texas schoolhouses and other ancient buildings.
“I should go around with you asking questions,” Knapp laughed. “I might learn something.”
We did our 20 minutes of radio sitting in rocking chairs on the veranda gazing out over South Texas cactus, Lady Bird’s wildflowers and the other native plants that make the entire resort such a Lone Star delight. Here and there, though the trees, we caught a glimpse of the old windmills and prairie wagons that dot the otherwise modern golf course. I was pleased the Hyatt has an outdoor meeting/dining space called the Luckenbach Pavilion. I was even more pleased that Chef Knapp was aware of the song.
And once we were finished chatting for posterity – focusing especially on the fine-dining Antlers restaurant, as well as on his new menus for the very popular, three-meal Springhouse Café and for the spa, he introduced me to sous chef Joshua Karther. It was Joshua’s job, in the Springhouse, to fix me some lunch before I had to hit the road for Houston.
The meal I chose was – wisely – the meal the two chefs chose for me: a terrific appetizer of the best sopes I’ve had, not mealy like some I’ve tried but more like crisp pastry boats filled with chicken, beef piccadillo and ground-up chorizo, followed by a Caesar salad sent home to Texas by ancho-chile-kissed dressing and croutons made from cornbread, and a main-course trio of soft tacos in the popular fajita mold. These came with grilled shrimp, chicken breast and, of course, beef, all ready to be customized at table with a mixture of guacamole, cheese, jalapenos and other Tex-Mex goodies.
As I was eating all this, plus tasting two desserts – one built around chocolate mousse, the other called a parfait but clearly inspired by downhome lemon icebox pie – Chef Knapp came back from making his rounds. Exec chefs are, after all, a little like doctors on the floor at a hospital.
“I’ve cooked a whole lot of places since growing up in Seattle,” Knapp explained. “Denver, Los Angeles for 10 years, Phoenix before here. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. But I didn’t come here to San Antonio to show off what I’ve learned somewhere else but to gather up everything that’s here already: local products, local people and ethnic groups, local food traditions. And then to have that ready for you every time you get hungry. I’ve embraced it all.”
Thanks, Chef Troy Knapp. And now, fatter but wiser, I have embraced it all too.
Fajitas Never Had It So Good!