Ana Fernandez

FOOD FLASHES Institute of Chili films spot for Fox Telecolombia Latin America

Posted on November 06, 2016

The folks at Alamo Street Eat Bar are probably used to all the film crews after July’s “Eat St.” filming.

On Tuesday night the food truck park and bar was paid yet another film crew visit, this time by “Aquiles en Houston” host Aquiles Chavez and Aaron Sanchez, chef and owner of Centrico, who’s appeared on Food Network’s “Chopped”, “Chefs vs City” and as a season one contestant on “The Next Iron Chef.”

The duo was in town to visit with the Institute of Chili, owned by Ana Fernandez.

“The producer said two celeb chefs would be coming, but I had no idea Aaron would be here,” says Fernandez who watches “Chopped” nightly.

Because of the truck’s tight space, filming took more or less four hours. The production crew filmed Fernandez making her famous chili, and preparing the truck’s most popular item, “The Bomb,” which features brisket on a bun topped with chili, a fried egg and cheese. The chefs also talked about the history of the truck which brings to light the history of the Chili Queens of San Antonio.

The episode will be aired in South America, Mexico and some Fox affiliates in the States sometime in March.

Follow the Institute of Chili on Facebook and Twitter.

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A Night With Ana and Jenn Working at the Institute of Chili Food Truck at the Alamo Street Eat-Bar

Posted on November 06, 2016

By Robert Rivard

First Friday-goers: Be nice to the food truck workers tonight. It’s hard ass work, the pay is iffy, the tips meager, and you’ve been drinking. Oh yeah, the tasty food you just ordered will be ready in minutes, and you’ll probably get change back on a $10 bill. I know all these things because I spent a hot Friday night as a food truck worker.

I worked a shift for Ana Fernandez, the artist who owns the Institute of Chili(formerly the Chili Queens) food truck based at the Alamo Street Eat-Bar.

The Alamo Street Eat-Bar has added a new culinary dimension to Southtown.

Alamo Street Eat-Bar: a new culinary dimension to Southtown. (Photo courtesy of Hugh Donagher/Alamo Street Eat-Bar.)

Fernandez said it wasn’t clear legally if she could continue to use the Chili Queens name that hearkens back to the Mexican-American women who sold prepared food in Military Plaza in the 1800s. You can see old photographs of the Chili Queens and their customers at the Witte Museum’s South Texas Heritage Center.

“The food we serve is like the food the Chili Queens served, a mix of Tex-Mex and cowboy, the food that was born here in San Antonio,” Fernandez said. Both her food and her art seem rooted, literally, in her sense of place here. “I am a chili queen, it’s my culinary heritage.”

The Institute of Chili food truck at the Alamo Street Eat-Bar.

The Institue of Chili food truck at the Alamo Street Eat-Bar.

Fernandez earned a fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and then a fine arts graduate degree from UCLA. A Corpus Christi native, she experienced life in Chicago and Los Angeles, but found San Antonio offered the right mix of urban life and South Texas culture. Her paintings have been included in an exhibition at the McNay Art Museum, and she has pieces in the permanent collection at UTSA. Collectors from Texas to California have bought her work.

Fernandez still needs to supplement her income, and she isn’t the type to look for 9 to 5 work. Before finding her 1978 Chevrolet truck, a former Frito-Lay vehicle, on Craig’s List, Fernandez worked as a river barge driver. The job paid $6 an hour plus tips and required her to deliver a mind-numbing script to tourists, a spiel that wasn’t exactly designed to engage people intellectually about the city and its history.

So these days Ana, as regulars know her,  is in the truck six nights a week, open until midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. That doesn’t count the hours spent, shopping, cooking, opening and closing.

The late hours, I learned, is why the men includes breakfast tacos.

“The tacos are for the 1 a.m. crowd, the people who have been drinking all night, you can see it in their eyes,” said Jenn Villanueva, the truck cook and friend of Fernandez. Villanueva, a San Antonio native, commutes down to work here from her day job as a private chef in Austin. “People have been out all night and they come here to eat before they go home.”

 

Mayor Julián Castro is calling this the Decade of Downtown. I’d say 2012 is the Year of the Food Truck in San Antonio. Momentum has been building for two years in terms of the growing number of food truck permits issued, the city’s downtown pilot program and the establishment of food truck court locations. Food trucks have finally become a permanent part of the urban fabric. You can even download a free San Antonio food truck app, the work of SWEB Development, located blocks away from the Alamo Eat-Bar on South St. Mary’s Street.

So, wondering about the economics of the food truck business as much as the culture of the food truck community, The Rivard Report decided to get a truck-level view. Everyone dreams of owning a bar or restaurant. It all seems so romantic from the customer side of the counter. I have family in the food business and knew better. Friday night was refresher course in reality. I’m not saying I didn’t have fun, because I did, but…

My shift began hauling dirty pots and pans to the food truck court’s kitchen, where Fernandez scrubbed everything used to prep the evening fare. We no sooner returned to the truck when I was sent back out.

“Take this $5 and go up front and ask the guys for two bags of ice,” Fernandez said. At least they trust me with the money, I told myself, walking off.

The beer bar is the center of the Alamo Eat-Bar universe, I patiently waited while Dale Johnson, the quiet guy with the Wyatt Earp handlebar mustache, attended a growing line of customers ordering premium beer on draft. I took advantage of the wait and checked on my old Peugeot roadie locked in the street front bike rack, a paranoid reflex that started a few months ago when my wife Monika’s new townie was stolen from our Lavaca front porch.

The BOMB: a chili burger with everything, including a fried egg.

The BOMB: a chili burger with everything, including a fried egg. Seven bucks.

My bike had a lot of company as more people flowed in from all sides for an early meal or an end-of-the-week beer.  I collected the ice and trudged back to the food truck with a bag on each shoulder. A few vaguely familiar customers stared: “You working here now?”

A food truck park has a rhythm, and  the early evening belongs to couples and their kids, and couples with no kids and their dogs. The kids seem content petting the dogs, sitting in the gravel, running free. Alamo Eat-Bar does not offer the familial amenities found at the nearby The Friendly Spot, although both businesses are owned and operated by Jody and Steve Newman. The playground at The Friendly Spot would make a great edition to Alamo Eat-Bar, but the space is smaller and there is a scruffy authenticity to the Eat-Bar that comes from its predecessor, the Acapulco Drive Inn, which closed in 2011. The Newmans lease the property from its owner, Guillermo Nicolas, and there are no plans at this point to make any substantial changes or improvements.

Six trucks occupy fulltime spaces, although they might come and go.

“It’s been a fun business to create and operate,” Jody said. “It’s organic and growing and still only three months old, so we are still in the watch-and-wait phase. Our goal is for one of our truck operators to be successful enough to one day open a stand-alone restaurant in Southtown.”

Authenticity means some bad comes with the good. The bathrooms are pretty grim, about the only complaint I’ve heard as a regular customer myself. The Newmans bring in Porta-potties for the First Friday crowd.

“It’s a 1937 building, which has the kitsch everybody loves and is worth protecting and preserving, but it also has its drawbacks,” Jody said.  The Rivard Report agrees, but also believes great cities have great downtowns which have great bathrooms. God help us if Urban Robert visits, I thought to myself during a shift break.

The atmosphere is friendly and casual at community picnic tables.

The atmosphere is friendly and casual at community picnic tables. (Photo courtesy of Alamo Street Eat-Bar.)

Ana and Jenn took advantage of a slow stretch to teach me how to turn ice into slush and make a raspa, one of their signature offerings. It took me awhile to make my way through the bottles of available syrup flavors, and I had to ask for help filling my first order, which came from a little girl in the company of her mother .

“What flavor would you like, young lady?” I asked, leaning way out the food truck window. “Red,” she said, smiling. Red. There are about 10 red raspa syrups, ranging from watermelon to chamoy, some kind of sour apricot. Big Red, Ana said. The kids want Big Red.

Ana and Jenn did most of the actual work while I savored the differences between the classic chili on cornbread versus the vegetarian chili on cornbread. Even with a small window unit blowing, it’s hot in the confines of the truck with a hot grill fired up. I took every opportunity to deliver food orders to customers seated at nearby picnic tables, a nice Chili Queens touch. If they get real busy, you collect your food at the delivery window. Iff they have time, they deliver the food to your table.

Happy customers: City Manager Sheryl Sculley with Mike Sculley and AJ and Estelle Rodriguez.

Happy customers: Mike and Sheryl Sculley and AJ and Estelle Rodriguez.

Entrepreneurs with good credit and lot of faith can spend up to $80,000 on a custom, state-of-the-art food truck. It might not be as expensive as opening a restaurant, but’s a big time small business bet that few would be able to justify in terms of return on investment.

Fernandez bought her used truck in north San Antonio from a former produce vendor for less than $15,000, and didn’t have to do much to turn it into a food truck. She spent another $3,000 on a grille and other improvements, and will soon add an exhaust vent to complement the windows and the small air conditioner. I suggested an oscillating fan to keep employee morale high.

Add to the startup costs the monthly truck court rent, diesel and propane fuel, food (Ana, you’re out of Sirachi!) and labor costs, and it takes several $1,000 nights just to climb out of the red each month. That’s an easy sum to make when you’re slammed on a First Friday, or a Fourth of July, but weekday nights can be slow, especially for a new location. On the Friday I worked, business was slow for all six food trucks. The mercury climbed above the 100 degree mark and that seemed to affect appetites. People hang, people drink, but people don’t eat a lot when it’s that hot.

Ana and Jenn split tips, but most customers do not tip. Part of the food truck appeal is affordability. Credit card charges for a $2 raspa are not uncommon. The average food and drink order comes to less than $10. A 15-20% tip is considered customary — if not mandatory — in a restaurant. No such social tradition exists in a food truck court, although the beer bar tip jar always seems full. A buck in the bucket at a truck is a good tip. It’s also the exception to the rule, in my limited experience.

A large man in a wheelchair waved me out of the truck for a consult. How are the servings here? Very good, I assure him. Ample? Quite ample, yes sir. How ample? Ana signals me: Give him whatever he needs. I return to the truck and spoon up a triple serving of chili over cornbread and walk it back out. Got any extra cornbread? Okay, I say. Make it a couple extra servings, friend, and make it all to go. I take the food back inside and Ana helps me wrap everything nicely in aluminum foil and then bag it. The man motors off toward home, a warm bag of dinner in his lap, promising to return soon.

I’ll be back to check out the action on First Friday and probably sample the good food at some of the other trucks: The DuckTruck, Attaboy, Tapa Tapa, Wheelie Gourmet, and Where Y’at. I like them all. It’ll be nice to have a Friday off and just be a customer. Remind me to leave a good tip.

 Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

“The Institute of Chili” in San Antonio, a new generation of “chili queens”

Posted on November 06, 2016

Parked just a short walk from the Alamo in a bustling food truck park called Alamo Street Eat Bar, the truck offers traditional and updated chili dishes: chili on a brisket burger, chili on fajita tacos, chili on tamales, and, of course, straightforward chili served with cornbread.  Ana says that “The Institute of Chili” is following in the footsteps of a celebrated group of business women, cooks in the 1800’s and early 1900’s who operated open-air diners in San Antonio’s market square.  They “were the original mobile truck vendors in San Antonio.”

American writers like Stephen Crane (Red Badge of Courage) wrote about their first taste of Mexican food as they sat at these diners run by indigenous Mexican women.  Crane recalled in 1895 that “upon one of the plazas, Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades — chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles.” (Jennings)

“Chili,” the anglicized term, for “Chile,” stuck in the English vocabulary and to this day is used to refer to any of the array of chiles used in Mexican cuisine. But the name also came to be used to refer to the actual women restaurateurs.  “Chili Queens,” they called them.  San Antonio native,  Annie Madrid Salas exclaims, “I don’t know who named them the chili queens, probably some gringo!” (Silva & Nelson, 2004)

Open-air restaurants are an ancient Native American tradition.  Surviving native documents record that prepared foods were a feature of markets in Tlatelolco, Mexico, founded in 1338. Cooks served tamales, tortillas, atole, beans, chocolate and variously filled and stuffed tortillas. (Solis & Gallegos, 2000).  Ballinger, Texas was the site of a huge market fair that annually convened thousands of Texas Indians for trade in the 1400’s.

Brisket Tacos

“We are the new chili queens,” says Ana, explaining that her cooking is part of a larger history and of community.  “I’ve always loved to cook and to serve food to friends, to all people.”  Having learned about the “chili queens” when she was in high school, Ana is not only identifying with them now, she is also moving their legacy a step forward.  “The Institute of Chili” is a serious business.

A business just like the outdoor tables of those ladies who preceded the male dominated “TexMex” restaurants that sprouted up in the early 1900’s,  just at the same time that the “chili queens” were being shut down by the city of San Antonio health department.  Dr. Felix Almaráz, Professor of History at The University of Texas at San Antonio says, “Alamo Plaza was more for Caucasians and business people, politicans. …the chili queens were considered an eyesore because their little setups were not, they were not ‘high tone’” 

He laments, “When they were here, we didn’t protect them. We didn’t know that there would be bureaucrats who would come at them.  And try to get them either to reform or to change or to move out.  And it seems that they moved them out.” (Silva & Nelson, 2004)

With her modern menu featuring artfully-blended Brisket Tacos, Ana Fernandez is proclaiming that they are back.

“We really are honored and excited…to pay homage to the original chili queens.  We are really  grateful for everyone who comes by the truck to support a new generation of chili queens.”

Ana Fernandez: San Antonio Business Journal

Posted on November 06, 2016

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Food Trucks: Wheeling and Dealing

Posted on November 06, 2016

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Ana Fernandez: Painter as chili queen

Posted on November 05, 2016

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PechaKucha VI: “Ladies, Pick Your Bull Carefully”

Posted on November 05, 2016

By Sarah Fisch
May 26th, 2012

George Bernard Shaw suggested that every five to seven years, a person should appear before a committee to justify his or her continued existence. Without the attendant possibility that their lease on life might not be renewed, the eight participants in last night’s PechaKucha rose to just that kind of challenge. There are few spectator experiences so rewarding as to engage with somebody who plain-out loves something.

On Thursday night, a lively crowd overflowed the HQ of the Architecture Foundation of San Antonio in the Full Goods Building at the Pearl complex, home to the San Antonio iteration of PechaKucha, the Tokyo-born, now worldwide program of locally held show and tell gatherings. Presenters have six minutes and 40 seconds to do their thing. That’s 20 slides, 20 seconds each, with a running monologue. They can talk about their work, their passions, or make it an apologia of their aesthetics and ethos, or simply to experiment. This is the fourth San Antonio iteration of Pecha Kucha I’ve attended, and the sixth in San Antonio, orchestrated by the Architecture Foundation of San Antonio, the redoubtable Lake/Flato architect Vicki Yuan, and writers Ben Judson and Callie Enlow.

Although the format’s constrained — or rather, perhaps, because the format’s constrained, it’s fascinating to watch as different thinkers compress or stretch to fit into it. There’s a subversive utility in thinking inside the box — think of the rewards yielded by the formal criteria of a fugue, a yurt, or villanelle. Also note that it’s always the grocery store and hardware materials challenges that get the Project Runway folks on their best game.

There have been presenters over the series of evenings who’ve treated the platform as more or less a Powerpoint presentation. This can be very effective — months ago Diana Kersey, ceramicist, documented the painstaking process of her fine art and her object-based, consumerable work, through her series of slides which showed the various processes she’s mastered. It left the crowd having learned something not only about the woman, but the woman at work. Justin Boyd, sound artist, undercut the visual element of Pecha Kucha, using each “slide” as a caption to state the location and date of the 20-second audio sample he played in conjunction, working outwards in his field recordings from the crowded muffle of an elevator’s interior to the majestic openness of a seaside. Other presenters have allowed the slide show to supplement the verbal points they make, rather than sectioning their verbiage into slide-by-slide commentary.

The great appeal of the Pecha Kucha formula lies in its meta-didactic angle, and its economy. There’s almost nothing so boring that you can’t sit and listen for six minutes and 40 seconds, and best case (and more likely) scenario is that you’ll learn something.

"...Newberry provided a good set-up for artist/chili queen Ana Fernandez, no slouch in the absurdism department. Although an in-demand and accomplished painter, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and UCLA, with a sold-out one-woman show at Joan Grona among her recent credits and an exhibition up currently at Austin’s Women and Their Work gallery, she chose instead to focus on her reign as a Chili Queen. A disclaimer: I collaborated with Fernandez on the catalog copy for her Austin show, and on some of the early copy for her Chili Queen concept. So I can’t be objective.

But I was surprised and impressed that her attitude towards her different modes of artmaking could be summed up thusly; yeah, I’m a painter. Meanwhile, I lost my job as a Paseo del Rio barge driver (true story!) and decided to buy a taco truck, use my talent for cooking, and honor the original Chili Queens of the 19th-into-the-mid-20th century, who sold chili by the bowl in public plazas to swells and workers alike.

Fernandez developed a recipe using the flavor profiles and traditional ingredients favored in Chili Queen heyday. She’s incorporated them into craze-inducing dishes including “The Roosevelt” and “The Bomb.” Very cannily, she featured slides of the food. The audience swooned and gasped. She was funny, too, describing her Botanica to Go, also housed in her taco truck, the signal product of which is a line of incense which, depending on which you buy, ensures friend-requests on Facebook or the ability to control others.
The Chili Queens food truck at Alamo Eats Bar

The Chili Queens food truck at Alamo Eats Bar

Beamer went all puzzled in his follow-up, re-iterating Fernandez’ impressive educational and artistic background. She explained that she cooks at certain times, and paints at other times. It’s not so crazy. She loves good food and the chili queen tradition, so she’s doing that too. She manages a humor in everything without anything being a joke, or an ironic pseudo-dive into the service industry. Contemporary painter? Yup. Chili Queen? Yes."