Carriqui at the Pearl caught between Texas and Mexico

by admin

The bio for the new Pearl project in the former Tilt-A-Whirl building that once housed Liberty Bar says that Carriqui’s food “showcases South Texas foodways.” As if South Texas were this totally separate place, above the influence of Mexico and its foodways. Carriqui’s website references the Texas coast, the Rio Grande Valley, even the Hill Country. But not Mexico.

Any other place with barbacoa, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, nachos and margaritas? We’d call that a Mexican restaurant. Or Mexican-inspired. Or at least acknowledge that whole other country south of the Rio Grande.

I get it. There’s no shortage of Mexican restaurants in San Antonio, not even at the Pearl, with Johnny Hernandez’s La Gloria two blocks away from Carriqui’s front door. Nobody wants to be pigeonholed, especially when your mascot’s a showboating little green jay. 

Carriqui at the Pearl in San Antonio occupies the former home of Liberty Bar.

Mike Sutter/Staff

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But the ambiguity speaks to what I see an identity crisis at Carriqui, beginning with the name, a bird name mostly unfamiliar to our ears, a name for which I’ve heard five different pronunciations. The idea is that the food of Carriqui traces the namesake bird’s migratory path, a novel conceit but one that leaves most of us lost in the clouds. 

Not to be too reductionist about it, but can we please have some familiar shorthand for what you do? 

I went with “South Texas- and Mexican-inspired food” in the fact box. But maybe the “From the Pit” botana sampler from chef Jaime Gonzalez says it better. Carried to the table on a stout steel pedestal, the family-style platter held an oil-painting array of smoked brisket, achiote chicken, barbacoa quesadillas, guacamole, roasted potatoes, escabeche and rice and beans. 

The brisket held forth with bronzed fat and tender lean, cloaked in aromatic mole manchamanteles, flanked by generous cuts of chicken with an achiote marinade that put a spark to the bird’s smoldering smokiness. Barbacoa — real pit barbacoa — held its own even in a handheld tortilla-and-cheese wrap.

Sounds to me like South Texas and Mexico hanging out at a barbecue. But that wouldn’t make much of a T-shirt slogan.

The weekday lunch menu includes chicken enchiladas, foreground, chicken tortilla soup and a fajita torta at Carriqui at the Pearl in San Antonio. 

The weekday lunch menu includes chicken enchiladas, foreground, chicken tortilla soup and a fajita torta at Carriqui at the Pearl in San Antonio. 

Mike Sutter/Staff

By itself as an entree, the barbacoa was even better, a neat block of shred and gloss with just the right edge of fat and funk. Better still, Carriqui’s one of the few places that roasts cabrito in a pit wrapped in banana leaves, creating a grounding earthiness balanced with a complex pecan mole.

The power of the botana platter also translated well to a seafood variation, stacked with clean and citrusy redfish ceviche, a thick and pearled fillet of striped bass glazed with chile mayo, shrimp tacos, escabeche, guacamole and rice and beans. 

*** ½ 

239  E. Grayson St., 210-910-5547, carriquitx.com

Quick bite: South Texas- and Mexican-inspired food in the former Liberty Bar building at the Pearl

Hit: Smoked brisket, cabrito, cocktails

Miss: Tuna tostada, shrimp tacos 

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 4-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

Price range: Chips and dips, $4-$8; appetizers, $10-$18; entrees, $22-$98; botana platters, $59-$86; desserts, $10-$11. Lunch, $10-$19

Alcohol: Cocktails, wine and beer

***** Excellent

**** Good

*** Fair

** Poor

* Bad

Express-News dining critics pay for all meals.


I should back up and say the shrimp tacos tasted mostly like potato, the second seafood misstep at Carriqui, coming after a disappointing tuna tostada served on a plate without garnish, a single fried tortilla with a garish smear of aioli, a scatter of overmarinated fish and a bitter cascade of unidentifiable fried bits and pieces.

The entry points at Carriqui, the chips and queso and three kinds of salsa, won’t take you anywhere new or especially compelling, but I was impressed by nachos made the way nachos were made at the dawn of time: One chip, refried beans, one slab of cheese, one slice of jalapeño. Melted under the broiler. Perfect.

Old School Nachos are just chips, beans, cheese and jalapeños at Carriqui at the Pearl in San Antonio. The bar menu includes the Carriqui Margarita. 

Old School Nachos are just chips, beans, cheese and jalapeños at Carriqui at the Pearl in San Antonio. The bar menu includes the Carriqui Margarita. 

Mike Sutter/Staff

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With great nachos comes great responsibility. And Cassie McCloud’s bar program delivers. Whether anybody at Carriqui got the memo on Mexico or not, her cocktails spoke the language fluently, from the avocado-coconut-rum smoothness of the Sage Brush to the mezcal-hibiscus-cinnamon snap of the Curandero to well-executed classic margarita.

Weekday lunch at Carriqui felt like a restaurant within a restaurant, one with a more solid identity, working from a streamlined menu that embraced a Mexican aesthetic without dodging around it, including good chicken enchiladas, a complex bowl of chicken tortilla soup and a straightforward beef fajita torta. 

Enchiladas got kicked off Carriqui’s dinner menu in the early going. Too ordinary, too predictable, too limiting? I don’t know. But the lunch menu could teach the dinner menu a thing or two.

The opening of Carriqui comes amid a surge of new Pearl concepts in partnership with Potluck Hospitality, the culinary arm of the Pearl operation, a surge that includes the Mediterranean grill Ladino and the brunch spot Full Goods Diner. 

Potluck’s already built a reputation for reinvention, and the most striking thing about Carriqui is the performance space itself. 

From the bones of a building once famous for its decrepit tilt, Carriqui has put together a venue with a saloon-style main dining room bathed in the glow of polished wood, a courtyard with its own bar flanked by walls of tropical plants, a separate stone building called the Rock House that looks like a Hollywood set for a rom-com wedding reception. A second-floor veranda in the main room overlooks it all, reached by a staircase that will bring out the nostalgia in fans of the old Liberty Bar, minus the vertigo.

With that many choices, it’s hard to know where to go. Maybe that’s a metaphor. But Carriqui’s namesake green jay’s an even better one. The bird and the restaurant fly all over the map. I hope they eventually find a place to land.

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