Hugh Daschbach is Hotel Emma’s culinary concierge. “I’m from southeast Louisiana, which is, in my mind, about as good a pedigree as you’ll ever find just for somebody to love food and drink and the good things in life,” he says.
Let’s back up a moment. Hotel Emma opened in San Antonio about six months ago. It’s part of the Pearl district, a former brewery complex that’s now home to about a dozen restaurants, a farmers’ market, the Culinary Institute of America’s third location and Hotel Emma. What “culinary concierge” means is that Daschbach goes to the ends of the earth—well, of the town—to retrieve speciality mezcals or whiskeys for his guests, or he might take them on a local food tour for dinner or get a local chef to create a special in-room meal for an equally special celebration. And there’s a lot for Daschbach to choose from now. “We’re just really coming into our own,” he says of San Antonio’s culinary scene. “This has historically been a Tex-Mex and tequila town, but the food here has grown up quite a bit.”
Here’s a little bit about how Daschbach’s drinking tastes have grown up, too.
On Youthful Drinking
I was actually a legal drinker at age 18 in Louisiana—we were the last state to change the law—and then two months later, I went off to college in Texas and lost that privilege again. We could drive back to Louisiana, though, and everybody was a legal drinker for the weekend. So you can imagine a couple of road trips may or may not have happened under those circumstances.
On Craft Beer
Real Ale was probably the first Texas craft beer that I fell in love with. It does a limited-edition brew called Four Squared. (Its flagship offering is a beer called Firemans #4, and at some point along the way, it had this brilliant idea to do a secondary dry hopping, hence the Four Squared.) It’s hard to find—it doesn’t produce a large volume of it—but I love it. And then there’s Karbach. I don’t think I’ve had one of its beers that I don’t love.
Hotel Emma’s Sternewirth bar and clubroom
On Tasting Tequila
A friend who lived in Mexico gave me an opportunity to go live there in central Mexico for about a year, right around the turn of the millennium. I was living in a little mountain town called Guanajuato, and those folks taught me how to sip a tequila. It’s such a different experience from shooting Cuervo Gold, you know?
On the Best Tequila
My favorite tequila right now is one Hotel Emma has from Milagro. We were invited to go down to Jalisco last year to participate in what it calls its single-barrel program. It’s not unusual now for distillers to, while things are aging, find a particular barrel that is really distinct and has enough character to stand on its own and pull those out of the inventory and sell those to a single private client with no blending from other barrels. So it’s just a distinctly identifiable cask.
Our chef—our food and beverage director at the time—and I had the opportunity to taste samples from three special barrels during Milagro’s production last year, and we blindly voted on the same barrel, No. 23. So the only place you’ll ever get this particular Milagro tequila is in the bar or restaurant at Hotel Emma. We have a signature cocktail at the hotel’s Sternewirth bar that we’ve built around it called the Veintitrés, which means “23” in Spanish. When this barrel runs out, it will be out. You’ll never see the No. 23 again. And of course the hope is that we’ll go down to Jalisco and pick out another barrel. So maybe there will be a Diecisiete or whatever.
Hugh Daschbach (image: Jody Horton)
On the Power of Tequila
Right before I left Mexico, I went on a road trip. I don’t think anybody would recommend doing this now, because it’s not very safe, but I drove around Mexico in my old Honda Civic for like two weeks. This mezcal aficionado gave me directions to find this artisanal mezcal maker in Oaxaca. He didn’t have his license to sell it yet, so I was to go to his house, and they were like, “Go to the third house on the left, turn right, and if you see the barking dog on the chain, you know that’s the right place.”
Somehow I found this guy and bought two cases of this mezcal, which was incredibly cheap but incredibly delicious, and over the course of the next two weeks, as I drove around the country, it was almost like my entree into any conversation. If I needed a meal recommendation or some other connection, it was like, “By the way, I have this trunk full of bootleg mezcal. Let’s share a drink together.” I even got out of a ticket by giving a bottle to a Mexican cop.
On Local Hangs
I live in the oldest neighborhood in town, King William, and one of the things I love about it is that I can park the car and walk to any number of bars and restaurants. It has an old-school neighborhood feel to it as opposed to the newer suburban world where you drive into a gate and park your car in the garage and never see anybody until you leave again unless it’s over the fence of the backyard. This is a neighborhood where people are walking and riding their bicycles, and there’s a neighborhood icehouse and a neighborhood pub and five or six neighborhood restaurants.
The Friendly Spot
So when I’m off and relaxing, I’m either at home or at a friend’s house or I’m just kind of making the rounds in the neighborhood. I love to wander here. There’s a beer bar that my buddy owns called The Friendly Spot, and there’s a newer bar that has become a big favorite of not just the neighborhood but also a lot of industry people called Francis Bogside.
Texas has this old-school icehouse tradition. Most of the time, it’s just a very open-air space, like a yard. It used to be where you would literally buy ice—people would go buy blocks of ice to put in their old refrigerators—and they also ended up doubling as kind of like a neighborhood package store. So there are still these places where you can buy beer and take it home or pop it open right there and drink it on-site. There’s a special icehouse law that allows that.
On San Antonio
We have a sleepy reputation. It’s a big city, but that doesn’t mean there’s a whole lot of chest thumping and self-aggrandizing going on. It has just very quietly cultivated this cool, genuine scene. That said, it’s fun to be a part of the hotel, because we’re attracting some attention from some big players, and they’re constantly surprised: “I had no idea this was going on.” And there’s a part of San Antonio that’s like, “Good. We don’t want the whole world to know what’s going on.” At the same time, it’s fun to see some of this city’s chefs and makers getting the credit they’re due.