Photos by Jonathan Greer
A dreary fall day is the perfect time for comfort food. San Antonio is not known for great amounts of rain, but every now and then, a gloomy overcast day makes South Texas seem like Seattle. One of these days occurred in early October, and a historic German deli provided the warmth and renewal needed to face the depressing weather.
Schilo’s is the oldest operating restaurant in San Antonio and it proudly serves German-American fare. This year, the deli is celebrating its 100th Anniversary as a San Antonio dining institution. As downtown San Antonio has grown into a gigantic tourism and convention hub, Schilo’s has been a mainstay, holding strong in its current location since 1942.
German, American and Texas flags hang down from the classic neon sign of Schilo’s on East Commerce Street. Stepping into the door is like stepping into a time warp. The restaurant is full of wood, from the floors, to the tables and chairs and the huge tall back booths against the walls. The dining room itself seats about 80 people and the only thing that seems to have changed in the past few decades are the neon beer signs. The unpainted, unpapered walls are lined with historic photos of the restaurant and downtown San Antonio. There is a small deli counter to the right selling some meats and baked goods along with Schilo’s famous spicy mustard. The best seat in the house is at the bar, where tall, red vinyl stools give customers a perch to watch the slow, consistent rhythm of the wait staff and customers.
German food and beer go hand in hand, but during Prohibition, Schilo’s created a drink that lets lunchtime diners go back to the office without a buzz. Behind the bar is a large keg filled with root beer. And trust me, this is not the root beer you grew up with. Served in a frosty mug, the root beer is a perfect recipe that goes down smooth, with a sweetness that is deceptively hidden through the first few sips. This root beer will sneak up on you. Schilo’s offers one free refill on the root beer (complete with a fresh frosty mug), but it is key to savor the beauty of the beverage. Drinking the first mug too fast can lead to a sudden sugar rush and fulfill that fear of “spoiling your dinner”. So, best to use moderation, especially since Schilo’s has amazing cuisine to pair with that frothy mug.
Split pea soup can be risky business. There are so many horrible variations of the classic, including overly salty canned offerings and the dreaded mushy blandness served by a well-meaning grandmother but that you’d love to pass on to the dog rather than eat. Forget all your previous experiences and get a bowl at Schilo’s. Even if it isn’t a dreary day, the soup is comfort food worth tasting. The deli uses green peas and leaves the soup just a bit chunky so you can enjoy the taste and texture of their freshness. The soup comes slightly warm, but you’ll eat it so fast, you won’t have to worry about it getting cold. A great bonus is the piece of fresh rye bread on the side. Rye bread tends to be stale or slightly hard, but Schilo’s version feels like it was baked a few hours before being served. It is the perfect pairing and a great start to an amazing lunch.
And for the main course? When in a German deli, always go for the Reuben. The Reuben at Schilo’s is not the overwhelming stack of a sandwich you find at other delis. It is a modest offering, but the portions of each component of the sandwich keep a beautiful balance. The amazing rye bread is back, serving as box ends for the delectable combo of corned beef, swiss cheese and sauerkraut. The corned beef is cured in house and is expertly sliced to order and the swiss cheese adds a great pairing to the meat. But that sauerkraut! Absolutely mild, without the sourness that often ruins a perfect Reuben, Schilo’s sauerkraut compliments the corned beef, creating a superb sandwich. Thousand Island dressing is served on the side, but the homemade spicy mustard is a great substitute that will surely make your nostrils burn.
If you’ve developed the proper strategy, you’ll have enough root beer to wash down the final bites of the Reuben. A great final moment of sweetness to finish your journey through a thrilling dining adventure. When in San Antonio, stop by Schilo’s and wish them a Happy 100th. With cuisine like this, they are heading into their second century of business on a high note.