Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Better Than Other School Cafeterias

Bernard's Creole Kitchen
8019 South Pan-Am Expressway
(actually, it's on Barlite Boulevard, off Interstate 35 South, 
between Zarzamora & Palo Alto)

The closing of Ma Harper's, a folksy, exuberantly unpretentious Creole kitchen on the East Side, left me with a hole in my culinary heart. I had already lost another favourite, a place I went to fairly often but could never remember the name of; it was always just That Place Off Walzem that doubled as a church on weekends. I don't feel the yearning for Louisiana-style cooking nearly as often these days, as I grow old (what, 49 again?) and memories of youth fade. But every now and then, well, it's just something a body's gotta have.

So it was almost inevitable that when I offered lunch to an old friend who lives off I-35 South,  I would take her to Bernard's. I had found this place listed on Urbanspoon San Antonio, complete with an extraordinarily high rating of 97% approval (with 67 votes cast, a respectable number). 

The place is on the campus of the Baptist University of the Americas, in Building Number 6, a two-storey number facing Barlite Boulevard. This is the school cafeteria. When you come in, from front or back entry, you find yourself in ... well, a school cafeteria, but without the food line. A large open room, with mix-and-match chairs and large mix-and-match tables for community seating, on a linoleum floor. 

There being no food line, we weren't sure where to go. Off to one side, we noticed a smaller dining room, similarly furnished, but where the large room was entirely empty, that one was almost full. We went in, found ourselves seats at a table for six (the smallest one available) and waited for the waiter to get to us.

Turns out, this is not how things are done at Bernard's. There is a small counter in the corner of this room, and we eventually figured out that customers are expected to place their orders there. But we sat, in our ignorance, watching the one harried young employee rush around until finally he arrived at our table with menus, and one set of utensils, to take our drink orders (sweet tea for her, swamp water for me). Some time later, about the time we thought we'd figured out how to read the casually disorganized menu, he returned. My friend ordered the "Not Yo Mama's Meat Loaf" with sides of dirty rice (at my insistence) and mashed potatoes; I ordered the shrimp po-boy, dressed, and a link of boudin.

The boudin arrived first, two links wrapped in foil like tacos on corn tortillas, well seasoned but underheated and mushy. They were soon followed by our main meals. My po-boy arrived with part of the sandwich bread missing; the waiter noticed it as he set it down on the table, and went to rectify the situation -- how, I don't know, because he was soon distracted by all the other tables clamouring for attention, and I gave up waiting on it. The missing bread aside, the sandwich was tolerably good. The shrimp were small, but plentiful, fried to a touch and tasty. The dressing was fresh and also plentiful.

My friend's meatloaf was slightly redolent of cumin, not the first spice that comes to mind in Creole cooking. It had a good texture, although slightly dry. I didn't try her mashed potatoes; they looked fine, and she had neither praise nor complaint, so I conclude that they were good but not extraordinary. The dirty rice was like no dirty rice I've ever had. A garnish of two slices of andouille was the best feature of the dish; the rice was well cooked, neither chewy nor mushy, which means that its preparation was carefully managed in the kitchen. But the seasonings, which I could not identify, weren't to my liking. They had a savory quality that belongs to vegetable casseroles or pot pies, not dirty rice. 

I see that when I cast my "don't like it" vote, Bernard's overall rating dropped to 95%. Something about the place appeals to most people who eat there, I guess -- judging from the crowd on this occasion, students and staff at the university, and a number of uniformed military. Would it be too catty to opine that they are comparing it to the food they're used to getting at school cafeterias, or maybe MRE's?

Yes, it would. But, meow.

The City of San Antonio is, shall we say, somewhat lackadaisical in its restaurant inspection information. Details like names and addresses ... well, you know. So a search for “Bernard’s Creole Kitchen” in their database yielded no results; a search for “Bernard” got me inspection results for  “Limon’s Food Center/Bernard’s Breol,” at 503 Palo Alto Road. Bernard’s used to be at 509 Palo Alto, until last year, and I can interpolate that “Breol” is bureaucratese for Creole-and-nobody-here-gives-a-damn-about-spelling.
I’ve noticed a number of times that addresses of local restaurants that re-locate never get updated on the City food inspection reports. Ma Harpers’s, for example, once my favourite local place for Louisiana cooking, used to be on New Braunfels Avenue, and according to the city, it remained there until it went out of business last year. The City never updated the address after Ma Harper’s moved to W. W. White Road years ago.
Maybe the people who would be responsible for updating information of this sort are overworked, or maybe it’s just not part of anybody’s job. After all, who the hell ever goes to the City’s web site to see how a restaurant has done in the city’s inspections? 
So, since the place listed as being on Palo Alto was last inspected just a couple of months ago, in January, and since I know Bernard’s used to be on Palo Alto, I suspect – because I’m too lazy to get in my car now and drive way the hell over to the South Side just to confirm my suspicions – that the November 2010 inspection of “Limon’s Food Center/Bernard’s Breol” at 503 Palo Alto Road, and the 27 demerits noted, was actually an inspection of the facilities at Building 6 on the campus of the Baptist University; i.e., Bernard’s Creole Kitchen. You can draw your own conclusions.

Bernard's Creole Kitchen on Urbanspoon 


  1. Was the place on the NE side off of Riitiman Rd? D's Seafood, Jerk & More? I think they were so much better than anyone else. We tried Ma Harpers this weekend and it didn't even compare!!

  2. No, it was on W W White Road. I don't know the place you're talking about.

  3. Bummer ... D's is temporarily closed, but the church is still open. If they do reopen, I highly recommend it!! Awesome gumbo, fish, hush puppies & beignets!


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