Food is Medicine

by Rona Berg

Once-sleepy San Antonio, Texas, is experiencing a culinary awakening. The city, designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy just a few short years ago, is fast emerging as a vibrant foodie destination.

There has always been an incredible array of delicious and authentic Tex-Mex (and Mex-Mex) restaurants here, with Native American culinary influences, thanks to an ethnically diverse population. But ever since the renovation of Pearl—a former brewery complex downtown with an expansive Food Hall, a green for outdoor dining, the renowned Hotel Emma with a rocking bar and restaurant, and a host of unique restaurants that feature James Beard Award-winning chefs, the culinary footprint in San Antonio has grown and changed.

Elizabeth Johnson, chef and owner of Pharm Table, is one of the changemakers. Johnson specializes in “an anti-inflammatory way of cooking real food.” Her self-described focus is “great-tasting, tantalizing- looking food, sourced as ethically as possible, that creates a circular economy locally,” she says.

With the zeal of a nutritionist and the passion of a chef, Johnson has created a menu largely focused on plant-based dishes free of dairy, wheat, refined sugar and processed foods. But not free of fun. A colorful and spicy Wellness Shot with ginger and turmeric is “great for clearing sinuses and palates,” Johnson says—and it’s also delicious. The Pharm Table ceviche (plant- or fish-based) is a local legend, as is her guacamole, which Johnson calls “Ayurvedically sound: India meets Mexico.” And a drinks menu serves up artful cocktails, like the citrusy Paloma Rosada.

“The Ayurvedic philosophy is that everything is balanced for the season,” she says. “If you focus on foods that are sweet, bitter and astringent, they are cooling.” In a hot climate like Texas, it makes sense that Pharm Table features cooling cilantro and coconut, which are menu staples, while raw chili and onion, said to produce heat in the body, are not. Root vegetables are a favorite at Pharm Table.

“We work with local suppliers to source a lot of beets, turnips, sweet potatoes and radishes that grow year-round,” she says.

The mother of two teenagers, Johnson is an avid gardener and herbalist, knowledgeable about local greens like chaya and Mallomar spinach, which are not only flavorful but, according to Johnson, “much more nutritious than traditional spinach.” Delicious seasonal plants—some grown in Johnson’s own garden—occupy a prominent place on the menu, though sustainably sourced fish, grass-fed beef and chicken are also available.

The Pharm Table pantry is filled with flavorful spices from around the globe, and the menu is built with the intention of creating very little waste. Beets are a much-loved example. “Whether we decide to zoodle it or noodle it, we’re left with nubs,” says Johnson. “We created a recipe for those. Every time we create one recipe, we create another to harness those sub-ingredients so they don’t go to waste,” she says. “Then, we compost.”

Johnson’s parents were born in San Antonio but moved to Central America where she was born. A student of literature and anthropology who also went to law school, Johnson studied cooking in Mexico; lived in Miami, New Orleans and Buenos Aires; worked at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for six years and ended up back in Texas. Her experience in the restaurant industry, with its unhealthy subculture, abundant food waste and ingredients trucked in from great distances opened her eyes to how she wanted to do things differently.

“I want to use food as part of the solution, not the problem,” she says. “From a health and wellness perspective, especially with the pandemic, everyone with pre-existing conditions was the most vulnerable. We can no longer blindly eat and not think about the repercussions of our choices,” she continues. “We have not been treating ourselves well with food for a long time.”

Johnson is committed to changing the perception some may still have about healthy eating. “One of my goals is to bring in people who might snub their nose at ‘health food,’” she says. “We do that with healthful comfort foods—Latin-inspired tacos, tamales (with quinoa), Paleo collard green enchiladas (collards rolled with a sweet potato filling and mole verde).”

“I focus on the fact that there’s something for everyone on the menu,” she says. And then some.

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