Alex Zrinski (right) picks cilantro in preparation of dinner service as John Carpenter prepares a dish in the background. Photo by Scott Ball.
More than 130,000 people in San Antonio work in the leisure and hospitality industry. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Nao, the signature restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America-San Antonio is undergoing changes in management, creative direction and name. Starting mid-October, diners will find Nao Latin Gastrobar in its place, now open for lunchtime, while dinner will be run by professional cooks and staff.

“Nao will be the best restaurant in the Pearl. I stake my reputation on it,” said Fernando Salazar, the new managing director of the San Antonio campus. “I have surrounded myself with excellence.”

The gastrobar elevates the importance of Latin American food and wines equally. Since his appointment in June, Salazar has selected a talented team including Executive Chef Zach Garza, who will lead Sous Chef Jeff Wiley and his staff to pair incredible dishes with the rich wines and spirits of Latin America.

A San Antonio native, Garza is a former Sueño scholarship winner who graduated from CIA campuses in Texas and Hyde Park. Garza previously worked at The Monterey, The Fruteria, and served as the sous chef for Nao when it opened five years ago. 

NAO Managing Director Fernando Salazar speaks with reporter Lea Thompson about the future of the restaurant. Photo by Scott Ball.
NAO Managing Director Fernando Salazar speaks with reporter Lea Thompson about the future of the restaurant. Photo by Scott Ball.

“Over the years people have often told me, ‘Nao was great but…’ I think we had this perception of being fancy and a little stuffy or just for special occasions,” Garza said. “Nao is accessible, you can come here now and have two or three dishes and not break the bank. If you want to come here and order a $60 or $70 steak, you can do that too.”

All CIA students are required to work in real-life kitchen environments in the 12 weeks leading up to graduation. In the past, Nao would often close for lunchtime and for CIA San Antonio student breaks. By mid-October, Nao will open for lunch, which will be served by students, while dinner will be served by professional cooks and wait staff.

Restaurants and shops throughout the Pearl Brewery bring in hundreds of visitors every day, and when Hotel Emma opens in November, those numbers are expected to go through the roof. Nao is a unique dining experience in San Antonio. It is a place where CIA students work and grow, and a place where diners can be a part of the growing culinary talent scene. However, many visitors are not familiar with Nao or its role within the Pearl.

“We have to be realistic with the fact that the CIA San Antonio faces challenges that the restaurants at Hyde Park and Greystone do not,” Garza added. “Each of those two campuses are in very remote locations and anyone going to sit at one of those restaurants goes knowing that they are there to be served by students, because it’s a student classroom and kitchen.”

Nao faces competition from many established chefs and fellow CIA alums at the Pearl, including: Steve McHugh of Cured, Johnny Hernandez of La Gloria, and the “godfather of Pearl restaurants,” Andrew Weissman, who runs Il Sogno and The Sandbar.

“It’s difficult for students to keep up with that level of production on a nightly basis,” Garza added. “They just don’t have that experience. You want the quality to be there, and we want the dinner experience to be able to compete with everything else that’s going on there.”

The waiting area of Nao. Photo by Scot Ball.
The waiting area of Nao. Photo by Scot Ball.

Although the menu has not been finalized, Chef Garza is looking forward to using high quality ingredients for his fall menu, including squashes, roots, and seasonal fruits in his dishes.

“I think that’s one of the most important changes to Nao,” Chef Sergio Remolina, the CIA San Antonio’s director of Latin studies said. “We want to become a part of the community and support and help the local producers.”

Remolina has helped Garza and his kitchen develop small sharing plates and entrées that reflect the essence of Latin American dishes, while providing new dining and drink experiences for San Antonio.

In the coming months, Nao will introduce a “Chef Series” to the Gastrobar. Every other month, a Latin American guest chef and winemaker will introduce their country’s dishes and wines to local diners. Visitors can also look forward to a new brunch menu that will be available on weekends.

“I think it’s an awesome goal, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be the best restaurant in the Pearl,” Chef McHugh said in response to Salazar’s plans for Nao. “This is the Culinary Institute of America– they have every resource available and I welcome the challenge. Great restaurants surrounding us only make us better.”

McHugh also serves on the CIA San Antonio’s Advisory Council Board, which helps examine opportunities and challenges facing the campus. “It’s important to me that they succeed, because it’s my school as well.”

The new staff  believes the Gastrobar will appeal to all ages through the ambiance, flavors and affordability of the new Nao.

NAO Chef Zach Garza is interviewed by reporter Lea Thompson. Photo by Scott Ball.
NAO Chef Zach Garza is interviewed by reporter Lea Thompson. Photo by Scott Ball.

“We are very lucky to have Chef Garza because not only is he creative on his own, but he fights for his dishes too,” Salazar said of the executive chef. “I want this to be a chef-driven concept. Chef Garza represents Nao. Ultimately I want the menu to be his.”

Chef Garza also expressed his excitement in returning to Nao and working with the new team.

“It is a privilege to be a part of the culinary conversation in San Antonio. We don’t accept our first effort and as you can tell we’re definitely not complacent. I’m looking forward to this,” Garza said with a laugh. “No pressure.”

Nao will offer lunch Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner will be served Monday through Thursday from 5-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5-11 p.m. Click here to make dinner reservations or to learn more about upcoming events at the Pearl.  

*Top image: Alex Zrinski (right) picks cilantro in preparation of dinner service as John Carpenter prepares a dish in the background.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Lea Thompson

Lea Thompson is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events. Follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter or Culture Spoon.