San Antonio chef infuses cuisine with culture and lineage traced back to the Alamo

Inside of The Smokin’ Bull food truck, Kim Van Winkle prepares food seasoned with the ingredients of her life.

For the past three months, she’s served customers from the corrugated steel and wood-trimmed kitchen on wheels at the East Bar at 829 N. New Braunfels Ave.

Customers clamor for selections such as asada fries, boudin sausage, shrimp tacos, smoked chicken salad sandwiches and her specialty, smoked ribs.

“I sell out — that’s the fun part of it,” she said. “It gets me inspired.”

A 25-year food industry veteran, Van Winkle, 39, has worked all facets of the business. She’s washed dishes, cooked at premiere restaurants, catered events for celebrities and worked beside master chefs.

She developed “a new backbone and tough skin” working as a sous chef for the late David Page, who was nicknamed Chef Bully. He pushed her to set aside her emotions and excel under high pressure. For the single mother of two children, it was all about tough love.

Chef Kim Van Winkle pulls smoked peach cobbler out of the smoker on her food truck, The Smokin' Bull, which is parked at the East Bar.

Chef Kim Van Winkle pulls smoked peach cobbler out of the smoker on her food truck, The Smokin’ Bull, which is parked at the East Bar.

Jessica Phelps, Staff photographer / San Antonio Express-News

Her work ethic was forged 38 miles away from San Antonio on her family’s 200-acre farm in Jourdanton. The spread had a gate she’d bang on to watch cows running in from 5 acres away. When not doing chores, she’d dash from the house with a wraparound porch to run the trails, with an eye out for spiders and rattlesnakes. One of her fondest recollections is watching her dad, Kurt Van Winkle, and grandfather James Van Winkle deliver a baby calf.

A 22-year veteran of the Air Force, Vincent T. Davis embarked on a second career as a journalist and found his calling. Observing and listening across San Antonio, he finds intriguing tales to tell about everyday people. He shares his stories with Express-News subscribers every Monday morning.

“Some of my best memories come from a dirt road in Texas,” Van Winkle said. “I’m proud of my roots.”

The East Bar is near Dignowity Hill, on the edge of the Denver Heights neighborhood Van Winkle said was land once owned by her ancestor Juan Vargas. She was in the third grade when she learned about Vargas, an Aztec born in Oaxaca, Mexico, who witnessed the battle of the Alamo from a distance.

In 1910, he told a San Antonio Light reporter that he bound the wounds of the injured at the embattled mission and helped bury the dead. Engraved on Vargas’ gravestone is his age when he died — 115.

“I’m really honored,” Van Winkle said. “It’s just amazing to have that lineage.”

Each night, with the smell of smoke clinging to her clothes, Van Winkle returns to her East Side home. The house is more than an abode — it’s her family’s safe haven.

Van Winkle learned to cook from her late grandmother Estella Chapa, who originally owned the property. It means a lot for her to whip up recipes in the same house, where as a child she woke to the aroma of coffee brewing and fresh flour tortillas.

One of her treasures is Chapa’s stone molcajete, seasoned with love and flavors of Mexican culture. To Van Winkle, its more than mortar and pestle, its her holy grail.

And she’s sharing lessons learned with troubled San Antonio youths, old secrets she absorbed in her Nona’s kitchen to the clang of cups and spoons.

Chef Kim Van Winkle jokes with Travis Phillips after serving him pork ribs from her food truck Smokin' Bull, parked at the East Bar.

Chef Kim Van Winkle jokes with Travis Phillips after serving him pork ribs from her food truck Smokin’ Bull, parked at the East Bar.

Jessica Phelps, Staff photographer / San Antonio Express-News

Van Winkle is executive chef of nonprofit World Lolei, which helps young people and families in need. The organization sponsors an annual junior chef competition and partnered with the Bexar County juvenile probation division for Recipe to Life Culinary Arts classes.

“Doing things like that inspire me,” she said. “It’s rewarding to see the kids doing things like that.”

Chef Milas Williams, co-founder of World Lolei, said he’s watched Van Winkle evolve from supporting everyone else to cultivating skills for her own career.

“It’s her season and deserves every blessing that comes her way,” said Williams, 41. “She was a student for so long and now is the teacher. Chef Kim lives up to the name Smokin’ Bull. I’m proud to back her up 1,000 percent in any and everything she does.”

On a recent Thursday, Van Winkle plated barbecue ribs for customers from a smoker a step outside the truck’s kitchen door. Regulars played dominoes and dined on Van Winkle’s fare at the neighborhood bar’s open-air patio. General Manager Nneka Cleaver and owner Edmond Montgomery greeted patrons carrying paper plates of the chef’s comfort food as old-school R&B music flowed from speakers.

Cleaver said the response has been great for Van Winkle, who leases the food truck from Montgomery.

“The creativity she’s brought to the table has been awesome,” Cleaver said. “She’s been exceptional on the food side.”

Montgomery, 43, said having the chef on their team fits the pub’s desire to serve a variety of people who include bike clubs, motorcycle clubs and residents from the neighborhood.

Albert and Stephanie Bañuelos sat behind the duo. It was their first visit to the bar and the first place they visited after Albert Bañuelos was hospitalized for more than 20 days because of the coronavirus. They were impressed by the taste and tenderness of the chef’s barbecue ribs.

“The seasoning is on point,” said Albert Bañuelos, 43. “It’s balanced pretty well.”

Stephanie Bañuelos, 36, said she normally doesn’t eat pork.

“I may have to rethink ribs,” she said.

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