Written by Jane Wu
Upon hearing that Forbidden Gardens would be closing soon, I planned a stop on the way to Houston for a farewell visit to this distinctive attraction. I arrived on a windy, overcast afternoon to find the entrance locked and deserted, with a sign clamped to the gate about a weekend sale of their office furnishings and gift shop items.
Although I was unable to tour the grounds one last time, I still walked away with fond memories of the place. I had visited several times, mostly in the first few years of its opening, with my daughter Lucy, who was then around seven or eight years old. It gave me great pride, and some amusement, to show her some of Chinaâ€™s culture and history, in an outdoor museum in Katy. We oohed and ahhed over the magnitude of the terra-cotta army, and tried to pick out â€œrepeatâ€ soldiers, those with identical features. We marveled over the miniature Forbidden City, with its myriad courtyards and throngs of tiny people. The exhibit rooms filled with colorful period furnishings, clothing and a replica of the emperorâ€™s dining table also caught our attention, but our favorite of all was the half-man, half-dog statues seated at the entrance to one of the pagoda-topped structures. How Lucy loved climbing atop these creatures!
I snapped a few photos of what I could around the entrance. A forlorn-looking, slightly chipped gray horse stands on the hill overlooking the orange-tiled roofs. It felt somewhat like walking into a barren street where a grand parade had marched into town and left. One could still feel the presence of centuries of Chinese history on a remote patch of land in Katy.
In January 2010â€™s TH Taste, I wrote a brief mention of the Chinese New Year Feast hosted by cooking instructor Dorothy Huang, Martin Yan (of PBSâ€™ Yan Can Cook), and restaurant owner/chef Hoi Fung at his Fungâ€™s Kitchen in Houston. The event, held over two nights, was a sold-out success, and the team brought back this popular Lunar New Year banquet for 2011â€™s Year of the Rabbit. Luckily for me, I was able to attend this year, and it is truly a feast for the senses, as well as the appetite.
The evening opened with a trio of lion dancers, which snaked their way to and from every table, playfully wagging and begging for â€œlucky moneyâ€ from guests. Red envelopes were provided at each table for those wanting to contribute to the fun.
Following the lion dancers were several troupes of Asian girls ranging from five-year-olds to pre-teens performing traditional Chinese dances. Adorable and delightful!
We enjoyed a nine-course tasting immediately after the performances, with accompanying cooking demos of most of the dishes by Chef Fung, Martin Yan, and Dorothy Huang. Entrees included Chinese classics such as Peking duck (very succulent!), lobster in black pepper sauce, sweet-and-sour fish, and also Chinese style filet mignon, along with shrimp fried rice for good luck. After the sumptuous, scrumptious meal, our hosts greeted diners at each table and we toasted the Rabbit Year with red wine and cognacâ€”â€œganbei!â€ (cheers!).
Earlier in the day, I tried to visit the now-shuttered Forbidden Gardens, and mourned the passing of a Houston-area Chinese cultural treasure. Could Fungâ€™s Kitchen New Yearâ€™s Feast somehow mark the birth of another?
Hiding in Plain Sight, the Menil Collection feature in the December issue reveals one of my favorite â€œhideawaysâ€ from the holiday frenzy when I visit family in Houston. Luckily, my brother Louis lives within a short driving distance, making the Menil a frequent museum haunt, plus admission is free.
I look forward to strolling through the Surrealist and Modern Art sections, and also visiting some of my favorites in the collection, such as Jasper Johnsâ€™ Gray Alphabet (if youâ€™re not familiar with this work, the title says it all) and the Sumerian statue of Eannatum, Prince of Lagash in the Antiquities room, the piece I affectionately call â€œChauncey Gardnerâ€ as it bears a resemblance to the Peter Sellers character in the film Being There.
However, Iâ€™m a bit embarrassed to admit that there are areas of the Menil which Iâ€™ve never explored, such as the Cy Twombly or Dan Flavin galleries, vibrantly depicted in Decemberâ€™s feature. On my next visit, Iâ€™ll make time to experience it. And Iâ€™ll be sure to ride the red swing on the museum grounds, another â€œinstallationâ€ Iâ€™ve never noticed.
With the impending launch of Space Shuttle Discoveryâ€™s last voyage (and end of the Shuttle program in early 2011), it was about time that I finally explored Space Center Houston, if only for a couple of hours during a short visit to Bay Area Houston last week.
While I didnâ€™t have time for the in-depth NASA Tram Tour or Level 9 Tour, I was able to focus my attention on several areas of the complex: Starship Gallery, which follows the progression of the Space Race from the 1960s through Skylab, complete with some of the actual capsules and equipment; the Astronaut Gallery, a dazzling collection of spacesuits worn by men and women in space; the massive-beyond-words Saturn V spacecraft housed at Rocket Park, and even took in a â€œMeet the Astronautâ€ talk given by Michael J. Bloomfield of Shuttle Atlantis and Endeavor missions.
The vivid timelines that accompany the Starship Gallery and the Saturn V rocket brought back memories of seeing Apollo launches on (mostly black & white) televisions in elementary school. Peering into the Mercury capsule in the space-simulated display and imagining myself in that tiny crawl space gave me a claustrophobic chill. I also touched a moon rock and saw how moon artifacts were processed and analyzed. In the Astronaut Gallery, I marveled at the contrast between the enormous â€œMichelin Manâ€ bubble suit worn during the early days of the Gemini program, and the sleek blue jumpsuit worn on the Shuttle mission by Sally Ride.
Next time you find yourself in the Bay area, donâ€™t discount a trip to NASA for lack of time. Youâ€™ll be amazed at how much "space" can be compacted into two hours.
Little known tip: The humor and satire book events at the Texas Book Festival (this weekend, Oct. 16-17 at the Capitol) are as entertaining and hilarious as what youâ€™d expect at a comedy club minus the hefty cover charge, rude hecklers, and the two-drink minimum. And you donâ€™t even have to like books to enjoy the show.
In recent years attending the fest, Iâ€™ve been regaled with such performances from the editors of The Onion (presenting clips and quips from â€œOur Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earthâ€) and Amy Sedaris promoting her book (â€œI Like You: Hospitality Under the Influenceâ€) in the Cooking Tent.
I look forward to Saturdayâ€™s roster with such LOL luminaries as P.J. Oâ€™Rourke, The Onionâ€™s Jean Tisdale, and National Lampoon's Rick Meyerowitz. Thereâ€™s even a panel titled "Funny Business: Good Reads for Guys.â€
Preceding that, perhaps with equal parts style and satire, is â€œTrue Prep: Itâ€™s a Whole New Old World,â€ from the author of the '80s classic, â€œThe Official Preppy Handbook,â€ Lisa Birnbach, with noted book designer Chip Kidd.
If you go to the festival this weekend, bring your sense of humor, and maybe even a book bag. Even if youâ€™re not a book lover, you may still be overcome with laughter after hearing wild and crazy antics from the National Lampoon session.
P.S. Look for the Texas Highways booth at the festival's exhibitor tents. Some of our staff will be handing out free copies of the November issue, which includes a special subscription offer at our lowest rate. Also, Editor Charles Lohrmann will be moderating various panels, but alas, not National Lampoonâ€™s.
I spent a rainy Saturday evening in Dallas with my sister, Joan and my daughter, Lucy strolling the Bishop Arts District. Despite the soggy weather, we were able to explore many of the shops covered in the February TH feature on Bishop Arts, and then some. With its mix of modern and vintage retail wares, casual cafés and upscale restaurants, and friendly, relaxed ambiance, the Bishop Arts District felt more like Austin to us than Dallas.
Every March, when the SXSW Music Conference comes to Austin, capping off a week of the SXSW Interactive and Film Conferences, the city embraces, and braces for the hordes of attendees and massive traffic snarls in and around downtown. At Texas Highways, with our offices just a stone's throw from the epicenter of downtown, where the conference takes place, and South Congress Avenue, where many free music events occur, we feel the effects of the SXSW tsunami, from press releases touting SXSW-related events to courier delays from our prepress vendor due to the gridlock. Music from the day parties can even be heard in our parking lot. The aural lure combined with sunny, mild spring-like weather can tempt even the most dedicated worker to distraction.
This year's April Wildflower Issue, 22 pages of the best of Texas' spring color, marks my 15th year designing this spectacular feature. One of my biggest challenges each year is in presenting flower photos that are fresh yet timeless, and composing striking image combinations. This could not be possible without the hundreds of photo submissions we receive from photographers throughout the state. Much, if not most of the credit goes to Photo Editor Griff Smith for reviewing all of the submissions and paring them down to just over a hundred. Of these, only 22 were selected for this year's feature. The criteria for selection includes such things as whether a particular flower is mentioned on one of the four wildflower drives, the region where the flower was shot, and of course, visual impact, color, and composition.
The trailer-café craze that has consumed Austin tends to be a mostly daytime affair, with many if not most in my neighborhood rolling up their windows by sunset. I was delighted to discover that Odd Duck Farm to Trailer at 1219 S. Lamar begins serving at 5 p.m., perfect for "cook's night out" (the "cook" in this case being me).
If you're planning to tour Quirky Houston, I suggest you start your day with breakfast. On a recent visit, my daughter tipped me off to Baby Barnaby's, next door to its big brother Barnaby's Cafe (which serves lunch and dinner) in the Montrose area, the birthplace of Houston-quirky. This colorful cafe is cozy, casual, and cheap. The menu features a few whimsically named items like Green Eggs (eggs scrambled with spinach, artichoke hearts, and jack cheese) as well as breakfast basics, like bacon-and-eggs and pancakes. City-diner staples such as the Lox Platter, and Corned Beef Hash and Eggs are offered, along with Tex-Mex favorites like breakfast tacos, migas and huevos rancheros. My daughter had the Lox Platter and I had the basic Breakfast Plate with scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and grits. Both the standard fare and the lox/bagel/cream cheese were prepared "just-right," as were the portions, not too filling and perfect for packing in a day to tour Houston's quirky sights. Houston brims with quirky breakfast places. Tell us about your favorite Quirky Houston breakfast spot.