On a sunny day last May, the bustle of traffic along Houston’s Allen Parkway momentarily slowed to a crawl comprised of fancifully decorated cars, costumed unicyclists, and lawn mower-driving artists.
On Fridays, shuttle to Space Center Houston for a planetary power lunch—“Lunch With an Astronaut.”
I’ll confess that I have never been a big zoo fan—until recently, that is. I blame the small, sad zoos that I visited as a kid, where skinny, world-weary animals paced in tight quarters. Thankfully, matters have changed dramatically since then, as I discovered during a recent trip to Houston.
Last fall, we asked Texas Highways readers to share their favorite places in the state for our Texas Top-40 Travel Destinations. And share you did—by phone, email, Facebook, and through many amazingly detailed letters. Thousands of TH readers helped to shape the final list, which we will divulge throughout 2014, Texas Highways’ 40th-anniversary year
A longtime hub for innovation in energy and medicine, Houston has come into its own as a vacation destination in recent years.
I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Hugo’s, the decade-old restaurant in the heart of Houston’s hip Montrose district that has helped awaken palates raised on Tex-Mex to the complexities of interior Mexican fare. Hugo’s is where I first encountered Oaxacan-style, pan-sautéed grasshoppers (served with avocado, tomatillo salsa, and mini corn tortillas), and where I discovered the smoky allure of artisan mescal. Over the years and in the course of many visits, I’ve enjoyed the restaurant’s braised pork shoulder with mashed plantain bananas ($22), its amazing lentil cakes with strips of fire-roasted chiles ($8), and its roasted red snapper a la Veracruzana ($22), the latter a tangy fish dish prepared with tomatoes, olives, and capers. I like the historic yet somehow modern feel of the restaurant itself, too: Designed in 1925 by Austrian architect Joseph Finger (who also designed Houston’s Art Deco City Hall and many other structures throughout the city), the building is now blanketed in decades of ivy. Inside, exposed rose-colored brick, butter-colored walls displaying vintage matador paintings, and a polished-concrete bar stocked with spirits and wines from throughout the world make Hugo’s a topnotch spot for a meal or $5 margaritas during happy hour.
Houston suffers from no shortage of museums, but I’ve always thought of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as the grande dame of them all. It was here that I first marveled at the splendor of European masters. As a mother, I’ve found that my appreciation for art is magnified when I experience it through the eyes of my children. So on a recent sunny day, I set out with my three young children for an afternoon at the MFAH and its companion sculpture garden to see what this Houston art institution has to offer for a family visit.
The Houston Astros got things on the right track back at the turn of this century, when the ball club abandoned the Astrodome’s unnatural indoor confinement for the refreshing outdoor playing field
at Minute Maid Park. Swapping synthetic turf that can make balls bounce funny and players’ knees balk for real grass was maybe the smartest trade the baseball club has ever made.
How do you spend a single day exploring one of the largest cities in the United States? Simple, you pick one part and stick to it. I decided to spend my day exploring “Bay Area Houston,” part of the southeast Houston area nestled against the waters of Galveston Bay.
A cook-off competitor fries up his best chicken-fried steaks in Lamesa.
The West Texas town of Lamesa, about 60 miles south of Lubbock,serves up its annual Chicken-Fried Steak Festival this weekend in celebration ofÂ the townâ€™s claim as the birthplace of the Texas delicacy. According to local legend, short-order cook James Donald Perkins accidentally made the first dish of its kind in 1911 when he misinterpreted an order for chicken and fried steak at a small restaurant called Ethel's Home Cooking. Instead of making two separate items, he thought the customer wanted a steak battered andÂ fried like a chickenâ€”and what a delicious mistake it turned out to be.
By Lori Moffatt
Sharing the spotlight of such international travel destinations as Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, and Singapore, Houston ranked #7 in a January New York Times list of “46 Places To Go in 2013.” Echoing a July Forbes magazine story that called Houston “the coolest place to live in America,” the NY Times editors praised the city’s numerous museums and other cultural attractions, and also noted its lively and diverse restaurant scene.
The city’s growing appeal to vacation travelers comes as no surprise to me, as Houston is one of my favorite go-to cities whenever I crave a weekend of museum-hopping, shopping, and intriguing dining options. Another plus: It’s easy to find hotel deals on the weekend. Since Houston is still better known as an industry-and-energy player than as a destination for leisure travel, room rates often drop after the CEOs wrap up Friday meetings.
Intrigued by rave reviews of the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new state-of-the-art paleontology wing, I cleared my calendar for a weekend adventure.
Thanks to a girlfriends’ getaway earlier in the year, I knew that the Hotel Derek—a modern, 4-star hotel at the bustling corner of Loop 610 and Westheimer—made a good home base for exploration. Armed with a list of places we wanted to see and restaurants we hoped to try, my husband and I rolled into town and quickly realized we’d need more than a few days simply to accommodate the new culinary experiences we dreamed of having.
And fittingly, our first stop was lunch. Surrounded by rustic barn wood and red- brick walls at Sparrow Bar+Cookshop, chef and reluctant celebrity Monica Pope’s new restaurant in the Midtown neighborhood, we snacked on chickpea fries and earthy mushroom dumplings while a Houston friend regaled us with more things to see and do. Overhead, chandeliers made of perforated pizza pans cast pinpoints of light onto the table as I tried to keep up. “Have you been to Boheme?” he asked. “They have a wine bar and great burgers! Or Lucille’s? That’s upscale Southern comfort food in the Museum District. And what about 13 Celsius, right around the corner? It’s a fun wine bar in a former dry cleaner!”
Across the table, my spouse’s satisfied expression suggested he had never eaten a scallop quite so delicious. I sampled a nibble and agreed: Simply prepared with a tasty flourish of vanilla-bean aioli, the scallops evoked the sea with each bite.
That afternoon, we had plans to tour the nearby Saint Arnold Brewery, which helped ignite Texas’ passion for craft beer when it opened in Houston in 1994. A few years ago, the brewery moved from its original digs in northwest Houston to a spacious building that once housed the Houston Independent School District’s food-storage facility. Downstairs, 25 enormous, stainless-steel fermenting tanks (the largest holds more than 7,000 gallons) brew the company’s year-round and specialty beers. And upstairs, where giant freezers once held vast aluminum trays of soy meatloaf and chicken nuggets, the space somehow resembles a Munich biergarten during Oktoberfest, with hundreds of Saint Arnold fans seated at long tables quaffing beer from six-ounce glasses, playing backgammon, and enjoying happy-hour picnics. “The regulars know to bring camp chairs in case all the tables fill up,” says Lennie Ambrose, the brewery’s special-events coordinator. “And we make our own root beer, so there’s even something here for the kids.”
Since I was not the designated driver, I can reveal that the extra-hoppy Elissa IPA (named for Galveston’s three-masted 1877 Tall Ship) hits the spot on a warm afternoon, but if you’d like to keep your wits about you, it’s perhaps best not to follow it with the double IPA called Saint Arnold Endeavor. I spent the evening exploring the Heights neighborhood with friends, resisting the urge to dance on tables.
The next morning, breakfast found us at a fast-casual restaurant called Pondicheri Cafe, the second Houston restaurant concept by James Beard-nominated chef Anita Jaisinghani, who turns Indian food on its ear at her popular upscale restaurant Indika. “I had always wanted to open a restaurant where the food was more casual and affordable,” says Anita. “I’m not trying to make it super-traditional, but it is authentic. We have ingredients here in Houston that you’d never find in India; why would we not want to use them?”
After mugs of stout Indian coffee sweetened with jaggery syrup (an unrefined sugar that tastes a bit like molasses), my husband tucked into an omelet made with spinach, mustard greens, and the Indian fresh cheese called paneer while I made my way through a “Morning Thali.” This picture-perfect sampler platter comes with fresh fruit, house-made yogurt, a carrot flatbread called a paratha topped with a fried egg, and half-cup servings of potato curry, beef keema, and stoneground grits dressed up with peas, mustard seeds, cauliflower, and peanuts.
Saffron-colored curtains both divide the space and temper noise, and vibrant tangerine walls imbue a lively energy. By the time we finished our meal and took a stroll through the world of high fashion at the adjacent Tootsie’s flagship store, we were ready to explore the world of dinosaurs at the nearby Museum of Natural Science.
Surrounded by dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, it’s easy to feel small and to ponder your place in the universe
In the summer of 2012, the museum unveiled its new football-field-size Morian Hall of Paleontology, which features more than 30 dinosaur specimens, including an all-bone T. Rex skeleton said to have the best-preserved hands and feet of any T. Rex skeleton ever found. A Quetzalcoatlus soars on 35-foot-wide wings, a Stegosaurus balances on its tiny feet like a Jurassic ballerina, and Deinonychus (the carnivorous “kickboxing dinosaur”) inspires chills. But the museum’s timeline delves much earlier than the Jurassic period, when the first dinosaurs emerged. The hall begins with a series of beautiful fossils from the pre-Cambrian age, then quickly immerses visitors in the world of trilobites, sea scorpions, the “tentacle terrors” related to today’s squid and octopi known as nautiloids, and delicate Devonian-era seed-fern fossils.
There’s more of a Texas focus than I expected; an entire section of the hall is devoted to findings at the Craddock Ranch near Seymour, where paleontologists have found some of the finest intact Dimetrodon fossils in the world. (The reptile resembled a crocodile with a curved sail on its back.)
Surrounded by all manner of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures—many posed as if engaged in battle or courtship—it’s easy to feel small and to ponder your place in the universe.
Curator and paleontologist Robert Bakker, who served as a consultant for the first few Jurassic Park movies, made a special effort to illustrate the vagaries of science. “We wanted to show people that science is not all known,” says Bakker’s colleague, Associate Curator David Temple. “For example, what was the purpose of the proportionately tiny arms of the T. Rex? There are at least five theories, ranging from grooming and clutching prey to courtship. Science is based on an attempt to isolate a single variable, but the truth is that the arms probably had many different functions. The beauty of science is that knowledge is never constant. There is always something new to discover.”
The same could be said of Houston.
I recently made a quick trip to Houston to take care of some medical appointments, which got me thinking about the idea of â€œhealth travel,â€ or even the vague concept of â€œsecondary travel.â€ For example, even if my main reason for visiting a city is to catch up with family, see a hotshot out-of-town specialist, or to attend a work conference or other event, I do try to squeeze in some recreation. In Houston, I try to visit a museum or gallery, a favorite shop, and a restaurant or bar Iâ€™ve been hearing about. This time, I joined up with two longtime Houston friends to check out El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, the new (yet old-school) Tex-Mex restaurant dreamed up by food writer/historian Robb Walsh and restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. I had heard raves about the cheese enchiladas with chili gravyâ€”that classic Tex-Mex comfort-food concoction served with orange cheese, lard-laden (and I mean that in a good way) refried beans, and Spanish rice. Well-deserved raves! Tart margaritas and a salvaged dÃ©cor from the shuttered El Fenix Restaurant completed the experience. Iâ€™ll look forward to future visits once I can fit into my jeans again.
When I visit the Bayou City, I often stay with friends, but this time, I tried an experiment. I had heard about travel websites like www.lastminutetravel.com and www.hotwire.com, which offer unsold hotel rooms at steeply discounted prices, and I decided to give lastminutetravel a try. Hereâ€™s how it works: You go to the site, pick your city and general area, plug in your dates, and the website finds available rooms. In my case, I found a â€œfour-star hotelâ€ in â€œdowntown Houstonâ€ for $95. The site provides photos of the hotel, and a list of amenities, but you donâ€™t learn the name of the hotel until youâ€™ve booked the room. (This makes sense to me: While the hotels want to sell their unsold rooms, they donâ€™t want to advertise that theyâ€™re willing to drastically undercut their rack rates. And be aware that after you reserve the room, you canâ€™t cancel or change your reservation.) For my one-night stay, this worked beautifully: My hotel turned out to the Hyatt Regency, where rooms normally start around $180 per night. The hotel has a great rooftop pool, and its central location proved perfect for exploring on foot. When I returned to the office, I poked around these sites to see what other hotel deals I could find in Texas: I pretended to want to book a room four days out, and I turned up a â€œfour-starâ€ hotel in Galveston for $96 and a â€œthree-starâ€ hotel in downtown Fort Worth for $68.
Have you tried these sites for Texas travel? Care to share your experiences?