Postcards: I 'heart' Beaumont
It’s easy to gush about this friendly city in southeast Texas
By Lori Moffatt
When I read that a 252-acre botanical garden in Orange, Texas—Shangri La Botanical Gardens & Nature Center—had recently been honored for its environmentally sound design, I started to plan a trip to southeast Texas to see it myself. I figured I’d stay in Beaumont, a city I remembered for its spicy barbecued crabs, surprising museums, and the sparkly refineries on the outskirts, which glittered at night like sci-fi cityscapes.
As I planned my trip, I found more reasons to visit: I learned that the Big Thicket National Preserve had just received the largest land donation in its history—a 6,600-acre addition of hardwood forest and cypress-tupelo swamp that provides new opportunities for both recreation and preservation. Then someone told me that Beaumont’s Texas Energy Museum had recently added new exhibits, and also that the Art Museum of Southeast Texas was really coming into its own with an increased emphasis on contemporary regional artists. And if my gluttonous last trek to the area were any indication, I knew the food would be excellent.
Also see: CROCKETT STREET REVIVAL
Beaumont claimed its spot on the world stage in January 1901, when the Lucas gusher at the nearby Spindletop salt dome came in, kicking off the Texas oil boom and ushering in the Petroleum Age. The population here grew from 9,000 to more than 30,000 in a month, with everyone from prospectors to promoters scrambling for a piece of the action. And while crude oil and petrochemicals still dominate the financial headlines in this part of southeast Texas, I’d argue that another inky substance brings the community together these days: coffee.
In the city’s restored historic district, a spot called the Barking Dog Coffee Lounge brings in the evening crowd with cappuccinos and espresso, poetry readings and art openings, live music and free Wi-Fi access. Nearby, another coffee hotspot, the Early Bird Café, finds patrons sitting elbow-to-elbow at the counter as the sun rises, drinking bottomless cups and reading the paper as fleet-footed cooks maneuver bowls of raisin-studded oatmeal and plates of scrambled eggs and battered bacon.
But Rao’s Bakery—which opened its first shop in 1941 on Calder Avenue, still Beaumont’s main drag—may be where the town’s stickiest issues are resolved. “People will get up an hour early to spend an hour at Rao’s before work,” says owner Jake Tortorice Jr. Over cherry strudel and cinnamon rolls, ham-and-egg croissants and mugs of stout French roast, Beaumont businessmen and county workers sidle up to AT&T linemen and Lamar University professors, shooting the bull about everything from the ongoing construction on I-10 to the recent statewide fee increases for fishing licenses.
From the August 2009 issue.