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The City Insider

Our writers share their favorite city spots

Texas Surf Museum, Corpus Christi

Writers for Texas Highways cover a lot of ground. With more than a quarter-million square miles and some 3,000 communities in play (including six of the country’s most populated cities), we’ve got our work cut out for us. Whether highlighting the latest festival, introducing the newest music venue, exploring a wildlife trail, or celebrating one of the state’s classic restaurants, we strive to introduce readers to the best Texas has to offer. This month, the magazine has inspired a statewide bevy of talented writers to provide insight into some of the hidden gems and neighborhood favorites thriving in their city of choice.

Up for some Hot Joy? Writer Michelle Burgess suggests heading to San Antonio’s Southtown neighborhood for spicy goods from this lively Asian fusion restaurant and bar. And Corpus Christi native Kathryn Jones says take a tour of the Texas Surf Museum … dude! Others rave about Melt Ice Creams in Fort Worth, the Earth Born Market in McAllen, Lubbock’s Tornado Gallery, tai chi at Dallas’ Crow Collection of Asian Art, craft beer and Tiffany stained glass in El Paso’s Camino Real Hotel; you get the idea. Hometown or home-away-from-home, these discriminating writers have tackled the city life with both head and heart, ferreting out the fun inherent in the hustle and bustle of urban Texas. Now it’s your turn.

– E. Dan Klepper

Paula Disbrowe, Austin

After moving to Austin 10 years ago, my husband and I quickly embraced a few local customs, like plunging into the cold waters of Barton Springs (the spring-fed pool is about 68 degrees all year long) on New Year’s Day. Our two children were born in Austin, and we’ve relished creating new traditions for them as well. In our family, Friday is pizza night, when we head to Home Slice for garlic knots, delicious thin, crispy pies, and the genius touch of offering kiddos flour-dusted balls of dough to knead until dinner arrives. When the weather is just right, we pack baguettes and cheese and head to the lush, peaceful refuge of Mayfield Park and Preserve for an easy hike and the spectacular, somewhat surreal experience of watching the resident peacocks fan their brilliant plumes—my kind of dinner theater.

The round-the-clock ease of hearing a fiddle or bass guitar makes Austin incredibly special. For state-of-the-art acoustics, ACL Live at The Moody Theater is a bucket-list destination for any music lover (we’ve seen Lyle Lovett, Raul Malo, and Willie Nelson there). But I also adore the quirky charm of old-school institutions like Broken Spoke, the Continental Club, and Saxon Pub (especially on Sunday nights when Fastball’s Miles Zuniga plays with The Resentments).

Nestled on a leafy corner in east Austin, Launderette is one of the hottest new restaurants in town. But we don’t go for the buzz; for us it’s the ultimate neighborhood restaurant. When we nab a table in that casually hip space, we sip perfect cocktails and dig into hangar steak with anchovy-kale butter, and fried oysters with coriander dipping sauce. We’ll head home full and happy; grateful for the place and the people that have made us feel right at home.

Contact the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, 866/462-8784.

Heather Brand, Houston

Houston is constantly reinventing itself. What was once mosquito-ridden swampland now ranks fourth among the most populous metropolises in the United States. After five years away, I was prepared to find my hometown much altered, and I was right. Houston is filled with exciting new finds, but fortunately some of my favorite places are still going strong.

One of the things I missed most during my Houston hiatus is the Sunday brunch at Hugo’s, where buffet tables loaded with traditional Mexican cuisine tempt the eye and bust the gut. I’ve been guilty of overloading my plate with fresh tamales and huevos poblanos, followed by a steaming cup of spiced Mexican hot chocolate. But my latest destination of choice is Bistro Menil, the new eatery on the grounds of the Menil Collection. You can dine in on savory pizzas and classic entrées such as seared tuna or duck confit, but I prefer to place an order to go, and then picnic on the adjacent lawn with a carafe of wine under the sprawling live oaks.

I’ve always enjoyed the peaceful sanctuary of the nearby Rothko Chapel. This intimate space lined with Mark Rothko’s large canvases in shades of black provides a meditative experience. James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace offers yet another quiet escape from the urban bustle. Added to the campus of Rice University in 2012, this massive work of art features a sequence of colored lights projected at sunrise and sunset onto a square canopy with a 14-by-14-foot aperture, through which visitors can observe subtle shifts in the sky.

Amid all the new developments, some things never seem to change. At the West Alabama Ice House, which opened as a gas station/convenience store in 1928, friends and strangers alike gather at outdoor picnic tables to swig beer from longnecks and swap stories. This local watering hole harkens back to the days when Houstonians used icehouses to escape the Texas heat. Now, even without the benefit of cooling blocks of ice, I still find it an ideal place to chill out at the end of a long day.

Contact the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800/446-8786.

Kathryn Jones, Corpus Christi

One of my favorite memories of growing up in Corpus Christi is surfing—as a spectator sport. High school friends who rode the waves off Padre Island spent hours waxing their boards and debating who made the best ones. The name of surfing champion Pat Magee, whose surf shop was a popular local hangout, came up a lot.

I live in North Texas now, but when I go back I can relive those good vibrations at the tiny and too-often-overlooked Texas Surf Museum, located downtown a short walk from the seawall.

A lifesize sculpture of a 1948 Ford “Woody” station wagon, commissioned by the museum, greets visitors at the entrance. New Braunfels sculptor Chris Kouri constructed it from 800 pounds of Styrofoam blocks. Painted turquoise with faux wood panels, the iconic surfer vehicle with surfboards strapped on top looks ready to hit the beach.

Many of the museum displays come from Magee’s collection. Colorful vintage surfboards mounted on a long wall bear the dates and names of their builders—including the first known surfboard built in Texas by Walter Ellisor.

Continuing Corpus Christi’s laid-back vibe, my husband, Dan, and I like to drive along the winding curve of the bay for several miles. Along Ocean Drive, a Cape Cod-style cottage painted a sunny yellow with blue shutters houses the Yardarm Restaurant.We had our first date there more than 30 years ago.

The Yardarm boasts one of the best views on the bay. Big windows face the water and a back deck offers al fresco dining. But it’s the fresh seafood that keeps drawing us back, including the succulent oysters Rockefeller and the ceviche with generous chunks of salmon and other raw fish marinated in lime juice and combined with tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Clinking our glasses of Pinot Grigio, we toast another perfect day by the bay.

Contact the Corpus Christi Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800/766-2322.

El Paso

E. Dan Klepper, El Paso

El Paso, the state’s “capital” of borderland history and culture, harbors a natural world all its own, an attractive feature for nature enthusiasts like me who enjoy exploring the Chihuahuan Desert environment alongside the pleasures of city life. Along with a population of more than half a million people, El Paso is home to the 26,627-acre Franklin Mountains State Park, considered one of the largest urban parks in the country. The Franklin Mountains, a 23-mile-long and three-mile-wide desert habitat, provide a natural backdrop to the busy city and contain some of the oldest rock in Texas. Yet, great food and live music lie a mere 15 minutes away from its easy-to-reach trailheads!

Elsewhere in the city, the 52-acre Keystone Heritage Park pairs nature with culture by preserving one of the last remaining wetlands in El Paso County alongside artifacts of an archaic village more than 4,000 years old. In addition, the park hosts the El Paso Desert Botanical Gardens, an artful landscape of native plants and garden architecture including culinary, cactus, and butterfly gardens, as well as a healing garden featuring medicinal plants.

On Saturdays, shopping the farmers market at nearby Ardovino’s Desert Crossing means perusing dozens of vendors and local goods including produce from the agricultural fields visible from atop the mountain trails in the state park. Despite its location 15 minutes from downtown across the Texas state line, Ardovino’s has been considered a classic local El Paso restaurant since 1949. It’s also a favorite hangout for fine food and live jazz, and offers innovative cuisine, a lengthy wine list, and stellar sunset views from the patio.

After a day of exploring the natural world, I’d consider a luxurious overnight at the historic Camino Real Hotel. Designed by Henry C. Trost, the Camino Real set the standard for elegance along this frontier border during the first half of the 20th Century, romancing guests with European chandeliers, ornate mahogany carvings, black serpentine marble trim, and an enormous stained-glass dome above the lobby bar. The Dome Bar, the hotel’s modern nod to its sumptuous past, provides a polished but relaxing respite to contemplate El Paso’s unique character and its amicable mash-up of the urban with the wild.

Contact Destination El Paso, 800/351-6024.

Public art at Texas Tech UniversityAndy Wilkinson, Lubbock

Take it from me, a lifelong Lubbock resident and full-on fan of the flatness: Some of the best things in the Hub City aren’t easily found. Especially if you settle for the obvious.   Art, for starters. The obvious include the Museum of Texas Tech University, across campus from the university’s Landmark Gallery and not far west of the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts. Don’t miss them.

But in between are several less-obvious treasures. In the Depot District, the Tornado Gallery hosts art shows, music concerts, readings, and three working studios. Next, scattered across the Texas Tech campus, is one of the nation’s Top-10 university public art collections, featuring internationally acclaimed artists such as Terry Allen, Deborah Butterfield, and Glenna Goodacre in more than 100 works. You’ll want to explore them on foot.

Which will make you hungry.  Searching for down-home comfort food? Try Wiley’s Bar-B-Q and Burgers on the East Side. In the mood for la comida de México? Wind your way to the industrial district and stop at Los Tacos, offering everything from huevos to enchiladas, with the tacos—not surprisingly—the specialty.

Now you’ll be thirsty. Obviously, you’ll want a glass of wine, as Lubbock’s famous for it. McPherson Cellars, back in the Depot District, operates a winery, a tasting room, and several event spaces—their outdoor patio my favorite—in a renovated Coca-Cola bottling plant. Across the street is La Diosa Cellars, an old store-front now harboring fine wines, tapas, and music.

Contact Visit Lubbock at 800/692-4035.

Daniel Blue Tyx, McAllen

I’ve lived in McAllen for the past decade, and as you might expect in the country’s fastest growing metro area, I’ve seen the city change dramatically, but I also love that it still hasn’t lost its friendly, small-town feel.

I’m reminded of this every time I step into Rex Café and Bakery, in McAllen’s historic downtown. The neighborhood has become an enclave of upscale restaurants and nightclubs, but when my wife and I take our kids for piping-hot pan dulce on Saturday mornings, every table in this Tex-Mex hole-in-the-wall is full of locals swapping stories over coffee just as they have since it opened in 1947.

The McAllen Public Library—housed in a former Wal-Mart—offers a case study in urban renewal. The airy and colorful metamorphosis won an American Library Association design award, and the library hosts a bustling farmers market every Saturday and the McAllen Book Festival in November.

Quinta Mazatlán also is a sustainability success story, as developers once eyed this one-of-a-kind adobe mansion for demolition. Instead, the city transformed the grounds into a tranquil wildlife refuge ideal for viewing “Valley specialty” birds like the green jay and plain chachalaca.

Just inside the city limits, we frequent the Earth Born Market for bags of fresh grapefruit. All the locally sourced produce is 100 percent USDA organic, and they ship almost anywhere in the continental U.S.

For special occasions, my wife and I go to Salt New American Table. Chef Larry Delgado’s menu honors the Valley’s ranching and agricultural heritage, but with a contemporary, sophisticated flair. Incredible dishes like crispy pork shank with habanero salsa and pan de campo embody the spirit of our adopted hometown: Moving quickly into the future, while holding tight to its past.

Contact the McAllen Convention & Visitors Bureau, 956/682-2871.

June Naylor, Dallas

Growing up in Dallas, I came to enjoy its offerings as a local and then as a frequent visitor from my home a half-hour west in Fort Worth. What keeps me intrigued is Dallas’ artful ease in weaving together its vintage joys and modern interests.

To explore nature with a side of architecture, venture off the beaten path to the Trinity River Audubon Center, where the nation’s largest urban hardwood forest unwinds over a 120-acre preserve on the outskirts of far southeast Dallas. Simple wildness reigns on landscape good for hiking and waters good for scheduled float trips. Look for any of 220 bird species, as well as beavers, turtles, and river otters. The magnificent LEED-certified center offers its own interest with a striking design in concrete walls, cypress siding, and weathered metal panels.

Equally Zenlike, a morning spent at the Crow Collection of Asian Art proves this destination is far more than a stunning assemblage of pieces from China, Japan, India, Korea, and Southeast Asia. The downtown Arts District museum doubles as a profoundly serene retreat devoted to mind-body-spirit health. The free daily wellness offerings range from meditation to yoga to tai chi.

Yet more art figures into the perfect lazy day, spent wandering the Bishop Arts District. Start with contemporary art-gazing in Ginger Fox Gallery, go shopping for a vintage lamp at Zola’s, and find a flourishing succulent planted in a distressed wooden box at Dirt.

For immersion in Art Deco, stroll through the world’s largest collection of 1930s Art Deco exhibit buildings, punctuated with a remarkable assortment of sculpture and murals, in Fair Park. Ramble around the 277-acre park to admire exquisite architecture, brought together for the 1936 world’s fair that also marked the centennial of the Republic of Texas.

Come evening, toast the city’s best rooftop vista from atop the five-story NYLO Dallas South Side hotel. Grab a chaise or barstool at SODA, the casual but very grownup poolside bar crowning the renovated 1911 building. Order some bubbles and raise your glass to Big D’s shimmering downtown skyline.

Contact the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800/232-5527.

Barbara Rodriguez, Fort Worth

In my hometown of Fort Worth, the Cultural District features three world-class art museums, and the stroll from one to the other is rewarding in and of itself. The sculptures on the lawns at the Modern, Kimbell, and Amon Carter—and the locals who gather there—create an artful scene all their own.

Seeking the Old West? Head to the Stockyards National Historic District for the twice-daily cattle drive of the city herd. Climb aboard a sleek and lovely Longhorn for the best Christmas card photo op ever.

Some come for the steak. For me, Cowtown is about burgers. Two of the best in town are a stone’s throw apart. The original Fred’s Café on Currie Street features top-notch burgers with a camp cook pedigree. Like it hot? Go for the Diablo.

And at Rodeo Goat (at Bledsoe and Currie streets), the Whiskey Burger—Irish whiskey cheddar, candied bacon, and blackberry compote—represents the new age of Cowtown on a bun.

Cruise south on Currie and turn east on West Lancaster Avenue for a slide over a historic bridge built in 1938. I love bridges, and this one—with its quartet of unexpected benches framed in Longhorn bas-relief, stairs that mysteriously descend to Trinity Park below, and the single best view of the Clear Fork of the Trinity River, as well as the new roller-coaster-railed 7th Street bridge—numbers among my favorites.

For the sweetest possible ending to a day in Fort Worth, turn south onto Summit, then east on Rosedale Street, and keep an eye out for the bumblebee yellow of Melt. The buzzing, locally owned ice cream shop is worth a drive from anywhere in the city, or anywhere in the state, for its anime-style happiness, creamy scoops, and seasonal flavors. Sweet.

Contact the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800/433-5747.

The Monterey, San Antonio

Michelle Burgess, San Antonio

It’s reasonable to assume that native New Yorkers don’t frequent the Empire State Building or often hop the ferry to motor around the Statue of Liberty. In San Antonio, though, we locals love our tourist meccas, from the River Walk to SeaWorld to the glorious Alamo, and fairly regularly queue up with out-of-towners to revisit our hometown treasures.

We are willing to brave the sometimes frustrating parking situation around the River Walk in order to dine at Biga on the Banks, Boudro’s Texas Bistro, The Luxury (off the beaten path near the San Antonio Museum of Art), or Restaurant Gwendolyn. The latter is especially distinctive in that it eschews modern amenities—and by modern, we’re talking all electric food-prep gadgets—in favor of locally produced, sustainable ingredients hand-prepared in a pared-down kitchen.

In recent years, the downtown zone south of Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard has emerged as a hot destination for dining and nightlife, thanks to hip bars and restaurants such as The Monterey and Hot Joy. Another Southtown can’t-miss is The Friendly Spot, a casual outdoor gathering place for craft beer aficionados that lives up to its name. We also love The Pearl district, home to an astonishing concentration of phenomenal eateries, and many of the charming culinary standouts in Alamo Heights and Olmos Park.

Speaking of Alamo Heights/Olmos Park, this area just a few miles north of downtown also numbers among our favorites for enjoying the outdoors and appreciating our city’s rich history. Nearby is 343-acre Brackenridge Park, home to the zoo, the Smithsonian-affiliated Witte Museum, and the lush and serene Japanese Tea Garden, as well as Pump House No. 1, one of the city’s oldest industrial buildings and a gorgeous place for a photo op. On the west side of the park lie the University of the Incarnate Word and The Blue Hole, one of many springs issuing from underground and the recognized headwaters of the San Antonio River. For a city that loves to celebrate its origins, it’s a great place to start.

Contact the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800/447-3372.

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