Welcome to Houston, Texas
If you think you know what Texas is about, Houston might surprise you. Located just inland from the Gulf of Mexico’s white sand coastline, it’s a bayou city, and the “Space City”—home to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. And, yes, it’s “the heart of cowboy country.” But it’s also the fourth largest, and the most diverse, city in the United States. It’s a place where cultures come together to create mind-blowing new cuisines, welcome outsiders with open arms, and build soaring works of public art. To give you an insider’s look at the city, we asked the locals what to do when you visit. Here are a few favorites:
Temples of Art
In a city full of art, locals recommend taking the Metrorail off the beaten path to the Rothko Chapel, where the city disappears behind you. This non denominational chapel is both a spiritual center that welcomes all faiths and a home to major works of modern art by Mark Rothko. You can just sit there and meditate, or day dream. For a very different art-viewing experience, make a reservation at Tony’s, a Houston institution that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary as the go-to restaurant for the city’s society set. Locals say it’s like dining in an art gallery with walls covered in paintings by famous painters. Odds are you’ll eat in front of a Raushenburg. It’s the place to see and be seen.
Art from the South
A border state, Texas’s ties to its southern neighbors are long and strong. Sicardi | Ayers | Bacino has been representing Latin American contemporary artists for decades—it was among the first galleries in the country to do so. Their expanded gallery in Houston’s Museum District is a sleek two-story, 5,900-square-foot showroom where you’ll find works some of the most intriguing artists of our time. To see Sicardi artists—and others—in action, check out the public art installations at Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. Houston’s first underground drinking-water reservoir, this strange and wondrous 87,500-square-foot subterranean space beneath Buffalo Bayou Park is filled with rows of 25-foot tall concrete columns and a rotating series of incredibly cool contemporary art installations.
In recent years, tens of thousands of Louisiana expats have settled in Houston—and brought their New Orleans (pronounced “N’awlins”) cooking with them. Among the foods that have taken root in the Houston? Viet-Cajun cuisine that combines a traditional Louisiana-style crawfish boil with the Southeast Asian flavors and mouth-numbing spice of Houston’s Vietnamese community. Chinatown’s Crawfish & Noodles is credited with having popularized this thrilling new genre—and has won the hearts of celebrity chefs like David Chang, who featured the restaurant on his TV show. With the largest Chinatown outside California, Houston’s Asian food scene is as exciting as anywhere in the country. To immerse yourself in the neighborhood, start at Hong Kong City Mall and its dozens of Asia-centric shops and restaurants, the teahouse, and bustling food hall.
Among the South’s most beloved culinary traditions, Tex-Mex is cowboy cuisine for the borderlands. El Real Tex-Mex Café is serving this classic, too often underappreciated grub in a former Art Deco movie palace with a gorgeously gaudy neon marquee. Locals can’t say enough of the cheese enchiladas and the old-school puffy tacos. El Real’s secret? It’s lard (rendered from heritage pork!), which makes everything from the flour tortillas to the refried beans extra delicious. Go on a Tuesday and margaritas are $2. For true Mexican food, try Chycho's Tacos Pollos Asados, a roadside taco shack and refresqueria, serving tacos with a long list of fillings, as well as tamales, tortas (Mexican-style sandwiches), and roasted chicken dinners in a no frills space with a perpetually-packed parking lot of happy eaters.
Straight from the Barbecue
Whether it’s Central Texas dry rub, Old South saucy barbeque, or Mexican-style Barbacoa, Houstonians know their meat—and are willing to wait fireside in the heat of summer—to get it. Take a word from the wise and head to Old Town Spring, a historic settlement on the fringes of Houston, and Corkscrew BBQ. This bare-bones set up has picnic tables, a corrugated metal awning, and fans whirring in the summertime heat, and some of the best, not-to-be-missed red oak-smoked brisket, Duroc pork spare ribs, whole hog sandwiches and more in all of Texas. Locals recommend checking Corkscrew’s Facebook page before making the trek: when the meat sells out, you’re out of luck. Don’t forget a side of the homemade green chile ranch dressing for dipping and the crispy-topped cobbler for dessert.
Housed at NRG Park, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is one of the biggest livestock exhibitions in the world. A three-week extravaganza with performances by big name country music acts and a festival atmosphere, the event is more than big hats, big hair, and big belt buckles—though there’s plenty of all three. This celebration of all things Texas has a barbeque competition, a wine garden, a carnival, mechanical bull rides, and all the Houston charm you could hope for in one place. (And you can get your very own 12-gallon hat fitted there while you have your cowboy boots expertly shined!)