HOUSTON — Houston, we have a problem.
We’ve been eating steadily and we’ve hardly made a dent in this cornucopia of tasty Houston fare. In the meantime, there are parks to wander, beers to drink and rockets to visit.
Like Atlanta, Houston is into the sport of competitive dining, and restaurants have been popping up here like mushrooms in a rainy cow pasture.
“We think it’s the best food city in America,” said Lennie Ambrose, head of marketing for the Saint Arnold Brewing Company. Visit Houston spokesman A.J. Mistretta estimates there are 10,000 restaurants in a city where downtown life has been transformed since the Super Bowl was here last, in 2004.
Suffice it to say, Super Bowl visitors won’t go hungry.
But if you’re visiting Houston to watch the Atlanta Falcons play the New England Patriots, don’t spend all spare your time eating. There are many other ways to be entertained in this, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., and we’re not even counting Super Bowl Live, the nine-day outdoor free festival of music and food taking place on Discovery Green, a 12-acre downtown park.
So saddle up. But first, let’s get something to eat.
Mudbugs and other dining delights
Houston’s ethnic diversity has produced a wildly varied food culture, with cuisine from the Caribbean, Asia, South America and Mexico swapping flavors. There are more Vietnamese residents in Houston than in any U.S. city outside California, Mistretta said. The Southeast Asian transplants found in Houston a familiar hot, swampy ecosystem, and brought with them a distinct tradition of cooking crawfish.
Lucky for me, crawfish season has begun (it’s mid-January through April), and Houston’s mudbug-fanciers can enjoy garlic-infused Vietnamese-style crawfish in a variety of locations, including LA Crawfish.
The LA Crawfish store I visited was in a strip mall west of downtown, with tinted windows in the front and Michael Jackson on the stereo. Server Allan Nguyen greeted me with a hearty “Happy New Year!” (we were actually a day late for Chinese New Year, but what the heck) and suggested I might not want the spiciest of the crustaceans. “I gave you garlic butter medium,” he said. “That’s the lowest one.”
I sat down to peel and eat a pound of the peppery creatures ($6.99), swimming in a hybrid of Cajun and Vietnamese flavors. They cleared my sinuses.
While I enjoy hand-held food, there are multiple Houston restaurants featuring James Beard Award-winning chefs, including the steakhouse One Fifth, the newest offering from foodie rock star Chris Shepherd.
But if steak is not your thing, if spending money is not your thing, Torchy’s Tacosmight be your thing. A chain with stores in 12 Texas towns (and two more in Colorado), they make exquisite, generous tacos for a crowd that waits patiently in line.
At the Torchy’s in Rice Village, these patient customers were either students from Rice University or locals and tourists who frequent the cool shopping/eating/drinking district that adjoins the campus. My fried portobello mushroom taco (for $3.50) was refreshed with a healthy avocado slice, queso fresco and ancho aioli. I’m still dreaming about it.
LA Crawfish, 3957 Richmond Ave., 832-767-1533, and other locations, http://thelacrawfish.com/; One Fifth, 1658 Westheimer Road, 713-955-1024, www.onefifthhouston.com; Torchy’s Tacos, 2400 Times Blvd., 713-487-0067, and other locations, http://torchystacos.com/in/houston/.
(Other good bets: Ninfa’s, traditional Mexican food, 2704 Navigation Blvd., 713-228-1175, ninfas.com; Underbelly, serving locally sourced food, 1100 Westheimer Road, 713-528-9800, www.underbellyhouston.com; Mala Sichuan Bistro, in Chinatown, 9348 Bellaire Blvd., 713-995-1889.)
Resting under an oak tree in a park in the Museum District, plunking away at a banjo, sat Jack Jones, 27, a restaurant worker who was enjoying the sun, the 76 degrees, and his first day off after working a solid month.
During January, he had labored mightily to help Chris Shepherd launch the aforementioned One Fifth in time for the Super Bowl. Now it was time for a break. “It’s been a wild ride,” he said.
Those seeking tranquility often come here. Behind Jones stood the unique octagonal Rothko Chapel, where caterer Sammy Green wrote in his journal near the Broken Obelisk reflecting pool, as a warm wind rustled bamboo leaves. “When the breeze blows, and the bamboo makes that sound, it’s very serene,” Green said.
Inside the soaring, silent chapel were 15 empty benches, monumental canvases painted a monochromatic black, and a single figure, meditating cross-legged on a cushion. Entry was free.
The chapel was built by the de Menil family, oil business philanthropists who also created the Menil Collection, housed in a nearby 100,000-square-foot building designed by Renzo Piano (architect of the High Museum’s 2005 expansion).
“There is no barrier to entry here,” said Tommy Napier, who coordinates public relations for the Menil Collection. “There’s no turnstile, no ticket price.” He pointed to the flat walkway from the street to the interior: no stairs.
The free museum has an uncluttered, Zen-like interior, illuminated with light filtered through massive louvers covering the glass ceiling. Inside is a distinctive collection of 17,000 works that ranges through surrealism and pop art to antiquities and indigenous art.
It is rich with Rothkos, Warhols and the largest collection of Magritte outside Belgium, most of it acquired by the de Menil family. A bronze Magritte sculpture of a figure with a bowler hat and a birdcage for a torso is scary and remarkable.
Houston is a courteous city. As I walked through the Buffalo Bayou Park, where Frisbee golfers flung discs and aging married couples tottered hand in hand, a muscular, shirtless, tattooed bicyclist with a shaved head approached from behind. “On your left, sir,” he said. “Have a good one!” he added, as he rocketed past.
Buffalo Bayou Park is a 160-acre linear park that borders the bayou reaching into downtown Houston. After $58 million in renovations, the park opened last year with facilities for kayaking, a restaurant, biking paths and other improvements. Within the park is the Waugh Bridge bat colony; watching the bats emerge each night is a Houston tradition.
The park also contains an 87,500-square-foot concrete cistern that once kept the city supplied with water. After years of abandonment, it has become a somewhat weird attraction, a venue for musical performances and other events. (Right now, you can see a light and sound installation by Magdalena Fernández, $5.)
Equally weird, but more beautiful, is artist James Turrell’s installation called “Skyspace,” which looms over the Rice University campus like some forgotten Aztec landmark.
It consists of a truncated, hollow, grass-covered pyramid, topped by a flat wafer-thin roof, held aloft on metal columns. The roof is pierced with a rectangular aperture, leaving the interior open to the weather and the light.
Twice a day, at dawn and twilight, Turrell’s installation welcomes a reverently quiet audience, and they sit within the pyramid to behold the changing light of the sky mirrored by lighting effects projected onto the underside of the roof. (See it in the video below.) “It kind of feels like you’re in a dream,” one audience member told a Rice videographer. Free, with reservations at skyspace.rice.edu.
Buffalo Bayou Park, Shepherd Drive to Sabine Street, between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive; start at the visitor center at the Water Works, 105 Sabine St. James Turrell’s “Skyspace,” free, reservations required. Go to the website: skyspace.rice.edu. It’s on the Rice University campus: Here’s a campus map.
(Other good bets: The Johnson Space Center, where spaceflight began. Take the tram tour ($29.95) and see a Saturn V rocket; 1601 NASA Road 1, 281-244-2100.)
The oldest craft beer in Houston is cooked up at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, housed in a 102-year-old, three-story fortress of brick, where the sound of a chain-driven malt elevator clanks melodiously through the day. The chain travels through metal pipes in a continuous loop, dragging malted two-row barley from bins on the first floor to the tops of the massive 240-gallon fermenters.
The second floor of Saint Arnold boasts a beer hall out of “Beowulf,” where customers can begin their tour of the facility($10; free Super Bowl week), or order from the kitchen and quaff brews such as Fancy Lawnmower and Pumpkinator.
It was a little early in the day for a brew, but later that night, I visited Flying Saucer, a beer emporium with 200 different brews on hand, and tried a malty dark Santo. Sitting next to me was Jeff Jackson, 34, of Lawrenceville, Ga., who was traveling to Houston to — guess what? — open a restaurant in time for the Super Bowl. He was launching a Pappadeauxnear Discovery Green, and this was also his first day off in a while.
“I just wanted to do some laundry, hit the gym and drink a beer.”
Stay thirsty, my friend.
Saint Arnold Brewing Company, 2000 Lyons Ave., 713-686-9494, www.saintarnold.com; Flying Saucer, 705 Main St., 713-228-9472, www.beerknurd.com/locations/houston-flying-saucer.