JWM MAGAZINE 53
course, if you’d prefer an exhaustive art history lesson, one can be arranged.
The Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel are just two of the 19 destinations within the vaunted Museum District’s 1.5-mile radius. Dotted among
giants like the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which has more than
2 million visitors a year, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (currently
undergoing expansion) are gems like the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
and the Asia Society Texas Center. Not to be outdone, downtown’s 17-block
Theater District — home to venues like the Wortham Theater Center and
the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts — is the country’s second largest
behind New York City’s when you tally up all its seats.
BREAKFAST TACOS AND FILET MIGNON
Aside from art, Houston’s other pillar of cultural splendor is food. “You know,
Houstonians eat out more than anyone else,” Michael tells me on our way
to brunch at State of Grace, Atlanta-based super-chef Ford Fry’s first foray
into his hometown’s bustling restaurant scene.
This factoid is backed up by one of those annual
national surveys, and I’m not sure if it says more
about the sheer number of restaurants here (some
12,000) or the locals’ evolutionary aversion to
turning their stoves on in Houston’s muggy heat.
(Largely flat, the city gets as much annual rainfall
as Rio de Janeiro and enjoys humidity levels that
rival a sauna’s. The arid West this is not.) As we
mock-swordfight over the last of the Gulf crab
hush puppies, I calculate that it would take at least
several months of consecutive nights out to hit
just the storied classics, like Hugo’s (Mexican) and
Tony’s (Italian); the notable newcomers, like Helen
(Greek) and Pax Americana (modern American);
and the standouts with James Beard awards under
their belts, like Justin Yu’s veggie-focused Oxheart
and Chris Shepherd’s meat-centric Underbelly.
I once joined Shepherd for one of his famous tours of Houston’s under-sung mom-and-pop kitchens, places that serve some of the best food money
(and not even a lot of it) can buy but rarely break into any glossy dining
guide. We ate at 19 restaurants over three days and barely had the same type
of cuisine twice: There was Tex-Mex and barbecue, yes, but also Chinese,
Mongolian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Polish, Indian, interior Mexican, Cajun,
Ethiopian, El Salvadoran and various fusions thereof. I can still smell the
crawfish sold by the pound at the Hong Kong City Mall, a vast bazaar of international delicacies and goods in southwest Houston’s sizable Chinatown.
As long as funds and food aversions are no object, the best way to navigate
the city’s distinct neighborhoods is via your stomach. My ideal day of
Houston gluttony, I tell Michael, would start with chicken and waffles at The
Breakfast Klub, a Beyoncé-approved institution in Midtown, and end with
truffle-topped tagliatelle at Da Marco, a “jacket-preferred” establishment in
Montrose. He’d go for $2 breakfast tacos at the Original Villa Arcos in the
Second Ward, east of downtown, and a $59 bone-in filet mignon at Steak 48,
in the tony River Oaks District. The district is Houston’s newest luxury shopping “environment,” and we wind up there one evening. Peering inside its
mini temples of high fashion —Tom Ford, Cartier, Dior, Roberto Cavalli and
their ilk— I see beautiful wardrobes I only dream of owning. A $59 steak
suddenly seems like a “when-in-Houston” splurge I can afford.
GREEN SPACES GALORE
“Did I mention that there are something like 67 consul generals in
Houston?” Michael asks. We’re walking by the long reflection pool in
Hermann Park, a beloved 445-acre parcel a few miles south of downtown
that has been restored to its glory after decades of neglect. I do a quick
fact-check on the tourism department’s website and inform him that there
are actually 92 foreign governments with consulates or trade offices here.
PILLAR OF CULTURAL
SPLENDOR IS FOOD.