Travel: Houston, beyond the strip malls 

Cars rule, but food and art are also pretty significant in this Texas city

click to enlarge Chef Hugo Ortega with freshly grown peppers. Photo by Alison Appelbe.
  • Chef Hugo Ortega with freshly grown peppers. Photo by Alison Appelbe.

"Houston is a world-class city - hidden behind a row of strip malls," argued someone at a recent event devoted to that city's image. Which isn't to say that the Texan metropolis doesn't have its strip-mall issues.

Cars rule in what is an indisputable sprawl; the downtown isn't particularly pedestrian friendly. And while the city boasts a spiffy new light-rail line, some locals dismiss it on the grounds that it only carries poor Houstonians (meaning blacks and Hispanics), and that it interferes with the flow of traffic.

But that's it for the criticism. Because if you look closely, you'll find a hugely progressive city. Yes, there's more to Houston than NASA and the Houston Rockets.

Chris Shepherd is head chef at catalan (lower case c), a hip restaurant serving modern Catalonian cuisine. A big porcine-looking guy, Shepherd talks effusively of his "head-to-toe" approach to making use of the animals he buys from local farms, particularly pork.

The catalan - where a Colorado lamb cassoulet, for example, costs $34 US - is not cheap. But Shepherd holds just as much respect for the old-school Texan barbeque eatery where, he says, the attitude remains: "You want utensils? They're attached to your arm." He is, like many up-and-coming Houston chefs, wide-minded and a little crazy.

On this same early-morning foodie tour of lesser known markets and eateries, another chef, Hugo Ortega, walked us through the Hispanic produce stalls at one of the city's many farmers' markets. If you get here before 7 a.m. you can pick up a dozen tomatoes for a dollar, Ortega says.

Three or four taqueria trucks are parked outside the market - and busy. For Shepherd, breakfast is a fully loaded sweetbreads taco (under $5). Food is plentiful and cheap in this vast farming region with an almost year-round growing season. Avocadoes, central to Hispanic cuisine, are grown (and sold) by the ton.

Dining is huge in Houston, but so is art. No fewer than 18 museums grace the park-like Houston Museum District (accessed by the much-hated public transit line).

At the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum I saw a series of short films about black female artists. The Jung Center, in a typically gorgeous building that speaks to the sophistication in Houston, is devoted to spirituality and  "the quality of life in Houston."

Other museums deal in world-class art.

The Menil Collection (think fabulously wealthy European-born philanthropist couple) is shown in a building by superstar architect Renzo Piano. Nearby is the Rothko Chapel and Museum of religious art, featuring works by American painter Mark Rothko.

This (Menil) complex also includes the celebrated Byzantine Fresco Chapel of 13 th -century frescos stolen from a church in Cypress. The fragments, bought on the black art market (with the approval of the Church of Cypress), have been lovingly reassembled in a specially designed apse and dome. The result is spectacular.

Finally the district includes the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, an ultra-modern complex with one of the finest art collections in the U.S.

On several visits to the MOFA, I barely had time to make my way through the Beck Collection of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (while regrettably ignoring the likes of Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man, or Picasso's Two Women in Front of a Window).

And that's only the Caroline Weiss Law (think Exxon Mobil) building, designed by German-American modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Also not to be missed is the subterranean Turrell Tunnel, a light installation and art experience all in one.

Next door, at the boutique-style Hotel ZaZa, the suites - dubbed The Magnificent Seven - are outfitted in themes that run from Fatal Charms to Rock Star. The food and wine in the hotel's Monarch Restaurant and Lounge is, well, divine.

Which isn't to say that everything in Houston is hugely costly or over-the-top. Among more accessible offerings is the Aurora Picture Show, a 100-seat theatre (in a former church) devoted to artist-made film and video.

Also into the alternative and performing arts, is the Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre, widely recognized for its talented company, innovative stagecraft and original works. Titles include The Punchface Trilogy, Why Do the Children Rust?, Corruption of the Species and Freakin' Amazing City.

Houston also boasts numerous non-profit community-based institutions like Talento Bilingue de Houston, committed to Latino culture in all its manifestations.

I missed the Art Car Museum, the largest of its kind of the world. According to, it "celebrates the spirit of this post-modern age... in which individuals have remolded the factory-model sameness of their automobiles to the specifications of their own idiosyncratic images and visions." (Car culture lives.)

But a friend and I did make our way to a gritty industrial area and a pub called McGonigel's Mucky Duck, where we saw an attractive guy named Hamilton Loomis rock his way through several sets of "Texan roots music for the 21 st century."

Yes there is life beyond Houston's strip malls - and it's rich.



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