Houston: A Really Big Small Town

I want to change the way you think about Houston. Look past the strip malls and strip joints that line I-45, to see beyond the Enron scandal and to embrace the goodness that Houston has to offer. I want you to think of Houston as Small Town America, a really big small town in America. I travel quite a bit and have earned many accolades from various frequent traveler incentive plans. It was no surprise when my Avis "Please Keep Renting From Us" package arrived. I noticed that the fourth largest city in the nation was not listed in the guidebook.

Are you kidding me? The center of the NASA universe? Home to the most popular NFL expansion team of the 2000s? This is not a slight to be taken lightly. Anyone who knows me probably thinks I've flipped my lid. Over the years, a reluctant sense of Houston pride has developed within me. I'm not sure what turned me into a Texas fan. When I moved to Texas six years ago, it was a half-hearted effort at best spurned on by the promise of a good job. Maybe it was the weekly commute to Connecticut. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and so does the generally crappy attitude of the folks I experienced in the North East. After two frozen screwdrivers at Under the Volcano (Bissonnet St.) you could probably sell me on why the Compaq Center would make a great church.

The New Downtown

Downtown Houston is off the chain like a Rottweiler on steroids. It's now alive thanks to the economic boom of the late '90s which brought Minute Maid Park (home of the Houston Astros, formerly Enron Field), the new Light Rail, and the Toyota Center Sports Arena. New businesses, clubs and restaurants seem to thrive in the reinvigorated atmosphere. Now Houstonians can finally live in style, even on the weekends. In the next two to three years, the central business district will be poised to make a run at Dallas for best urban enclave in Texas.

Dive Bar Scene

People seem to be a bit more genuine when you catch them enjoying a Pearl Light in cutoffs instead of trying not to spill a $15 martini on themselves. As much as I like watching beautiful people prance around in their black, wrinkle-free outfits, I'd rather be at a bar. La Carafe and Warren's Inn are both part of the dive bar scene downtown. Warren's presents incredibly strong drinks for very little dinero. La Carafe features early 20th century charm courtesy of its antique location, which is one of the city's oldest buildings. Other highlights include the Texas-shaped table at Kay's Lounge (in Rice Village) and Long Island Iced Teas at Marquis II.

Memorial Park

Think inner Houston has no trees? We consolidated them all to one spot for viewing pleasure. Memorial Park, our Central Park, is situated just south of I-10 inside Loop 610. It features a 2.9-mile running trail, golf course, tennis courts, mountain bike trails and many other ways to work up a sweat and erase the transgressions of a night of partying. Plus, where else but Houston can you run three miles and then step into a burger joint adjacent to the fitness trail?

Raymond's Barbershop

If you have hair like mine (it can't decide if it wants to be a fro or straight), then you know how hard it is to find a decent haircut. Raymond's is the best barbershop in Houston hands down, scoring 11 on a ten-point scale. Metrosexuals be warned. You should not go there expecting a shampoo girl and frappucino. But, for only eight bucks Mr. Raymond or Carl will hook you up with a nice clean cut that is worth every bit of the up-to-an-hour wait. Feel free to use the $10 - $50+ you just saved to get your coffee at Treasures, Houston's largest gentleman's club.

Monday Night BINGO with The El Orbits

This weekly fest features cheap beer and martinis (well before people started buying martinis just to look cool) and prizes that you just can't live without. In just a few minutes I was totally absorbed by Fiona, the BINGO Temptress, and the intoxicating lounge fusion of The El Orbits. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky winners that night taking home a C-3PO toothbrush, Colgate Total and a PEZ dispenser and pocket watch.

The Menil Collection

Houston has plenty to offer in the way of performance art, live music and museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Natural Science and the Children's Museum. All garner thousands of visitors each year, as well they should. But, the crown jewel of Houston culture is The Menil Collection, which houses the private art collection of John and Dominique de Menil. Tucked away in the Montrose district of Houston, The Menil presents selected works from the 15,000+ item inventory on a rotational basis. The Menil Collection can transform even the most aloof patron into an art aficionado in just a few visits thanks to broad spectrum of tastes accommodated by the antiquities, tribal, medieval and 20th century art that adorn its galleries.

Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo

Look no further than the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. People watching is the blue ribbon event each Spring. Depravity takes shape every year as hundreds of area teenagers strut their stuff in outfits that bring to mind images of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver dragging decadence by the cattle trailer. It's entertaining to see the majority of spectators all duded up in their best Wrangler's and ├╝berstarched, bulletproofed shirts that could probably stop an artillery round. Even I dust off my old Double H boots for the annual pilgrimage. Urban Cowboy lives on. May we all look as good as Travolta and Winger March 2005.

McGonigel's Mucky Duck

Faced with a choice between going to see Dave at The Woodlands or Bob Schneider at The Mucky Duck? We should all be so lucky. But, The Mucky Duck should win every time. Located just off Highway 59 inside Loop 610, McGonigel's Mucky Duck has presented the best live acoustic performances (both local and nationally renowned) that Houston has ever seen including Junior Brown, Todd Snider, Terry Allen, Reckless Kelly. Not only will sitting three feet away from Bob blow your date away, but also the snazzy, personalized place saver menu will likely impress him/her. Shows tend to sell out quickly, but Standing Room Only seats are typically available the day of the show.

Lupe Tortilla's

So you think the Tex-Mex joint around the corner from your place has the best fajitas ever? Think again. Lupe Tortilla's is the best fajita-ery in Houston, bar none. The sign may say "Ees preety good," but locals know that is a vast understatement. Perfect flank steak and a tangy, sublime marinade combine with a sizzling platter to craft a unique experience right down to the "wafer-thin" tortillas. Be forewarned, an off-the-menu item at this kid friendly restaurant is the long wait for a table. Don't worry, there is a newly expanded bar featuring beer and margaritas to get you through the doldrums.

Baseball at Minute Maid Park

Pundits like Peter Gammons still insist that baseball remains the national pastime. Minute Maid Park is helping to keep it that way. Minute Maid features a uniquely intimate baseball environment by combining some old- timey architecture with 21st century features like the Minute Maid Squeeze Play for kids and a bar in centerfield for adults. The Astrodome remains an icon in baseball history, but the retractable roof and downtown location make the park a great place to catch a ball game. Five dollar seats are typically available on game day, except when Clemens is pitching. So, the next time some replies to your, "I'm from Texas," with, "Ooooo, Austin or Dallas?" Let them know what's up. We have a faster Light Rail than Dallas (66 mph vs. 65 mph) and Austin's rush hour traffic rivals ours. And, yes, there is a strip joint in the strip mall just down the street if they need a party on demand.

This was originally posted on TheBackWord.com, a Texas-centric eZine that has gone the way of the jackalope.