Growing up in a suburb of Houston, Texas, if you’d told me that one of the coolest cities in the world was right under my nose, I would have assumed you were making some veiled joke about the stinky chemical plants that outline the city. In fact, it was those very chemical plants that lured my parents with their 1- (me) and 2-year-old girls from their comfy Midwestern roost to Houston in the late ‘70s, when my dad, a chemical engineer, got a job at one. For the next 17 years, my mother would dedicate herself to drilling any hint of a Texas accent from her daughters’ formative speech. Today, my sister and I live in Chicago and continually surprise people when we reveal our Lone-Star roots. “But you don’t have any accent,” they invariably say.
That said, my family, though living in Texas, never sought to be Texans. Maybe that explains why my mom, dad and sister were all taken aback when we learned, this year, that The New York Times named Houston No. 7 among the 46 Places to Go in 2013. Or that Forbes named it the “Coolest City” in 2012, the same year that Bloomberg and BusinessWeek classified it among the best cities in the country. Houston, after all, is home to one of the country’s largest museum districts, one of the best ballet companies, one of the top culinary scenes, the world’s largest medical center, a theater district with the highest number of seats in the country outside of New York, and the list goes on. Reading those stats 18 years after I left my hometown for college, I start to wonder how I managed to miss the fact that Houston was actually a place that many people wanted to visit, when all I wanted to do was leave.
Not that I hated my fair, sprawling city. There was plenty to love about my youth. Growing up in suburban Houston in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I could have told you, with false confidence, the highlights of the culinary world (head to Polly’s Restaurant—since closed–located off Nasa Road One, for late-night chocolate chip pancakes served by a gargantuan Asian man with permed hair, wearing a tuxedo), culture (drive up the long and lonely Todville Road in Seabrook until you get to Maas Nursery, hang a right and then another right and shine your headlights at the cemetery, where you’ll see the eerie glowing grave, which seems to float in its limestone fluorescence, or it did, to these teenage eyes) and shopping (The Galleria has a Dillard’s, a Macy’s and an ice skating rink!).
I’d like to think I’ve grown up a lot since leaving Houston. Today, as a travel writer, it’s my job to visit cities and uncover their qi. So when I visited my former home earlier this year, I decided it was time to see the city through a traveler’s eye, rather than the eye of a nonplused middle-agedish woman visiting her parents. Instead of savoring only my beloved childhood restaurants (Ninfa’s for Mexican, Frenchies for, oddly enough, Italian, Ninfa’s, again, for more Mexican), I was determined to try out new places and taste some of the headline-making culinary scene. I wanted to roam around some of the areas inside the Loop, visit some of the world-famous museums and embrace the bayous that distinguish The Bayou City.
I had no issue co-opting my mom into joining me. We hopped in the car and drove northwest, about 40 minutes to the museum district. There, we veered from the bustling area around Richmond Drive into a quiet neighborhood, filled with darling bungalows, sprawling parks, lush greenery, and Renzo Piano’s first American building, which houses The Menil Collection.
Like many cultural institutions in Texas, the Menil Collection stems from oil money. In 1931, John de Menil, a banker, married Monique Schlumberger, daughter of oil tycoon Conrad Schlumberger. As a couple, the two started collecting art, ranging from artifacts from the Paleolithic era to modern works. The Menil Collection, which opened in 1987, includes more than 16,000 pieces, and the museum, much like Houston, is the opposite of stuffy. The large, gray building is surrounded by Southern-inspired porch space and, while it doesn’t entirely blend in with the surrounding area, it certainly fits in. Inside, with towering ceilings and natural light, there’s a comfortably airiness that fills the venue. Perusing the many rooms, I lose myself in Claes Oldenburg’s “Strange Eggs”—weird, little self-contained collages that walk the line between whimsy and creepy with perfect aplomb.
After our museum visit, we head into the fresh by humid air, and turn right, walking a couple of blocks through the neighborhood to the Rothko Chapel. Also founded by the de Menils, the chapel draws more than 60,000 visitors from across the world each year to see 14 meditative paintings by Mark Rothko. My mom and I sit in the dark art space, staring at the dark paintings, breathing in the serenity under the watchful eye of a security guard, until our stomach rumbles fill the silence and we head back toward the car.
Mindlessly, we climb into the SUV as I look up the address of Underbelly on my phone. Turns out, it’s .8 miles away. “Want to walk?” I ask my mom. We’re both big fans of city walking, but we also know that one of the national lists that Houston will likely never top is “Walkable Cities,” so it’s a valid question. “Point eight miles? Yeah, let’s walk,” my mom agrees. We wander over to busy Westheimer Road, past an antique store, a Slick Willy’s Pool Hall and the Erotic Cabaret Boutique, all testaments to Houston’s lack of zoning laws, until we get to Underbelly, a restaurant seeking to tell “the story of Houston food.” It’s packed at lunchtime, so we sit at a long community space and admire the walnut tables, eclectic chairs and open kitchen. We share two delicious salads (one with baby lettuce, candied pecans and pickled strawberries and another with pulled chicken, cabbage, carrot and nuoc mam), and return to the car, impressed that Houston food, which is so frequently associated with Tex Mex and barbecue, can be so light and delicious. Later that night, we wrap up our Houston tour at a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant in my parents’ neighborhood, called Cuisine of India. Bordered by a Shipley’s Donuts and a weight-loss clinic, the strip-mall-of-a-restaurant ranks up with some of the best Indian food I’ve had.
The next day, my dad and I take his canoe to Bay Area Park and launch it into Armand Bayou. Houston has more than 2,500 miles of waterways, and I’m a living testament to the fact that you can live here for 17 years and have no idea how extensive the bayou system is. For the next two hours, we paddle through a seemingly secret world of water trails, where we spot a beaver and countless birds (my dad could tell you the names of most of them, but I was only able to pick out the giant black vultures). I find the serenity of the bayous more soothing than the Rothko Chapel.
By the time we wrap up our aquatic sightseeing, it’s time to head to Hobby International Airport for my flight home. As I head out of town, I consider what an eye-opening trip it’s been. While I still made time to do the things I loved as a kid (sleeping late, eating Blue Bell ice cream, jogging around the neighborhood, indulging in Mexican food), I leave with a better appreciation of Houston than I’ve ever had. I’ve vowed that during each subsequent visit, I’ll continue exploring and take a parent along with me, opening our eyes to what’s always been right under our noses.