By Michael Kinney
I hate driving. Let me rephrase that. I hate driving long distances. After more than an hour, my body starts to tell me it has had enough.
But this has been one of the reasons I had never been to Houston, Texas. The prospect of spending six hours in a car was never something I was excited to take part in.
However, that was only part of my apprehension about making such a trip. Outside of the Houston Rockets and Oilers (I’m dating myself), I had grown up never hearing anything good about Houston. For that matter, I didn’t hear anything negative as well until the past few years. Up until then, it was just a city that existed in between Dallas and San Antonio.
While it was the home of NASA and chopped and screwed music, Houston was a blank book to me.
So, I decided to change that and fill in the pages. I made the drive to H-Town for the Houston Auto Show and I was educated on the fourth most populous city (2.3 million) in the United States.
I quickly learned it is home to high unemployment, rising crime rates, terrible traffic and unpredictable weather.
Yet, to my surprise, it’s also home to a thriving music scene, amazing food, energetic nightlife and an underrated art world.
However, the trip didn’t start how I wanted. After a pretty easy drive from Oklahoma City to the outskirts of Houston, I got hit with torrential rain and backed up traffic. It added an extra hour to my drive.
The rain continued throughout the week, which brought on flooding and derailed some of my planned excursions. I don’t think I saw the sun once. According to Houstonians, that was not the norm and I must have brought the rain clouds with me.
Despite that, when I wasn’t stuck in traffic or waiting for respites from the rain, I made the most of my time in Houston.
The day after I arrived, I spent the entire time touring the city. I took in everything from Houston’s Graffiti Building to market square.
I was able to check out Minute Maid Park (Astros), The Toyota Center (Rockets) and BBVA Stadium (Dynamo FC). The only pro team that is not situated directly downtown is the Houston Texans. However, their NRG Stadium is 15 minutes away (depending on traffic).
The first restaurant I went to was The Breakfast Klub (3711 Travis St). From the time it opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m., the local staple always has a line out front that stretches around the building.
While I detest waiting in line, I made the exception this time and it was worth it. Their famous Chicken & Waffle plate lived up to the hype. As did their homemade (I assumed) sweet tea.
With portraits from local artists on the walls and music playing in the background, the atmosphere fits the food. The Breakfast Klub was a must-hit eatery in the city.
A strong second belongs to Phil & Derek’s Restaurant and Wine Bar (1701 Webster St.). I went on Thursday night, which meant live Jazz and R&B bands, who were on point.
Sitting on the restaurant’s back porch, listening to soulful R&B right in the heart of downtown Houston, it made my Cajun Seafood Pasta even more impressive.
On the downside, some restaurants and bars in the city have employed a tactic of already adding a 10-20 percent gratuity to the bill before you receive it. When I asked around to find out if this is a common practice, I was told it depends on the parts of town because some locals are known for not tipping.
One of the problems of traveling during a pandemic is that not all places are back up and running. That is what happened when I tried to visit the Houston Museum of African American Culture (4807 Caroline St,) and the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum (3816 Caroline St). Both had closed without notice when a surge of COVID-19 hit the city that month.
Even the David Adickes Studio (2401 Nance St.), which houses giant busts of all the U.S. presidents, was closed. I was still able to gander at George Washington, Harry Truman and Ulysses S. Grant from outside the fence.
I was able to make it Menil Collection (1533 Sul Ross St) and Houston Center for Photography (1441 W Alabama St), which both stayed open but had strict mask requirements.
A great area is the Museum District, which contains 150 different museums and cultural institutions. On Thursdays almost all of the museums offer times during the day when admission is free. Some of them make it the entire day.
For those who are interested in taking a deep dive into the history of America’s space program, the NASA Space Center ((1601 E. NASA Parkway) is worth the tidy sum they charge for tickets ($30 adults, $25 kids), parking ($5 and the souvenir photo ($25) they try and get you to buy at the end of the tour, which I did get.
Overall, Houston was an interesting city to visit. But it’s still tough to define. It didn’t feel like it was part of the South or even Texas itself. Almost its own oasis in the Lone Star state.
And that may be the best description I can come up with for Houston. It’s nothing like its neighbors and well worth taking it all in.
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