Mimicking the shape of the ubiquitous five-pointed star of Texas, I recently returned from a five-town tour of Texas. The Texas Star is everywhere (note the State flag for one): granted all three of the following photos were taken within the Capitol building in Austin, where of course you would expect to find the star. It was a fun game trying to find them – like in Disney where the Mickey head is woven into the wallpaper, carpeting, railings, etc.
Our route was actually more like two sides of an isosceles triangle: Austin to Gruene to San Antonio to Luling to Houston (and then to NYC for me, which just throws the whole star analogy out the window).
My dad recently celebrated a milestone birthday and wanted to take a family vacation to commemorate it. Since my sister couldn’t take a whole week off, we came to her in Texas. We all met in Austin (my first trip there) on Saturday and stayed until Tuesday, when we split up: my sister and her boyfriend going back to Houston to go to work, while my parents and I drove to San Antonio (also my inaugural trip there), by way of Gruene (I think it’s pronounced “Green”), and all meeting back up in Houston (by way of Luling for us) on Thursday afternoon. It was quite the whirlwind trip, flying and driving to and fro. I took five flights (Detroit-Chicago-Austin, Houston-NYC-Chicago-Detroit) and drove almost 300 miles (since the rental car was only in my name…another story there).
Between Austin, San Antonio and Houston, I was wowed by how dissimilar each place was. Austin seemed to be very new, with super-long blocks and expansive office and apartment buildings of glass and poured concrete that could be in any city from Atlanta to Charlotte to Baltimore. I didn’t see many buildings I would consider historic, or even old looking, unless you count 1960s architecture to be old. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at the city’s scale (everything’s bigger in Texas, right?) but I was expecting to be able to walk everywhere, when driving was clearly the better choice.
On our first day, we visited the Lydon B. Johnson museum and library on the University of Texas campus. Massive:
This was the first Presidential library/museum I had ever been to, and besides just having read The President’s Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (which was a sometimes slow but captivating book about the behind-the-scenes relationships and interactions between the Presidents from Hoover on, which I highly recommend if you are a political history buff), I didn’t know too much about Johnson: became President when JFK was assassinated, failure to end the Vietnam War overshadowed the his progressive domestic policies, including civil rights, Medicare and environmental protections. (FYI, the book has an eye-opening chapter on the Johnson-Nixon relationship that basically says Nixon is responsible for dismantling Vietnam peace talks such that Johnson would not be able to end the war before the elections of 1968, which Nixon won.)
The museum focused predominantly on Johnson’s Texas upbringing (the only President to be born, educated and pass away in Texas, and so they say the only “true” Texas President; ouch for George Bush), his assertive and sometimes pushy way of getting things done in government, his never-ending drive and work ethic, and of course on his domestic policies. Not having lived through his era in order to form a first-hand opinion, the museum did a good job of creating a positive image of Johnson in my mind: obviously the point.
Another interesting note was that Johnson installed recording devices all over the White House, even in the bedroom, so that he would have thorough records when it came time to write his memoirs. Hours of recorded phone calls between him, Jackie Kennedy, world and civil rights leaders, and many others are available for listening on wall-mounted phones set up within the exhibits.
My favorite part of the museum was the wall of portraits of every President and First Lady (or other female figure if there was no First Lady). If there were TVs back in the day, some of these people definitely would not have been elected.
My second favorite part was Lady Bird’s office. She and President Johnson worked from the library after his term in office. I love these orange-pink love seats and the “Can Do” motto on her desk. I think LBJ and Lady Bird were optimists, and they would have excited those around them to work hard and do better…or at least that’s what the museum would have you believe. I’m sold.
While I found the contemporary exhibit by Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas pretty cool (think suspended pieces of yarn and fish bowls filled precisely to the top with water), the museum shop was the highlight, filled with wonderful goodies (as museum shops are wont to be), from crafty accessories to architectural utilitarian pieces like salad tongs. Mom bought me a motivational book, Steal Like an Artist, for creative inspiration.
The next day we toured the State Capitol with all those stars pictured above. What I found most interesting was learning about the recent 11-hour filibuster by Senator Wendy Davis in June against a proposed bill that would shutter most abortion clinics in the State. She triumphantly made it until the close of session without water, food, sitting, leaning, speaking off topic, or a bathroom break. And then they turned around, called two special sessions and passed it anyway. Damn. The whole tour got me kinda excited about making changes for the betterment of society. Maybe I would be a good public servant?!?! I have drive and good judgement. Okay, Hannah, slow your roll….Here are some pics instead:
Even the door hinges were Texas proud. Look at those corded phones they have attached to the desk legs! Apparently they are just chatting away the whole time anyone else is talking. Wouldn’t they just use a cell phone?
What I found most creepy was that the Congressmen’s kids are Congress “mascots” and they have these sorority-like composites with each Congressman’s picture in a bubble. All the kids are pictured too…I didn’t post the photo I took, as I thought it was already too much child exploitation hanging in the chambers.
That night we went to South Congress (SoCo) for dinner at a quaint Italian place with excellent thin-crust spicy arrabiata pizza. SoCo is an awesome street for all kinds of food trucks (Thai crepes, everything bratwurst, anything else you can think of), flea markets and vintage shops. I was seriously tempted by a ’70s sequined butterfly top but was brought back to the reality of having nowhere to actually wear it.
Then there were the bats. Austin has a 1.5 million-bat colony that lives seasonally under the South Congress Bridge and flies out en masse at sunset to eat 20-30 thousand pounds of insects each night. Walking under the bridge during the day, you can smell them and hear their chirps from the crevices. I was amused by this “Bat Facts” sign that debunks bat myths like bats are blind (note picture of bats wearing sunglasses) and that bats get stuck in your hair. Um, was this really a widely-held belief? “Bats can catch tiny insects in total darkness. They are certainly able to avoid blundering into people’s hair.” This is an actual sign. Probably paid for with taxpayer dollars. Hilarious.
Of course you cannot go to Austin without seeing some live music. Mom’s preference was bluegrass, so we headed out to the coffee shop by day, teeny tiny concert venue and bar by night, Flipnotics, to see The Bluegrass Outfit. They were an awesome band made up of at least six guys of all ages, playing the guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, bass and singing. I’m not familiar enough with bluegrass to know if all bands are like this, but they were excellent at harmonizing and improvising and taking turns showcasing their instruments individually. Very cool.
My sister, her boyfriend, and I headed out to Sixth Street after the concert.
It was a Monday night, so the typical lively bar/music scene was pretty dead, with a few happening bars full of businesspeople in suits and names badges attending some conference. I don’t think this girl riding the mechanical bull was attending a conference (or at least I hope not for her sake):
There was this random Saran-wrapped carrot however (no idea):
Also this sign that suggested this bar was open, which it clearly was not:
Another interesting placard:
And with that, on to Gruene.
Dad and I got dropped off at Enterprise to pick up our prearranged car for the trek around the State. We were all set to go when the guy at the counter realizes we want to drop it off in Houston, not back in Austin, and proceeds to inform us that they aren’t doing one-way rentals at this time, nor is any other Enterprise in town. (Mind you, this is not a walk-in off the street rental, my dad had reserved it in advance.) Wellllllll, we’re going to be in Houston, soooooo….yeaaahh. We quick did some Googling and found a Hertz that would do a one-way rental, and the Enterprise guy was nice enough to drive us over there. Sigh of relief.
About an hour southwest of Austin, Gruene is a quaint, touristy town, with a well-known restaurant, The Gristmill, where we ate juicy pulled pork sandwiches and super-fried super-sized peppery onion rings, washed down with cold Shiner Bocks.
Gruene is also home to the oldest dance hall in Texas, antique stores, a general store (read: souvenir shop) and other gifty boutiques. I found this strange but cool LOVE bracelet in a basket of $15 bangles in the antique shop (where everything was well-curated but not cheap).
After that lunch-and-wander stop, Mom, Dad and I pressed on to San Antonio, 45 minutes to the southwest. We checked into our Hilton Homewood Suites, noshed on the free dinner buffet (complete with frozen margaritas!) and then took an evening stroll along the Riverwalk.
San Antonio was not at all as I had imagined it would be. I was thinking rustic, Southwest-style town. It did have the most interesting architecture out of the Texas cities to which we traveled and certainly the oldest history, but it was overwhelmingly touristy. Of course, we were tourists too, and mainly stuck to the downtown areas, but between the Riverwalk and the Alamo, it was kind of like a theme park. All along the street across from the Alamo (which springs up on you in the middle of a city block) were those cheesy suck-you-in-with-how-bad-they-are establishments like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, t-shirt souvenir shops, ice cream stores and a wax museum. I could have been on the Ocean City boardwalk….or Inner Harbor Baltimore…either way. Those really aren’t the types of things I expect next to a historic landmark and battle site.
During the day, we saw businesspeople bustling about, and I’m sure they were rolling their eyes are our incessant picture taking. But actually I think they were a lot of out-of-towners too, as San Antonio is definitely a bit of a convention hub. At night, the city seemed to shut down and turn off all the lights. Besides the Riverwalk, it was kind of spooky dark, and the people loitering along the sidewalks crazily shouting out to passers-by didn’t make me want to explore farther afield.
We obviously spent the first day at the Alamo. Frankly, I hadn’t known a damn thing about the Alamo or the history of Texas before going there. As our family tends to do, we spent hours upon hours covering every inch and reading every sign, before finally calling it quits for lunch on the Riverwalk (some very yummy shrimp and grits for me) and taking a touristy boat ride through the canals.
I’m not going to try to recount the whole Alamo history here because you can just Wikipedia that yourself, so here are some photos from San Antonio:
We went to The Briscoe Western Art Museum, which is brand new and had just opened that weekend. They had a replica of a Wells Fargo mail stagecoach, the real Pancho Villa’s saddle, Santa Anna’s sword, a model of the battle of the Alamo complete with tiny soldiers, and wonderfully dynamic bronze sculptures of cowboys wrangling steers that actually looked like they could leap off the plinth and charge away any moment. I especially liked the early 20th century sepia photos of stoic Native American chiefs.
You can just make out the strings of holiday lights hanging from the trees. They won’t be lit at night until the holiday season but it takes them months to hang each strand from the upper branches. That would be a scary job for those afraid of heights.
Sculpture in the square
After two nights in San Antonio, we set out Thursday morning for Houston. Some crazy storms had rolled through the area with the threat of flooding, so we were closely watching the weather to avoid it in Houston. Luckily it had come through San Antonio during the night and cleared out of Houston by the time we arrived.
For lunch we stopped in Luling, a town of about 5,000, east and slightly north of San Antonio. Here we went to the famous City Market (apparently there’s an outpost in Houston too), a sell-it-by-the-pound BBQ joint with tender smoky brisket and limited choices. Not like, “pulled pork sammy please;” more like, “a pound of ribs please” (and let me unbuckle my pants while I’m at it).
Here’s the smoker room where you ordered your meat, pickles and slices of white bread from the hard-hatted men; also where you get perfumed with meat smoke for the rest of the day until you shower again. I tried to stealthily take this no-flash photo as these guys seemed like the no-nonsense, just get your meat and go types. However, my attempt at low-key-ness was completely voided by Dad taking multiple flash photos while the burly men in front of us were ordering. OMG Embarrassing.
Dad, if you have those photos, please forward 😀 Hehe love ya!
At the front counter is where you order sides (potato salad or chips) and drinks. Besides some of the people working behind the counter, Mom and I may have been the only women in there. There were guys in cowboy hats, guys with corporate polos and large belt buckles, farm hands and oil men, all coming in for a lunch composed of giant slabs of brisket or ribs. Feeling completely stuffed and smoked out, we strolled down the main street that looked like something out of an old Western, with those high front walled shops and a portico running along the sidewalk. The only difference being the parking spots for cars instead of horses.
The high school team mascot is the Eagle…unfortunately we weren’t there at night to see a football game. That would have been a true-small-town-Texas awesome experience.
After lunch, we were on the road again, heading to Houston.
We met up with my sister, her boyfriend and his parents for dinner at Goode Co. Seafood.
Goode Co. is a Houston-only chain of various restaurants, including a BBQ place (been there, it’s great, love the traditional stand-in-cafeteria-style-line, order, pick-up, eat at outdoor picnic tables, big barn ambiance), a taqueria, the seafood restaurant and the Armadillo Palace (BBQ, bar, music…I must go there (said in robotic hypnotized voice)). Still feeling completely overwhelmed by lunch, I had a Caesar salad with shrimp for dinner, which was fresh and light.
Thennnnnn my sister and I proceeded to hit up a coffee shop that sells Fluff Bake Bar goodies (a bakery that sells its products through local food establishments). On the recommendation of a friend, we sought out these treats and had a nice little sampling spread. From the top down:
Thennnnnn we went to Underbelly (trendy, Food&Wine mag type place) for a second dinner and glass of wine at the bar. (Remember how I said I was still stuffed from lunch? Right. That didn’t stop me.)
The next morning, my sister and I woke up early to head over to the Harwin district to shop the wholesale jewelry stores. My sister wasn’t sure she remembered exactly which store she and her friend had been to before, but it didn’t matter because within a few block radius were multiple strip malls and warehouses selling wholesale handbags, clothes, jewelry and whatever other consumer goods you might find at the mall.
While we were boutique-hopping in Austin, I kept pointing out costume jewelry that I liked – a sparkly necklace here, a beaded bracelet there – and she’d say, “Don’t buy it here for $20, that same thing will literally be $5 in Houston.” And she was pretty much right. It’s amazing how in a store full of cheap items you can end up spending a lot of money. J. Crew bubble necklace for $10? I’ll take two! Enamel bangles for $5? Yes please! $90 later…..It’s like my theory on Target: no matter the stated reason you go to Target, you can never leave without spending at least $100. Oh, you just came in for a roll of toilet paper? Well don’t forget to add on that sweater, pair of faux-suede booties, mascara and a new teapot, et voila, $100.
Super psyched about our bountiful takedown at the wholesale shop, we proceeded to pick up my parents and head over to Nordstrom for some wedding dress shopping. Since I already wrote all about that here, I will proceed with our other shopping finds of the day.
Between our bridal appointments at Nordstrom and BHLDN, we drove over to The Heights neighborhood of town where my dad wanted to check out some vintage stores.
Now you might think it odd that a man in his 60s wants to browse some vintage clothing stores, but here’s the back story: His grandfather (my great-grandfather in case you didn’t make that connection), Papa Joe, made western style shirts for a living in the garment district of New York back during the first half of the last century. The shirts were the special-occasion kind with pearl snaps and were quite popular and widespread. The company no longer exists, so whenever we are out West or have the opportunity to vintage-store shop, my dad is always on the lookout for the multiple labels under which they were produced. Not that he wants to buy any; it’s just a fun game to try to spot them. It’s been harder and harder to locate them over the years, and one of the store proprietors told us that really old shirts like that don’t come along very often (mostly you find stuff from the 70s and 80s) and when they do, they are typically very expensive.
My sister did, however, find this super cute, quilted denim vest (much better than “Denim Vest” from “Seinfeld”)
Lots of glasses and boots:
A quirky neighborhood, this bejeweled Aqua Net trash can made me think of my grandmother:
Funky car and a pink bench with matching flower pot:
We went to Eddie V’s high-end steakhouse (actually it’s a high-end seafood place, but we all got steak on another friend’s recommendation) for my dad’s birthday dinner celebration that night. The filet I had was perfectly cooked, as were the sides of mushrooms and asparagus. Think nice steakhouse a la Ruth’s Chris, but less butter, and even better than Capital Grille. I would equate it to The Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley, although that’s about my all-time favorite restaurant, so I would never say something comes 100% to that level.
The dessert was out of this world, however: a key lime ice cream baked alaska!!!! I can’t upload the video here, but here’s a shot of the flaming concoction (post-fire):
Way too early the next morning, I hit the airport for my flight to NYC for a friend’s birthday (same friend that wisely suggested Fluff Bake Bar). It was so nice to see her, and singing post-dinner karaoke in Koreatown was the perfect ending to the fun-filled and hectic week. As an added bonus, my cousin happened to be out in Murray Hill when we were done with karaoke and we met up for a drink to ring in the end of daylight savings time (extra hour was a double bonus)!
What a fantastic trip full of funny adventures, delicious (and way too much) food, exciting shopping treasures and excellent company all around.