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Where to eat, drink and see art in Houston, Texas

Antonia Quirke
11 December 2012

Gone are the Stetsons. Now the biggest city in Texas is staking its claim as the coolest cat in the South, says Antonia Quirke

'We're having a rodeo party in one of the suites,' says the woman with hair rising from her head in a copper-beech dream of curling tongs and Elnett. On her feet are little blue cowboy boots covered in studs. I'm at a hotel reception in Houston, Texas, early on Saturday evening — so far so normal? Actually, no. In the few days I spend here, these are the only cowboy boots I see, and the one Stetson was fixed to the duffle bag of a pensioner boarding a Greyhound bus for Tampa. Houston's profoundly non-Texan Texas is startling. It gets so acute I kind of miss my more caricatured movie-Texas — where Jeff Bridges pulls up his huge-buckled jeans in The Last Picture Show — and start to feel a little cheated, although tell any Houstonian this and they give you a look of triumph: they like to be different.

Houston has just been placed by forbes.com at the top of the list of cool places to live. Houston is unique in the United States. It's the only city with no ethnic majority, just an even spread of large populations from Nigeria, Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, India and so many others that 83 languages are regularly being spoken in Houston's schools. Where first-time buyers might have thought of California as a clement place to settle and prosper, three years ago they started moving to Houston, drawn to the sun, cheap housing and new jobs in clean energy (the convention centre here is run entirely by wind), all of which started a shift in the city's decades-long reputation as the middle-aged hub of oil and pharmaceutical companies. The average age of a Houstonian is now just 34. And yet, it's a very nascent scene. Seven eighths of the people living in Houston don't know it's cool. In fact most people will keep flooring it along Highway 59 arguing the opposite — and it's easy to see why.

To be clear, Houston is vast: 660sq miles between the city limits, five million people in the greater Houston area and no discernible centre. Take Chinatown. Six miles long and a mile wide with restaurants where 10,000sq ft upper rooms serve nothing but breakfast dumplings and omelette with turnip to Houston's Chinese population of more than 37,000. This scale — marked even for America - is incomprehensible to the European and mitigates against the usual touristy hungover tumble out of the hotel hoping to simply happen across places to see. You need to know precisely — and I mean to the actual street number — where you're going in Houston or else you will sit jet-lagged in your hotel, considering the crazy-beautiful Texan dawn through the window (truly like the surface of Mars, fading to a misty adorable pink) and marvelling at the quartz-like skyscrapers, the poker-faced steel-and-glass Texas of massed material power, wondering how on earth to enter the city. 

There's something strangely simultaneously close-up and distancing about Houston. I think of it as a place lit with incredibly intense flashes, but less of people than of buildings or objects: tenements, schools, abandoned trains, churches pulsing with neon crosses. On the roof of the hospital opposite my hotel room there is an actual golf course, with an abandoned club on the green — as though the doctor had been beeped mid-putt and hurried downstairs to complete an op. In a cab heading downtown I remember seeing a bar with storm lanterns flaring wildly on the tables as I whipped past, and then, suddenly, in the middle of the newly renovated mid-century blocks and Tex-Mex stalls with old women making fresh tortillas, and rooms for reflexologists and palm readers (there are more psychics in Texas than Malibu) there stood a lonely Shipley's 1927 donut store, its sign for Coke floats and milkshakes long faded, like a blazon of old, familiar Texas. These images, these moments, inevitably seen from the inside of a moving vehicle and so particularly elegiac and yes, filmically cool, can overwhelm you in Houston and make you absurdly happy, your mood swinging from laughter to astonished silence like an inexhaustible pendulum. Maybe it's the heat. Houston is to be approached with caution, and respected on impact.

SOME TIPS FOR HOUSTON

See the Rothko Chapel
There have always been an inordinate number of museums, galleries and art shops here, places such as The Menil Collection, Lawndale Art Center and Domy Books. Big oil buys big art. New funds are continually being established and fresh slews of grants announced for artists to work in the wooden houses dotted around the Rothko Chapel — a non-denominational meditation space here since 1971. It is in this chapel — looking at Mark Rothko's 1960s black paintings — that a stranger attempted to engage me, spontaneously, in a conversation about art FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE ('What do you think it means?'). Never has this happened before. I only wish I had a better answer ('Ah...') for the elderly woman who spoke to me, who was so cool she just giggled anarchically when her husband asked the guard if he could sign the paintings himself. 'Hey, Errol, can I put a squiggle in the corner there.' 'No, man.' 'Would you kick me out, Errol?' 'No man.'
3900 Yupon Street, rothkochapel.org

Eat at Underbelly in Montrose
Owner Chris Shepherd (opposite) is one of a handful of chefs who have recently established restaurants reflecting the crazily multifarious cultures of this city. On Underbelly's menu is a standout sticky-sweet braised goat with dumplings (a Korean dish) and a vinegar pie — a tart without a lemon in sight that tastes alluringly of citrus, which Shepherd found in a 1930s Hillbilly cookbook. Houston's chefs and artisan foodstore owners — Karen Man, Justin Vann, Olivier Ciesielski, Monica Pope — are all close friends and there seems to be no competition. 'It's a big place,' shrugs Shepherd. 'There's room for all of us.' Including, I must add, Ninfa's delicious Mexican restaurant.
1100 Westheimer Road, underbellyhouston.com

Drink at Okra Charity Bar and Saloon
Opening this month inside a former jazz venue, this bar in renovated downtown will be the first of its kind in America: 100 per cent of its profits will go to a different charity each month. It's been established by 28-year-old Bobby Heugel, an award-winning bartender (he also runs Anvil), political activist and unofficial 'mayor of Houston' who talks, when I meet him, for long involved minutes about how Texans were historically suspicious of cocktails — Europeanishly decadent-seeming and greedy for ice (hard to come by in Texas) — and about traditional agave production, all the time fielding calls about a truck strike and recalling how, as a child, he used to help deliver pianos to houses on these streets. Why are people moving here? He looks at me: 'Why Houston? It's relaxing, it's warm, it has that Southern feel, it's not Dallas, it's cheaper than Austin, it's....'
924 Congress Street, friedokra.org

Visit the Heights
If there is anything close to a traditional neighbourhood here it's probably the Heights, once deeply dangerous and now favoured by super-keen young professionals, and students studying at the various universities, who reputedly jog up and down the streets in a 5am throng. At Revival Market, a coffee shop and charcuterie, I speak to 19-year-old Taylor about this. 'I dunno,' she says, 'but I tell ya, I should move to the Heights. I wanna get healthy too. I never saw so many people so happy about getting educated.' A few doors down, at the second-hand record store Heights Vinyl, the owner, Rory, smiles indulgently when I ask him to put on Robbie Robertson's version of Evangeline featuring Emmylou Harris — and selects ZZ Top's Degüello instead. I ask him if he thinks Austin is cooler. 'Depends on what you mean by cool,' he says, witheringly, 'but I guess it's definitely hip.'
Revival Market, 550 Heights Boulevard, revivalmarket.com; Heights Vinyl, 3122 White Oak Drive, heightsvinyl.com

IN HOUSTON THEY'RE LYING WHEN THEY SAY...

...that there is public transport. The tourist board promises MetroRail, shuttles and buses. Don't believe them. Navigating Houston's 10,062sq mile metropolitan area is only possible by car. Drive or despair.

...'a cold front's come down' or 'there's a chill in the air'. It's patently 90°F.

Meanwhile, in Austin...
Ask any concierge or waiter or musician in the South about Austin and their eyes mist over, remembering lost weekends crashing soundchecks in the city's bars, or swimming in Barton Creek. It's a town of clamour and parties, film festivals and secret movie screenings. From a high room in the Four Seasons hotel, looking down onto Lady Bird Lake, I see bachelorettes kayak hysterically in the morning and drink Bloody Marys into the afternoon on its grassy shores. The city feels safe, walkable. Far smaller than Houston and littered with thousands of music venues, the streets of Austin are thick with Texan grannies in comedy sunglasses and tramps slung with mandolins. Some of the 100,000 young people employed here in tech jobs (for Apple, Google and Facebook) co-work in communal office spaces, fostering an easy, collegial environment. Catch a taxi and the driver will tell you he's just dropped off Blondie at Whole Foods (which was established here) and that the place to eat right now is from any of the food trailers on South Congress. Yes, Austin is hip all right.