Houston – Last Day – Burns Original BBQ – Big Texas North…

So, this was November 1st…Halloween+1…my last day in Texas before slowly making my way back home to CT.  I only had two destinations…Burns Original BBQ for lunch (as seen on the Houston episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown)…and dancing at Big Texas – North, in Spring/north-Houston, less than 3 miles from my hotel, the sister country-western dance hall to Big Texas – South, in Webster/southeast-Houston, which was my first dance hall stop in Houston on this trip.

I honestly don’t remember doing anything else that day, which likely means I did laundry and took a nap at my hotel.  The next day was going to be the longest driving-day of the trip…Houston to Oxford, MS…nearly 600 miles…so, I know I was physically gearing up for that.

Houston is funny.  There is no zoning.  So, you can literally just turn a corner and find yourself suddenly in a different world.  I love that.  As with the Himalaya Restaurant and Little India, GPS had me driving on a typical Houston, very mainstream “Generica” frontage road, parallel to a highway…it told me to turn right, into a shopping center…and poof…the entire shopping center was comprised of Indian-owned businesses.  Very cool.

The route to Burns Original BBQ was very similar.  I remember that on the Parts Unknown episode, the filmmakers made a point of bringing the viewer into the segment by highlighting street views of the area it is located in.  It was a very modest, quiet, peaceful, predominantly African-American neighborhood, nicely shaded with a lot of trees.

So, GPS guided me out of a high-density, very commercial area into this suddenly very quiet, peaceful subdivision of modest homes, people working out in their yards, etc.  You don’t expect to find these sorts of peaceful enclaves in a city that seems dominated by tangles of highways and stacked highway interchanges.  I realize it may seem very “touristy” of me, but I found this very cool…very tranquil.

And Burns, itself, is sort of nestled in the middle of this quiet neighborhood.  There may be one or two other small businesses next to it, but that’s about all.  It’s not a commercial shopping area.  And Burns was busy.  It was midweek lunch hour.  Most of the customers seemed to be getting take-out.  There was a constant flow of cars leaving and arriving in the cozy parking area.  There was also a short, but constant, line at the counter.

I didn’t know what to order.  All I knew was that I’d have to be quick about it, judging by the pace at the walk-up counter.  I went with the 2-meat half-pound dinner…brisket and mild sausage…that included two sides, because I wanted a little variety.  This was the smallest meal you could order, next to the “Monster” stuffed potatoes, which are arguably just as big.

Here’s a snapshot of my lunch:

This was not a half-pound of meat.  I think it was much closer to a pound-and-a-half.  So, “generous portions” would be an understatement.  And it was delicious.  It’s no wonder that Burns has been around since 1973, and continues to thrive.

So, along with Himalaya Restaurant, my visit to Burns BBQ became part of what I’ll call the “Bourdain Effect” on my trip…seeking out a few of Mr. Bourdain’s stops in cities he visited that happen to either be on my route, or that I changed my route slightly, in order to try these places out.  And so…there is more to come.

My last stop in Houston was Big Texas – North, to see what country-western dancing I could find.  Big Texas – North is…big.  It has a nice, big, racetrack-style dance floor, with a bar and seating inside the racetrack.  It also has multiple bars and lots of seating outside the dance floor.  As with my night at Stetson’s, I apologize that I decided not to take any photos, because I really just wanted to find some dancing and try to meet a few people.

There was actually a pretty big crowd, early, at Big Texas, so that was refreshing.  I did take the beginner two-step class.  But, instead of taking the waltz class that followed, I headed over to the other side of the racetrack, where an intermediate two-step class was in progress.  It was the middle of the class, so I just watched from the sidelines.  The teaching in this class was a bit closer to what I am familiar with, so it was fun to watch.

When the open dancing started, I did manage to get a few two-steps in, and a west-coast, so that was nice.  But, I was really more on my own than at Stetson’s, despite this being a bigger crowd and just as nice.  I’d definitely head back to Big Texas in the future.  It might just take a little longer to meet and start chatting with some of the regulars, though I did chat a bit.

So, this was my last night in Houston…and in Texas…for now.

Houston – Halloween Continued – Houston’s Highways and Stetson’s Nightlife…

Okay…so…I learned that my car will survive the remainder of my trip. Major sigh of relief. Check.

I followed in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain at the amazing Himalaya Restaurant, including the honor of meeting and chatting with the chef/owner. Double-check.

As I mentioned, following my four sort of intensively-immersed days in the Texas Hill Country, my plans for the remainder of this little adventure were primarily little things. There were many days that I had very little planned, especially during the day. And my nights, while still in Texas, were mostly spent checking out country-western dance halls I had not previously visited.

Houston is huge. But, it is not so much built up, like New York City, as it is built out. For better or worse, Houston is the poster-child for urban sprawl. The road and highway systems in each of the Lone Star State’s major cities are insane…insane. If you look at a Google map of Houston, for example, and have never been there, you might be scratching your head, wondering what I’m talking about. On your computer screen…zoomed out…in two-dimensions…the highway system appears very simply and neatly laid out. Downtown is sort of in the center of two concentric highway loops, with highway spokes radiating out, more or less evenly distributed.

But, one of the features you don’t see…can’t see…from this bird’s eye view, and in only two-dimensions…are the highway interchanges. Zoom in on pretty much any highway interchange and you will begin to see what I mean. Zoomed-in, these interchanges start to take on the form of an artist’s rendering of a complex, braided, sailor’s knot.

And if you could see a three-dimensional view, you would see that some of the strands of this braided knot are actually two, three…up to five-level, high-flying, fly-over ramps, the highest in Houston (I just read) being 115-feet, the second highest in the U.S.

These fly-over ramps are everywhere…and you can see more under construction everywhere you go. Houston has this reputation of constantly changing…constantly evolving…and you see it everywhere.

I just found this cool video that explains, and takes you on, each level of the above 5-level “stacked” highway interchange. Buckle-up and take a ride:

So, this was actually one of the little personal challenges I gave myself for this trip. In my mind, all of these “little” destinations in the Lone Star state’s big cities would force me to get used to navigating these tangled, high-flying stacked highway interchanges, not to mention the constantly-shrinking and expanding number of lanes (fun fact: the above, 5-level stacked interchange is 27 lanes wide at its widest section. Read’em an’ weep.).

So, my little, harmless excursions served this dual-purpose of randomly exploring different areas and neighborhoods of a few of these major cities, as well as to begin to get more acclimated to navigating their highway systems’ quasi-M.C. Escher-esque feel.

Last night’s hotel was in Pearland…south/southeast Houston. Himalaya Restaurant was in West Houston, between I-610 (aka “The Loop”), and the Sam Houston Tollway, the next of these concentric highway loops.

Tonight’s and tomorrow’s hotel was in Cypress, a suburb of northwest Houston, where I headed after Himalaya, just to check in and unpack. Followed by a little excursion to two Cavender’s Boot City stores, one also in northwest Houston, and the other out in Katy, which is west of the Sam Houston Tollway (actually, I may have driven on a portion of the above stacked interchange on my way to this Cavender’s), and is where I found my second pair of western roper-style dance boots on this trip (pay-dirt, baby!).

You see, we don’t have western-wear stores in New England. Not really. There are a couple/few very small ones, which is great. But, once you’ve seen the selection at one of the big chains in Texas, or out West, you realize that you really need to go to these places if and when you have the chance. Western boots are just too difficult to attempt to buy online, without actually getting to try them on. The fit really has to be just-so.

My final destination for Halloween, was a night out at Stetson’s Nightlife Dance Hall, in Humble, a suburb of north/northeast Houston. See? I was intentionally sort of driving all over Houston. Houston was almost beginning to feel a little familiar to me…this, my fourth visit to the city.

My apologies, but I intentionally did not attempt to take any photos at Stetson’s. I really just wanted to see if I could get some dancing in, and meet some people. Stetson’s was really nice, but its dance floor was smaller than I’d imagined, judging from the photos on their website. But, it was a fairly light crowd (again…Astros/World Series-factor), so there was plenty of room to dance.

When I arrived, a lesson was in progress. As I ordered a bottle of water at the bar, I asked the barmaid if she knew what dance-style the lesson was. She said she didn’t know, but that I should ask the woman dressed in a Wonder Woman costume, seated with girlfriends across the room, and she’d likely know. So, as usual, I went with that, but I was honestly a little hesitant, thinking, “Oh, great. I am a new face. Now, I’m supposed to walk clear across this dance hall…passing plenty of other people…and ask this very attractive woman in a scanty Wonder Woman costume what dance style this lesson is? She is immediately going to think I’ve come over to hit on her. I’m sure this is going to go well.”

So, I was extra-cautious with what I said and my body-language as I approached Wonder Woman and her table of girlfriends, which was the right thing to do, because I could tell that she and her girlfriends were, in fact, a little on the cool-side, sizing me up, intention-wise, as we briefly talked.

Crisis averted, the lesson was a beginner Country Polka…all triple-steps…which I don’t know, but I could pick up beginner patterns. So, I joined the class, and as is customary, I introduced myself to each new follower, as we rotated partners. As I mentioned before, this is a great way to allow the regulars to also size you up to see if you are there to dance, or to try to pick up women. So, I am always very clear, in words and body-language, that I am just a nice guy who is purely there to dance.

Wonder Woman did also join the class at some point, so she and I were paired up at least once during the lesson. She was statuesque, and could easily have been cast as her costume’s character in a blockbuster movie. But, I think her mental jury was still out, regarding what my intentions at Stetson’s were, despite my not even attempting to chat with her during the lesson.

Nothing against Wonder Woman or her girlfriends. They all seemed very nice. But, I wondered…do I somehow…anywhere…remotely…come off as being any kind of a player? If I do, I don’t see it. I understand the concept, but I have no idea how I could possibly telegraph that impression. For me, it is already challenge-enough, simply to enter a new dance hall, eighteen-hundred miles from home, where I don’t know a soul, and eventually muster the courage to ask a woman to dance.

I sat out the second lesson, country waltz, because I knew I would only forget the little I learned in the Polka lesson, if I took the waltz. Once the open dancing started, I did ask one woman from the class up for a Polka, apologizing my way through it, but she said I was doing fine.

At some point, I got up the nerve to approach Wonder Woman for a two-step, I think, and we had a nice dance. Her name is Nancy, as it turned out, and I think she was beginning to see that I was only there to dance and that I was maybe a little nervous about it, being in a new place.

A Nightclub Two-Step came on, and I asked Nancy if she knew it. If you don’t know, Nightclub-2 is a slow, very graceful dance that tends to move around the floor quite a bit. Nancy said she knew the very basic step, but hoped to take more lessons at some point. She was game to try it out with me.

Well, by the end of this dance she could really tell, by not only the way I was leading, but by how focused I was on helping her to have a nice dance, that I was just a nice guy with good intentions and some good dance foundation. From then on, she actually started chatting with me, and we did at least one more Nightclub-2, which we basically had the entire floor for, because no one else was doing it.

Nancy also suggested that I ask a couple more specific women up to dance, friends of hers, who she said were really good followers. And so, I did ask one of those women up for a couple of dances, and we chatted, too.

Another woman from the class also approached me to chat at one point…Ro. She was very nice.

And a guy approached me to invite me in as part of a group birthday photo for one of the women. So you see, people will be watching you out on the dance floor, whether you are aware of it, or not. I think it’s only natural. And it’s one way to sort of size a person up. Is this a sleazy guy, or is he here to dance? Is he hitting on the women in our dance community, or is he a social-dancer, himself?

Nancy said she wanted to send me more detailed info re which nights of the week are best to head to each of the nine major country-western dance halls in Houston, so we exchanged contact info, and she did send me those details. She also suggested that I start using Face Book and Face Book Messenger, because that is how she and her friends communicate about when and where they are going out to dance…for whenever I’m planning a trip back to Houston. So, I still need to work on that.

This was all very innocent, and really nice to be sort of welcomed-in to the Houston dance community.

So, my night at Stetson’s turned out to be my third and final Houston Halloween treat.

Houston – Halloween and Himalaya Restaurant…

My second day in Houston happened to fall on Halloween.  Fortunately, I encountered no tricks…only treats.

My day started out at the Toyota dealer near my Pearland hotel, which is southeast Houston.  Roy, the service manager who was helping me out, was really great.  Even though these dealerships are already booked up for service work, they were able to make time to check out my trusty ’06, bruised and battered, Camry.

It took a few hours to get it in to get looked at, but they checked it all out and determined that it was actually the A/C condenser, that sits in front of the radiator, that took the brunt of the retread impact.  It was damaged and would need to be replaced.  The radiator, which sits just behind the condenser, and which was my biggest fear, was either bent slightly, or had a minor dent, but passed the crucial pressure test with flying colors.  Amazingly, there was no other mechanical damage to my car.

Roy said it would take at least a couple of days to get a new condenser, and that a replacement radiator was back-ordered at least a couple of weeks.  So, getting my car repaired in Texas really was not an option.  But, Roy said that since the radiator had passed the pressure test, I would be fine to drive my car all the way back to CT, where I could get it repaired at my convenience, and should not have any problems, other than possibly losing my A/C, which wasn’t an issue, since I would be heading into cooler weather, anyway.  I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet.  That was my first Halloween treat.

So, I was good to go.  Next stop…the Himalaya Restaurant in “Little India”.  In Anthony Bourdain’s Houston episode of “Parts Unknown”, he focuses on Houston’s ethnic diversity.  I believe he said that Houston is the most ethnically-diverse city in the U.S.  I thought that was very cool, and decided to try to stop at Himalaya as part of my trip.

It turned out that Himalaya is located in a small shopping area that appears to be entirely Indian businesses…very cool.  I have never been to a Little India and I love Indian culture.

Himalaya is not a big restaurant.  But, it looks like they do a huge take-out business on top of dining in.  There were literally stacks of huge take-out orders ready for pick-up.  And the walls?  They are covered with framed awards, magazine and newspaper reviews and other accolades.

I arrived toward the end of the lunch rush.  In my usual fashion, I volunteered to my waiter…a somewhat formal Indian gentleman who barely spoke any English, but was a really good guy…that I had seen Himalaya on Parts Unknown, but that I could use some help ordering.  He pointed at a rectangular, subdivided plate with a different dish in each compartment that nearly everyone at the next table had, so I said, “Sure!  That looks great!”

I had no idea what I had just ordered, but I was just going with it, like so many things on this trip.  This sort of sampler also came with amazing house-made round flatbread, similar to pita bread that you tear off pieces from to either stuff with the sampler dishes, or dip in the curries that the dishes were cooked in.  I didn’t know what I was eating, but everything was amazing.

And as I was enjoying this meal, I noticed an Indian gentleman, dressed very casually, chatting with a few of the customers.  He even had his photo taken with one of them.  So, I had a hunch that this was the owner.

At some point, I caught his eye and he came to my table.  Again, I explained that I had seen his restaurant on TV.  He introduced himself as Chef Lashkari, the owner.  How cool is that?

I explained that everything was delicious, but that I didn’t know what any of the dishes were.  So, he told me what each dish was.  Here’s a snapshot of my lunch.  I don’t remember exactly what each dish was, but starting from the bottom-left…a chicken curry…a lamb dish…a chick pea dish…Chef Lashkari’s own Indian take on Shepherd’s Pie…and finally, Biryani, a seasoned long-grain rice dish with meat:

While we were chatting, I noticed what looked like a package of some sort of fried dessert dough balls on a counter.  I asked Chef Lashkari if those were for sale.  He smiled and said, “I’ll give them to you.”  I tried to politely decline, saying I’d be happy to pay for them, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  I was thinking of getting them to go.  This was too funny.

I also asked Chef Lashkari if I could get a photo with him, and he was more than happy to.  So, my waiter came over and took a couple with my cellphone.

Then, Chef Lashkari really surprised me by asking if I could email him the photo.  He gave me his card, which had his email on it.  He is such a nice gentleman.  I was honored.

So, to top things off, after our conversation, my waiter came over with a serving of these fried dough balls.  They were soaked in syrup that reminded me of caramelized flan syrup.  They were so out of this world…you can’t even imagine.

When I got back in my car, I emailed the photo to Chef Lashkari with a nice thank-you note.  Himalaya…my waiter, who was so great…and Chef Lashkari, had already made my day.  So, that was my second Halloween treat.

Houston – McGonigel’s Mucky Duck…

Houston was the first major city in Texas that I stopped in at the beginning of this trip…and it was the last city I was stopping in, before sadly beginning to make my way home to CT.  I spent three nights in Houston on this leg of my trip…and I had a few plans.

First stop…the Open Mic at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Restaurant and Bar…a very cool, intimate live music venue that features up-and-coming and established musicians six nights a week.  The Mucky Duck also opens the stage and professional sound system to anyone who would like to perform a few songs on Monday nights.  I’ve performed here twice before and had a blast each time.

Tonight, I was meeting my friend, Joni’s, husband’s cousin, Cheryl, and Cheryl’s husband, Dave, at the Mucky Duck.  As it turned out, Cheryl and Dave also invited their friend, Chris (Christine), as well.  So, the musical performance pressure was on (not).

Joni had suggested that I try to get together with Cheryl and Dave, thinking that we’d probably hit it off, and Joni was right.  Cheryl and Dave and Chris and I were instantly chatting and cracking each other up, like old friends from the start.  Cheryl and Dave have twin sons who both just started college this fall…in New York City, and in England.  I believe Dave was born in England, but grew up in Australia.  So, we had plenty to talk about.

I happened to arrive at the Mucky Duck only a few  minutes before Cheryl, Dave and Chris, and had met Letitia, one of the performers who had signed up to play (we noticed each other’s guitar cases).  I briefly explained my road-trip to Letitia and asked if she’d mind if I took a few photos of her while she was performing.  She was happy to let me.  Letitia was on her way to Austin to begin a music career.

So, here are a few photos I took of Letitia during her set.  I sent these and others to her, just last night, actually, and she loved them:

At some point before my set, I asked Cheryl and Dave, which of them was the better photographer, and Dave elected Cheryl.  I already had my camera’s exposure and single auto-focus point set up from photographing Letitia, so I gave Cheryl a crash course in shooting with this set-up, so she could take a few photos of me during my set.  Shameless…I know.

Here are a few of our practice-photos, taken at our table.  Mind you…these are close close-ups…haha!  Unfortunately, in the process, we did not get a photo of Cheryl.  But, we did get Dave, Chris and yours truly:

During my musical set, I noticed Cheryl moving around the room…trying out different angles and perspectives as she shot photos of me.  It looked like she was having a great time.  I keep telling y’all that the lens is very addictive.  Cheryl got some great images.  Who thinks I look ready to go on tour?  Anybody???

Typically, Wayne, the open mic host, who is also the sound-tech, allows each performer to sing three songs.  But, as it turned out, it was a light night (maybe, again, something to do with the Astros being in the World Series?), with not enough performers to fill the evening, and I was the last performer on the list.  So, after my last song, Wayne invited me to sing a fourth…which I was more than happy to oblige.

By the way, I had met Wayne on both of my prior visits to the Mucky Duck.  Wayne is a really good guitarist, and helps accompany some of the performers, if they ask him.  On this night, Wayne also did a really great solo guitar instrumental version of “Over The Rainbow”.  That was a treat.

So, despite the episode with my car that took up much of the day, I was thrilled that it didn’t interfere with such a great night with live music and new Houston friends.

Prelude to Houston…

I have only been to Houston on three occasions and only in the past few years, so I’ve really only scratched the surface of cool and fun things to do there.  With a little online research, it would be pretty easy to create a vacation, just staying in the Houston area.

We all have different interests.  For me, the country-western dance halls were the biggest attraction.  I know of eight really great ones, in Houston alone, and have gone dancing in five of them: the Wild West, the Stampede, the Westwind Club (a smaller, neighborhood honky-tonk), Midnight Rodeo (with a cool racetrack-style oval dance floor) and the SPJST Lodge 88 (locally known as The Chandelier, which was founded by the local Czech community, is by far the oldest in this group, and has the largest dance floor).

The three I have not yet been to, but also look like great places to dance, are: Big Texas – North (which also sports a racetrack-style dance floor), Big Texas – South and Stetsons Nightlife.  You can find more information on all of these, plus many more Texas dance halls and honky-tonks on the Dance Hall page I compiled for this blog.  You should also check their individual websites.

For live Country, Alternative-Country, Americana and other styles of Roots music, I highly recommend McGonigel’s Mucky Duck Bar and Restaurant. I have performed at their open mic a couple of times, and had a blast.  But, on the six other nights of the week, the Mucky Duck hosts great professional music artists.  I also highly recommend The Dosey Doe “Big Barn” in The Woodlands, an upscale suburb north of Houston.  Dosey Doe is a coffee company that owns three cool eateries all in that area.  The Big Barn is their main concert venue, which also serves breakfasts on weekends.

I had performed at an open mic a couple of times at another very cool Dosey Doe eatery/concert venue, called the Dosey Doe Music Café, which is, sadly, now closed.  Earlier this year, Dosey Doe, reopened their Music Café location as a BBQ restaurant, but it no longer hosts live music.  However, I recently read that Dosey Doe is looking for a location in that area that they could open as a second live music venue, because the Big Barn doesn’t have enough available dates for all of the music acts who want to perform there.  Keep checking the Dosey Doe website for updates.  These are only a couple of the best intimate live music venues in Houston.

For a scenic day-trip, you might try a drive out to the picturesque farm and cattle country, northwest of Houston.  Bernhardt Winery in Plantersville is amazing and hosts outdoor concerts.   And the quirkily-enchanting (can I say that?) Antique Rose Emporium plant nursery in nearby, Brenham, is also not to be missed, even if you’re not particularly interested in gardening.  The Rose Emporium is a great place to take a stroll and enjoy all of its curiosities.

The semi-remote beaches and beach restaurants on the Bolivar Peninsula, along the Gulf Coast just east of Houston, is another great day-trip.  I would suggest approaching the Bolivar Peninsula from the north, by taking Interstate Highway-10 East out of Houston, to the small town of Winnie.   At Winnie, take Highway-124 south.  Continue on Highway-124 south until the end, which is the junction of Highway-87.  Turn right onto Highway-87, heading south.

This is the northern end of the Bolivar Peninsula and is the most remote section of it.  A short ways ahead, you’ll find yourself driving right along a narrow beach, with the Gulf of Mexico out your driver’s-side window.  This stretch is completely undeveloped, except for the single straight line of lonesome-looking, weathered telephone poles receding out to the horizon.  Highway-87 is the single, main road, running the length of the peninsula.

A little further south, you begin to see interesting beach-houses, raised at least ten feet off the ground on wood or concrete columns to help protect them from storms coming off the Gulf.  And in this area, on your right, at the end of North Stingaree Road, in Crystal Beach, you’ll find the Stingaree Restaurant and Bar (…and marina…and bait shop), my seafood destination on the peninsula.  Stingaree sits right on the Inter-coastal Waterway, where you can watch tugboats pushing barges, as they churn their way slowly past, only yards from your dining table or the bar.  Stingaree is famous for its views of sunsets over Galveston Bay.  Unfortunately, my timing has not yet allowed me to enjoy one.  But, someday.

Continuing just a little further south on Highway-87, you reach the landing for the Port-Bolivar/Galveston Ferry, which is free to take your car across on, and which takes you to Galveston.  There may be a bit of a line of cars waiting for the ferry, but the wait is pleasant and worth the ferry-ride and water-views.

There are a lot of good restaurants in Galveston.  And if you are looking for some dessert, after your meal at Stingaree, I would suggest the Sunflower Bakery & Café on 14th Street as one.  From Galveston, it’s an easy drive back into Houston, so this day-trip makes a convenient, scenic loop (Am I sounding like a PBS travel-host, much?  Ay-yay-yay!  I’m making myself crazy.).

On this leg of my trip, I’m only in Houston for one night…one night of dancing at one of the dance halls I mentioned earlier.  From New Orleans, I’m anticipating arriving in Houston during the afternoon rush-hour, which is notoriously challenging.  So, my plan is to try to avoid most of it by taking the Bolivar Peninsula/Galveston route, and hopefully enjoying a relaxing dinner at Stingaree.  Best laid plans.  Wish me luck!