By Felicia Persaud
Houston may have been forced into the spotlight recently for the corrupt practices of Enron executives but there is so much more to this city that rarely ever makes the national news. It’s already been four years since African American-born Mayor Lee Brown took the helm of Houston city. Upon his inauguration, Brown, New York’s former police chief outlined five objectives for this fourth-largest city of the U.S. They included, among others, increased focus on economic development and international trade. Today, Houston is a city transformed. The most notable transformation can be seen in the downtown area, where according to a city press release, more than $2 billion has been spent on improvements.
One of the most remarkable developments is the creation of a state-of-the-art light rail system that will allow Houstonians to travel between downtown and the renowned Texas Medical Center and Reliant Park area. According to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the project is slated for completion in 2004. METRO’s light rail vehicles will feature a modern low-floor design, providing direct access without stairs from the station to the vehicle. The 7.5-mile light rail line is predicted to be the key artery linking downtown Houston to Midtown. It is projected to spur $500 million to $1 billion in economic development along its path, with annual boarding estimated at 10 million to 13 million by 2020, or about 40,000 passengers each weekday.
Another visual sign of the city’s prosperity was the recent opening of Reliant Stadium and the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. The 69,500-seat Reliant Stadium opened with a bang on August 22nd and is the first natural grass, retractable roof football stadium in the NFL. The Big 12 Conference Football Championship will be hosted here in December and is expected to generate at least $34 million in direct spending for Houston, including more than 3,000 hotel room nights the weekend of the game.
The Hobby Center
The Hobby Center opened its doors in May this year at a cost of $92 million and is Houston’s answer to New York’s Lincoln Center. Located in the theater district on Bagby Street, the majestic center is named after the William P. Hobby family who made the lead gift. The 60-foot high glass façade provides visitors with a stunning view of the city’s downtown while inside the 2,650-seat Sarofim Hall, theatergoers can make a “wish on a star”, as the entire ceiling is a recreation of a constellation.
Of course, oil is king here but Houston is also home to several Fortune 500 companies, including the now bankrupt Enron, whose office building – though practically empty – still stands out for its incredible architecture. Other companies calling Houston home include Continental Airlines, which offers more than 475 departures a day from Bush Intercontinental while providing efficient and courteous service.
Houston has the fourth largest airport system in the United States and the sixth largest in the world. Its three commercial airports, the Bush Intercontinental Airport, where we flew in; the William P. Hobby Airport and Ellington Field, serve 150 markets worldwide with about 44.5 million people passing through each year. Soon, the Intercontinental will benefit from some $4.6 billion in major improvements including a new runway and taxiways to the expansion of the terminal. Construction of the runway is currently in progress.
But the resurgence is not limited to just the downtown. The Intercontinental Hotel recently opened its doors in April, in the city’s posh uptown area, at 2222 West Loop South. This magnificent edifice, located just blocks from the upscale Galleria shopping area, is definitely the hotel choice of the powerful and famous. It has the distinction of being the home away from home for Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and one can easily see why. From its contemporary architecture to its rich interior designs – from lobby to guest rooms – the Intercontinental of Houston is definitely the place to stay, whether you are a business traveler or just vacationing. From your room, guests can check their email by simply using the wireless keyboard and the television remote and screen. That coupled with the rich bedroom furnishings, spacious bathroom, wonderful service – including a chocolate on your pillow every night – as well as the wonderful view, makes you feel simply rich! Twenty-four hour pool and hot tub access only helps add to the feeling.
While Houston’s economic prosperity is being experienced everywhere, there is so much to see in Houston that there is little wonder the city attracted over 38 million visitors in 2000. However, it is advisable to rent a car since public transportation is limited and the distance between destinations can be somewhat overwhelming especially if you’re a New Yorker.
A main area of interest is the NASA Space Center; after all, Houston IS Space City. Luckily, during our visit, the annual Ballunar Liftoff was being held. And despite being forced to rise at 4 a.m. to make it to the Rocket Park at the Space Center, by 7 a.m., I knew it was worth the hassle. Jittery from the thought of being up in a hot air balloon for the first time, I tried to be calm as I was assigned a number and made my way to the tent area to locate my pilot. Number 88 turned out to be the Daddy Diamond crew, with pilot Jodie Smith at the helm and his wonderful crew. I had no idea so much work went into getting one of those babies up and floating, until I was sweating along with the rest of the crew, as I pulled and tugged the balloon open to allow wind from a fan and later hot air to be blown directly in. Soon we were up and ready and I clumsily climbed into the small basket and we began our ascent.
Feelings of nervousness quickly dissipated as I stared out with awe from above the trees to the ground below. Nothing short of an incredible experience but take a hat to keep out the heat from the hot flame that keeps shooting out above your head and. Make sure to also get a good grip on the handles as you begin your descent, for it can be very jerky.
The NASA space center itself is a thrill, especially the interactive area. You can launch a miniature rocket then later view the astronaut’s quarters inside a rocket, up close, learning even how astronauts go to the bathroom in outer space. Another high point of this visit was meeting astronaut Bonnie Dunbar and looking down on the monitoring center where all rocket launches are controlled. The Space Center is located 20 miles southeast of downtown, 3 miles east of I-45 on NASA Road.
Natural Science Museum
The Museum of Natural Science is another major attraction. The highpoint of our visit was the Titanic interactive exhibition, which runs through January 2003. Summing it up in one word, the entire exhibit is simply phenomenal – from the actors hired to play the parts of first and third class passengers to the artifacts and giant iceberg that allows visitors to feel the temperature of the waters on that fateful night.
Year round there is so much more to see including:
The Cockrell Butterfly Center. Here you walk around in the garden that is home to 2,000 live butterflies and arboreal iguanas and 70-foot dinosaur on display, the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals and the Native American artifacts. The museum also houses the Wortham Imax Theatre, showing not only Imax features but various other films, including “Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa,”. The museum, located in Hermann Park in the museum district, is open daily and admission to the regular exhibit hall is $6 for adults with children under 11 admitted free.
For a trip back in time, as well as for a feel of a Texas ranch, George Ranch is indeed the place. We took a tractor/trailer ride around portions of the 480-acre ranch, stopping at two of its historical homes. This living history park gives you an insight into life as it was in the 18th century as costumed guides – acting out the part of pioneers – gave a tour of their humble pioneer home and outdoor barn.
A visit to the more upscale home of the George family, which was built later on in the 19th century after the ranch itself had become financially feasible, is also a great attraction. But the high point was meeting two real cowboys who provided us with the opportunity to touch the cows as well as see them being rounded-up and ‘dipped,’ much like they were in the old days, to free them from fleas.
We ended our George Ranch trip with a ‘chuck wagon’ lunch, prepared by a cook who recreated the ‘real’ trail experience for us with a pork and vegetable stew, beans, biscuits and peach cobbler, all cooked out on an open fire and served on tin plates. We washed this down with tin cups of lemonade and finished up our ranching experience by learning the in’s and out’s of branding.
Black Cultural Areas Of Interest
With 18.2 percent African Americans calling Houston home, the black cultural areas are extraordinary. Among them is the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, located at 1834 Southmore. This is a must see, even if like us, you only could spare 15 minutes. Thanks to the vision of Trooper Chapman, this museum was born. It features artifacts and memorabilia from the Revolutionary War to the Gulf War, all collected by the trooper or donated by various persons. Trooper Chapman himself will give you a guided tour as well as an eye opening history lesson that gives new meaning to Bob Marley’s song, “Buffalo Soldier.”
Another important site is The Shrine of the Black Madonna, located at 5309 M.L.K. Boulevard. The shrine is actually a part of the Pan- African Orthodox Christian Church that includes a bookstore, performing arts venue and an educational facility. Various speakers are featured from time to time along with ongoing exhibits of African art. The truly heart wrenching exhibition, aptly titled, “The Holocaust,” is on display here, and features life-like sculptures that capture in precise detail the horrific experience or ‘holocaust’ of blacks, from being captured and shipped as slaves to being lynched.
Project Row Houses at 2500 Holman Street is also another area of interest. Started by African-American artists hungry for some ‘real’ way to make a contribution, Row Houses, was founded in 1992. The formerly abandoned houses are now mainly homes for single mothers while providing a space for art exhibitions, art and education programs for kids and music festivals among other activities.
While Texas and Houston are widely known for bar-b-que and Tex-Mex cuisine, our hosts from the Houston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau ensured that we were treated to the more exquisite culinary delights prepared by some of the city’s top chefs.
Since we did not have bar-b-que, steak seemed like a great alternative welcome to a city and state that is infamous for its prime beef. The Taste of Texas restaurant, the city’s premier steakhouse since 1977, located at 10505 Katy Fwy., serves a succulent steak and the service is definitely worth the visit. Try the 6-ounce fillet, medium rare from certified Angus beef. The salad bar offers a dizzying array of salads and nachos along with a wide array of wines. The ambience definitely provides the feel of “ old” Texas. The Taste of Texas is open for both lunch and dinner Mon-Thu, 11a.m.-10p.m., Fri 11a.m.-11p.m. and Sat 4 -11p.m.
The Lancaster Hotel, recognized by Conde Nast Traveler as a gold list hotel, also serves a wonderful dinner that offers all the rich southern style coupled with the feel of 18th Century England making it a unique treasure in Houston’s downtown area.
We were treated to samples of executive chef’s Tommy Child’s specialties, beginning with a wild mushroom parcel, a delicate pastry stuffed with sautéed wild mushrooms, herbed ricotta cheese, butter and red wine sauces. This tasty appetizer was followed by asparagus vinaigrette. The asparagus blanched to perfection and served in classic vinaigrette with a touch of lemon and basil that added a unique flavor. My next course, the Lancaster crab cake, was definitely the highlight of this evening’s meal. Although I barely had room for the dessert of warm croissant bread pudding, it was the icing on the cake.
Chef Child’s presence at the dinner table also added to the warmth of the evening and manager Sergio Ortiz gave us his full attention and company throughout the course of the evening. The service at the Lancaster is impeccable as is the well-laid out dinner table that definitely transports one back to the Victorian era of elegance and class.
Just when I thought I had experienced the best of the culinary skills and old world charm of Houston’s dinning experience, I was forced to rethink my judgments at The Aquarium. The restaurant’s atmosphere is definitely out of this world and the food certainly lives up to the entire experience, as you feel transported to another realm.
Located on the Kemah Boardwalk, and billed as “an underwater dining adventure” the restaurant features three giant aquariums, an under-the-sea themed décor and large porthole windows. The 50,000-gallon aquariums allow you to view all varieties of real fish as you dine on succulent seafood. The grilled shrimp in a delicious butter sauce, served with ‘Aquarium’ rice and vegetables is pure bliss but there is also a wide selection of other seafood including grilled mahi-mahi.
While seafood is definitely a specialty of The Aquarium, the restaurant also caters for those carnivores with a wide array of chicken and steak dishes. A unique selection of specialty drinks includes the red emperor daiquiri, that looked truly spectacular or you can choose to simply sip ice tea and enjoy the ambience and great service that makes The Aquarium a truly one-of-a kind dining experience.
Nicaraguan-born Michael Cordua’s ‘Americas’ Restaurant, located at 1800 Post Oak Blvd., transports you to the Brazilian rainforests while Mexican-born chef Humberto Molina-Segura serves up a dizzying array of delicacies that are simply orgasmic. From his tantalizing appetizers of potato crusted rings of calamari, taquito of quail breast wrapped in bacon and the warm green chile tarragon spoon bread with jumbo crab meat parfait to the tuna with stilton, tomato concasse, red onions and baby greens with port wine essence or his Pargo Americas or corn crusted red snapper, the achiote pork millet mignon and the Churrsaco beef tenderloin that melted on your tongue, the entire experience was simply to die for. And if you still have room for dessert, try the sample platter of tres leches, crema catalane, Deliria chocolate and coconut ice cream. Chef Segura’s warmth along with that of the general manager and entire staff also adds a great touch to the meal ensuring each guest remembers the experience for a long time to come.
We ended our culinary tour with a visit to the Boulevard Bistrot, located at 4319 Montrose Blvd., which reminded me of my favorite restaurants in the east Village of New York City because of its uniqueness. Executive chef and owner, Monica Pope prepared a sumptuous feast for Sunday brunch that began with mango and blackberry yogurt parfait followed by a plate of house-cured salmon, herb omelet, rosti potato griddled polenta, smoked sausage and honeyed fruit compote. We finished with a delightful dessert trio of chocolate sour cherry bread pudding, vanilla bean crème brulee and some of the best cheesecake I’ve ever had – aptly dubbed Monica’s Best Cheesecake. Favored liquids were mimosas or tea.
Boulevard Bistrot, including a bar and bakery, opened in1994. It is available for lunch, brunch and dinners. Lunch hours are Tuesdays – Fridays, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner is served Tuesdays – Thursdays from 5 p.m.-10.p.m and on Fridays & Saturdays from 5 p.m.-11 p.m. And of course the restaurant is open for a sumptuous brunch from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Sundays.
In Houston, nightlife is as varied as the city’s ethnic make-up. There is live Brazilian jazz, at the Sambuca Café, at 909 Texas Avenue, techno and club mix at the Mercury Room at 1008 Prairie, and live jazz music at the Red Cat Jazz Club at 924 Congress. Or you can simply punch your own tunes from a jukebox at the oldest building/pub in downtown Houston, in the historic Market Square.
For more information about Houston or to visit, log on to www.houston-guide.com or call 1-800-4-HOUSTON.