The largest city in the Lone Star State imbues its flourishing fine-arts institutions, adventurous restaurants, lush parks and friendly bars and cafés with the same independent Texas spirit that first put it on the map
Author Adam K. Raymond Photography Jill Hunter
DAY TWO | Once you finally roll out of bed, you hail a cab and hightail it for Hugo’s (1). Chef Hugo Ortega’s eponymous eatery presents a vast brunch buffet that you wade into like a nervous swimmer. But after a few bites of red snapper ceviche and duck carnitas tacos, you’re navigating the spread like a pro. Soon you’re in such a zone that you find yourself chewing to the rhythm of the restaurant’s house mariachi band, Viento.
Wrapping up a post-brunch calorie burn at the massive Memorial Park (2), you aim farther west and venture into one of the largest Chinatowns in the country. You explore for a while, but the real reason you’re here is a Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall called Saigon Pagolac (3). The Houston Press named it the best Vietnamese restaurant of 2011, which is quite an honor in the city with the second largest number of Vietnamese-Americans in the U.S. As ingredients arrive in individual bowls, it becomes clear you’re going to have to push up your sleeves and assemble your own spring rolls. Your first attempt is as ugly as it is delicious, as are the ones that follow.
Stomach full, you cab it downtown for an afternoon show. Houston’s theater district is formidable, with permanent companies in opera, ballet, music and theater operating out of world-class venues. You hit the Alley Theatre (4), where you catch a production of Red, an engrossing portrait of none other than painter Mark Rothko.
For a post-show pick-me-up, you follow your nose to Catalina Coffee (5). A tiny café in the Heights neighborhood, Catalina serves the finest cup of espresso in the city. You drink two, then vibrate your way over to Gatlin’s (6), a small house converted into a thriving barbecue joint. Houston tends to be less fanatical about barbecue than other Texas cities, but former Rice football player Greg Gatlin is helping change that with his heaping plates of juicy, tender ribs and brisket. After devouring a plate piled with both, you reckon he might just succeed.
You take another taxi back downtown for a drink at La Carafe (7), Houston’s oldest bar in Houston’s oldest building. This modest wine bar on historic Market Square opened 125 years ago and hasn’t seen many updates since. You order the house red and navigate the rickety stairs to the second floor, where spirits are said to roam. Failing to spy any, you end up making some new Texan friends instead. But as tempting as it may be to spend all night with them in a haunted bar, you eventually head to your new digs in Uptown Park: Hotel Granduca (8), a five-star boutique hotel that appears to have been plucked straight out of Tuscany. It’s the only hotel in all of Texas with a “Leading Hotels of the World” designation, and even now, late into the evening, you can see why: It’s stunning inside and out.