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Three Perfect Days: Houston

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

A mouthwatering spread at barbecue mecca Gatlin’s

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DAY THREE | After waking up in what feels like a wealthy Italian grandmother’s guest room — everything from the tile mosaics to the cabinetry is styled after items in the family home of Italian-born owner Giorgio Borlenghi — you make your way downtown to Phoenicia (1), a grocery with an emphasis on Middle Eastern food. A poppy seed roll catches your eye. Like a cinnamon roll with poppy seeds instead of icing, it’s flaky, luscious and the perfect complement to the Turkish coffee — with sugar added during the slow brewing process — that the barista says will “really get your day started.”

He’s right. You exit Phoenicia and jog over to Discovery Green (2), one of Houston’s many unsung green triumphs. What was nothing more than a weedy parking lot less than 10 years ago is now a surprisingly varied 12-acre space with playgrounds, dog runs, bike paths, performance stages, an ice-skating rink (when it’s cold) and a misting station (when it’s hot).

The sun is shooing you indoors, however, so you duck into the Saint Arnold Brewing Co. (3). For seven bucks, you get a tour and four tokens with which to sample the goods. After walking past properly Texas-scale vats, you end up at a spacious indoor beer hall teeming with Houstonians drinking before noon. They’re playing cards, singing “Happy Birthday” and eating pizza, all in between sips of full-bodied brews. The morning beer and pizza look good, but you’ve got other plans. So, tossing your unused tokens to the birthday girl, you make for the door.

For lunch, you venture into open-air produce market Canino (4), where you beeline it to the taco trucks at the back that feed vendors and shoppers alike. The crowd around Taqueria Tacambaro (5) draws you in; seconds later, you’re tucking into a succulent sweetbreads taco. Before you have time to wonder what you’re eating, the taco’s gone.

On your way back south, you pass a building with a giant metal monster out front. You order the cabbie to turn the car around. Coming to a stop beside the beast, you notice it’s covered in spoons. Also, there’s a vehicle underneath. Welcome to the Art Car Museum (6). This “Garage Mahal,” as devotees call it, is at the center of a scene in which cars are transformed into whimsical rolling works of art. They’re a big deal here, too: The annual parade draws 250,000 people (this year’s is on May 12).

You’re reasonably sure that Spoonozoid will be the strangest thing you see today, but you swing by Adickes SculpturWorx Studio (7) to see if it can be matched. It can. Lining the edge of the studio parking lot are dozens of 18-foot-tall heads of U.S. presidents, cast in concrete and plaster by native Texan David Adickes. The 3-ton behemoths tower over you, with Houston’s skyline towering over them in the background. It’s a bizarre sight that’s made even more so by the 40-foot statues of The Beatles behind the presidents. You snap a photo of your favorite commander in chief, and move along.

After a Texas dinner last night and a Mexican lunch today, you decide to split the difference for tonight’s meal and hit up the Tex-Mex institution Ninfa’s on Navigation (8). Ninfa’s opened in 1973 as a 10-seat taco shop attached to a tortilla factory on a quiet street not far from downtown, and quickly grew into one of the state’s most popular restaurants. It’s bigger now, but the atmosphere is as homey and unpretentious as ever. Legend says the fajita was invented here, and, after digging into hearty strips of steak grilled to perfection with a bacon, tomato and jalapeño topping, you’re a believer.

From one of Houston’s most iconic restaurants you head to one of its most iconic performance spaces, the Orange Show (9). Built by a postman named Jeff McKissack, this oddity is a gaudy, over-the-top outdoor tribute to the orange, a fruit McKissack thought so perfect he spent 24 years building a shrine to it. When he died in 1980, art patron Marilyn Lubetkin saved the place and turned it into an eclectic performance space for groups like Los Skarnales, a local Latino ska band you’ve caught in the middle of a set. You realize you’ve stumbled into a sweet spot between Houston’s rural roots and its urban sophistication: Here, in the middle of this bizarre folk-art masterpiece, are tamales alongside cupcakes, cowboy boots alongside Converse sneakers, natives alongside transplants. But those superficial differences belie a common love for dancing. And as you notice that you’re the only one still parked in a chair, you rise up and join in.

Hemispheres contributing writer ADAM K. RAYMOND dreams of building an art car that honors the banana.

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