GoAUpher: Big thanks to Leah and Joseph for putting together a TDG Fan Guide To Houston!
Welcome back to Houston, Gopher Nation! GoAUpher asked me, Houston Gopher Gal (aka Leah), to come up with a list of things for fellow Gopher fans to do while in Houston for the Texas Bowl. It's true that Houston is a big place. Moving here from St. Paul 16 years ago, I was overwhelmed by the size of the city. Over time, though, I have gotten to know it and appreciate everything it has to offer. My husband, Joseph, is a native Texan, so we put our heads together and would like to help visiting Gophers enjoy this diverse city.
First, if you really want to explore Houston, get a car. Houston was built by oil and it was designed for driving. Unfortunately, driving can be an unpleasant experience. Rush hour lasts 2 1/2 hours each way. The traffic jam around the Galleria has been going on for about 40 years. Worse yet, drivers here are NOT "Minnesota Nice." Drivers will expect you to drive 75 mph in a 60 mph zone. A polite driver here is someone who flashes his lights at you instead of honking.
The Texas Bowl fan guide we all received with our tickets includes a map of the neighborhoods of Houston. You can also find the fan guide on the Texas Bowl web site. The guide has a lot of good information and suggestions. We'll point to some of the highlights in our favorite neighborhoods.
This is where the Gophers are staying, a neighborhood named after the mall. The area has developed into Houston's second downtown and is loaded with hotels, office buildings and restaurants.
The mall features high-end retailers including Neiman-Marcus, Prada and Tiffany's. It also includes an ice-skating rink where you can show off your native Minnesota skills. You'll be among the elite few who actually know how to ice skate.
The neighborhood's shops and restaurants also lean high-end, so there's no shortage of places to eat where you can spend $75/person. If you want something more affordable that is a good walk or short cab ride from the mall, we recommend Berryhill Baja Grill (great fish tacos and tamales), Pappas Burger or the Greek food at Yia Yia Mary's.
For a bar, try The West End, which has a contemporary London feel and pretty good food.
Bars in Houston close at 2 a.m. If you want to stay out later, grab a bite at House of Pies on Westheimer. And if you don't want to sleep at all, the Starbucks across from the Galleria is open 24 hours.
If you don't want to drive in Houston, then downtown is the place to be. Houston's light rail system still consists of only one line, but at least it goes from downtown to Reliant Stadium.
Houston has put a lot of effort into making downtown a place to be. Its crown jewel is Discovery Green, a park that has turned its lake into the largest outdoor skating rink in the Southwest. By the way, the forecast for the bowl week is temperatures in the 50s during the day and the 40s at night. Please be tolerant of the good-hearted Texans shivering and wearing heavy coats - furs even. They have no idea.
Like most downtowns, it gets a bit empty after 6 p.m., but there's nightlife. You can head over to the Theater District, which includes restaurants, including a Hard Rock Café. Or you can go to GreenStreet (formerly called the Houston Pavilions), which has a collection of restaurants and a House of Blues.
If you want a unique bar experience, you can test your nerves at Le Carafe, a bar in one of Houston's oldest buildings. It's supposed to be haunted. And while we normally don't put much stock in stuff like that, seriously, the place gives us the creeps.
Basketball fans might want to go to the Toyota Center on the 26th to see the Houston Rockets play the Memphis Grizzlies.
Our preferred places to eat in downtown are technically in the neighboring area of EaDo (East Downtown). Ninfa's at Navigation remains a Houston icon, an unpretentious Tex-Mex place that is widely credited with popularizing tacos al carbon, or the fajita taco. Members of the family that started Ninfa's years ago recently opened a restaurant across the street that we also enjoy called El Tiempo.
And yes, a series of tunnels connects the office buildings in downtown. They're Houston's version of the Sky Way. And no, they are nowhere near as awesome as that sounds.
Of course, the main museums in the city are here with plenty of options for fans with families.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, remains our favorite, but the energy and chemical companies make sure that the Houston Museum of Natural Science is something to behold. The Children's Museum is one of the best in the nation.
The museums are adjacent to Hermann Park, which is also home to the local zoo. Think of this park as the Houston version of Como Park, minus the awesome State Fair carousel. The zoo's holiday light spectacular will still be going on, so it will be a special treat if your family wants Christmas to last a little longer.
To eat, we go to the adjacent Montrose neighborhood and enjoy Niko Niko's a Greek restaurant that is one of Houston's most beloved places. If the crowd is too much for you, try the Black Lab, an English pub.
West University/Rice Village
This is an area also near the Museum District. It's like Dinkytown for Rice University, which means it's smaller and fancier. The core of it is the Rice Village Shopping Center, which has several restaurants with a diverse mix of cuisines. The Bombay Brasserie is our favorite for Indian food. We also enjoy the Mi Luna Restaurant and Tapas Bar. If you're lucky, they'll have the flamenco dancers performing the night you're there.
The Ginger Man is a converted single-family home that is now home to a selection of hundreds of beers. If your party includes a bookworm, send him to Half Price books and pick him up in a few hours.
If you're coming to Texas, you need to try some barbecue brisket. We consider two places in this neighborhood, Demeris Bar-B-Q and Goode Company BBQ, to be two of the best.
This neighborhood includes other great places to eat. Carabbas is an Italian grill chain that hasn't reached Minnesota yet, but the original is here and it beats all of the other locations. Star Pizza is regularly voted as the best pizza place in Houston.
The Pappas family of restaurants, based here in Houston, has several excellent locations in the neighborhood: the Cajun-style Pappadeaux,, Little Pappas Seafood House and the Tex-Mex Little Pappasito's. All specialize in good food with gigantic portion sizes, and we don't just say that because Leah is a manager at one of their restaurants.
If you want to kick back and have a few, the West Alabama Ice House is one of our favorites. This open air place would be a great spot for families of fans to meet, drink beers and not feel like they are introducing their kids to a den of iniquity. There's always a food truck nearby, but if a guy comes by with a cooler selling tamales, buy them.
Speaking of beer, part of the fun part of traveling that we especially like is trying beers from local breweries. Shiner is the biggest Texas brand, and is best known for its bock-style beer. Saint Arnold's is brewed near downtown Houston, and its brewery offers tours. A new, up-and-comer is Karbach, and we really like their Weiss Versa Wheat. However, if your taste in beer leans towards the stuff your dad would let you try in the 1970s, then get a can of Lone Star.
Just Outside of Houston
Remember the Alamo, but don't forget that the San Jacinto Battleground State Historical Site is where Sam Houston defeated Santa Ana and Texas won its independence from Mexico. It's about 20 miles east of Houston. The monument here is taller than the Washington Monument, which is such a Texan thing to do. For bonus military history, the battleship USS Texas, which served in both world wars, is docked here.
Houston is called "Space City" because NASA's Mission Control, the Johnson Space Center, is 27 miles southeast of downtown. Although the space program has seen better days, the visitor center and museum, called Space Center Houston, remains a one-of-a-kind attraction. After all, the first word said on the surface of the moon was "Houston."
So have fun exploring Houston, everybody and we'll see you at the game Friday! Go Gophers!