25 Things I Love About Dallas

A tribute to the best things that make Dallas, well—Dallas.

September 2003By Comments

When I went to Europe in 1981, Americans were no more popular there than they are now. As soon as I opened my mouth, hotel clerks and waiters would scowl at me and ask me where I was from. If I said, “America,” I might not get a room or a meal. But if I said, “Texas,” they would break out in a big smile, say, “Bang, bang! Who shot J.R.?” and we would be the best of buddies. So I learned to love Dallas because it probably saved my hide more than once during that journey. As for Dallas, I’d hardly ever been there at the time, and from all reports, I wasn’t missing much. But during numerous visits over the next two decades, I discovered many reasons to love the actual, much-maligned city, reasons that have nothing to do with its well-known tourist attractions (the Sixth Floor Museum, the Dallas World Aquarium, the flagship Neiman’s downtown, Pioneer Plaza’s herd of bronze Longhorns), its 80 billion restaurants, or even a prime-time soap opera. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

1. I thought about claiming that the DOWNTOWN SKYLINE is best viewed from your car as you cross the Trinity River via Houston Street. But since Houston runs one-way here—out of town—the cityscape would be in your rearview mirror. Hmmm. Okay, head back into town via Jefferson (also one-way) for a commanding view of what Norman Mailer once charmingly described as “a collection of Kleenex boxes standing on end”: Reunion Tower, which blossoms like a giant onion, on your left; the Bank of America Plaza, Dallas’ tallest building, outlined in argon tubing that lights up the night with the color of money; and reassuringly, in the midst of it all, the familiar red horse still flying atop the Magnolia Building. I was proud of myself for discovering this particular view—until I learned it was the one shown during the opening sequence of Dallas.

2. Confronted with towering pyramids of melons, tomatoes, peppers, squash, peaches, eggplant, and on and on, shoppers at the DALLAS FARMERS MARKET must figure it's better to eat their veggies than be crushed by them. But awesome as this cornucopia was, I was even more impressed with the offerings at Texas' Own Texas Grown, the sole booth in the market's sun-drenched Cesar Chavez Plaza. Here, on the Saturday morning I visited, Jackie King served up the market's only certified organic produce, grown by a handful of the state's farmers: perfect squash blossoms, the cutest bunches of carrots I've ever seen, Sweet Heart watermelons, black-eyed peas, chocolate mint, and leeks so lovely I thought they were ceramic. Downtown between Harwood and Central Expressway just north of I-30 West, 214-939-2808, dallasfarmersmarket.org. Open daily.

4. Of all the plazas, memorial squares, and grassy knolls in downtown Dallas, the two-acre water garden a FOUNTAIN PLACE is my favorite escape from the city in the city. Surrounding a green-glass tower designed by I. M. Pei and Partners are stair-stepped walkways, tiered pools complete with waterfalls and 172 bubbling fountains, and a battalion of bald cypress trees. In a central plaza, 360 computer-programmed high-pressure geysers spurt from holes in the concrete. In all, some 35,000 gallons of water circulate through ten miles of pipe every minute—one engineering feat that actually has a calming effect. 1445 Ross Avenue, fountainplace.com.

3. "Sensory overload" is the theme four nights a week a DON CARTER'S ALL-STAR LANES DALLAS WEST. You've got your throbbing music, courtesy of video jockey George Crenshaw. Big screens hang over the lanes so you won't miss a move by Justin Timberlake or Sean Paul as you try for that impossible spare. The place is as dark as a disco, the better to see the tiny runway lights that race up and down the sides of the lanes. Bowlers dance up to the line. And best of all, beneath the oh-so-seventies black light, the fluorescent pink, orange, or green bowling balls glow like spheres of nuclear waste. My gutter balls never looked so dangerous. 10920 Composite Drive, 214-358-1382, doncarterbowling.com/dallas_west.html. Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday till 3 a.m.; from $1.29-$2.99 a game per person to $27 an hour per lane; shoes $3.75.

5. As Deep Ellum continues to morph from fringe to mainstream, its edgier factions are migrating a wee bit east to EXPOSITION PARK, where straight-shooting industrial buildings have been transformed into art studios for both working and living. Quaint thirties storefronts—some shaded by trees, others with grand views of monumental Fair Park—house a smattering of businesses: cafes, clubs, art galleries, a vintage-clothing store. But this is not some New Age slackerville. In fact, multitasking seems the norm. New Amsterdam Coffeehaus, for instance, doubles as a homey bar with Sierra Nevada on tap and Nina Simone on the juke box. And at Bar of Soap, a watering hole cum washateria, you can sip some suds while you spin your duds. At the intersection of Exposition and Parry avenues.

6. The 9.3-mile WHITE ROCK LAKE BIKE TRAIL was so flat and smooth that I wanted to ride forever. (And the next day, my rear end insisted I had.) I found lots of stuff to gawk at as I pedaled around the lake: the 1929 deco bathhouse, built back when swimming in the lake was allowed and now reborn as a cultural center; H. L. Hunt's replica of Mount Vernon, also dating from 1929, which sits on a vast St. Augustine lawn right out of a sod salesman's fantasies; the faraway towers of downtown, ghostly through the smog; the spillway where egrets fish; and picnic areas shaded by enormous pecan trees and sprinkled with rustic structures built in the thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Maps available at the Dallas Parks Office, 830 E. Lawther Drive (214-670-8281), and at whiterocklake.org.

7. Am I hip? I sure felt like it during my afternoon at the MCKINNEY AVENUE CONTEMPORARY,or the MAC, an art and performance venue that's been stirring the pot for nine years. I actually understood the meanings of Douglas Bourgeois' vivid and obsessively detailed narrative paintings. (Okay, okay—the explanations posted beside most of them were a big help.) Then, feeling darned-near intellectual, I also took in a staged reading of a contemporary play at the center's Kitchen Dog Theater. I didn't understand all of Possum Carcass, but, hey, neither did the man sitting next to me, and he was a member of the National New Play Network visiting from Phoenix. I think I did get most of the jokes, though, and even laughed out loud. Tell me, what more can you ask of art? 3120 McKinney Avenue, 214-953-1212, the-mac.org. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

8. Of the city's three—count 'em, three—art-film houses, the INWOOD THEATRE wins my vote. Built in the forties, when West Lovers Lane and Inwood Road met in wide-open countryside, the nostalgic Inwood became Dallas' first indie house in 1981, quite a transition for a theater that once ran The Sound of Music for two straight years. But perhaps its avant-garde future was always written (or at least painted) on its walls and ceiling, which still sport the aquatic murals created in the forties by Perry Nichols, one of the groundbreaking group of regional artists called the Dallas Nine. The night I was there, the Inwood Lounge, the theater's retro martini bar, was packed with film buffs dissecting Owning Mahowny. 5458 West Lovers Lane, 214-764-9106, landmarktheatres.com/Market/Dallas/InwoodTheatre.htm.

9. With its narrow, tree-lined streets, apartment balconies, and sidewalk cafes, the freshly minted mixed-use development of WEST VILLAGE is urban Europe à la Disneyland. But that's not to say it isn't inviting, in a squeaky-clean sort of way, with its blend of numbingly familiar chain stores (think coffee and T-shirts) and an eclectic selection of homegrown shops. An art cinema and a clutch of internationally flavored eateries (Nikita, Paciugo Italian Gelato, Taco Diner, Paris Vendome, Crú Wine Bar, Ferré Ristorante) keep the cosmopolitan buzz going well into the night. Late one Thursday evening, West Village was absolutely stuffed with people just like me—if I wore designer clothes, carried a tiny dyed-to-match dog, and had a standing appointment at the tanning salon. Between McKinney and Cole avenues, north of Lemmon Avenue; westvil.com.

10. How did this happen? How did Dallas manage to see the light of light-rail before, say, Austin? The 44-mile-long DART RAIL SYSTEM, which opened in 1996, runs from Garland and Plano in the far north and east to Ledbetter in the south. And people actually use it: Ridership in 2002 topped 13.7 million passenger trips. My favorite stretch is where the train burrows into the earth south of Mockingbird Station, traveling through the dark at 65 miles an hour, before disgorging passengers into the cool, quiet CityPlace Station, 120 feet below ground. Texas-size escalators or a nifty glass elevator whisk you up to street level when you're ready to resurface. 214-979-1111, dart.org. Single trip $1.25, local day pass $2.50, senior citizens 50 cents and $1, children under 5 free; tickets available from vending machines at each station.

11. ELLIOTT'S HARDWARE, in business since 1947, is filled with solutions to industrial-age problems. Need to keep things rolling? One fifty-foot aisle is stocked with nothing but casters and replacement wheels. Missing your spring? You can pick from a selection ranging in size from a baby pill bug to a human forearm. Handypersons can choose from a couple dozen varieties of hammers and even more things to hit with them. There are softer wares too, like horse tack and a vast selection of oven mitts. And unlike those mega-home stores where the helpful folks in orange aprons are as elusive as leprechauns, here you can't swing a four-foot turnbuckle (yes, Elliott's has one) without hitting a friendly, knowledgeable clerk. 4901 Maple Avenue, 214-634-9900. Closed Sunday.

12. Sometimes it's tough to find much in my Anglo heritage to thump my chest about, bu AFTERNOON TEA AT THE ADOLPHUS HOTEL is worthy of cultural pride—as long as you've got nothing against gluttony. In the hotel's posh lobby, surrounded by dark wood paneling, seventeenth-century Flemish tapestries, English antiques, and floral arrangements the size of the queen herself, tea captain Manuel Adame takes the ceremony to theatrical heights. He introduces you to the teas, letting you sniff before deciding, brews you a massive pot, then scampers off for the first of your three courses. Time passes in a blur of bite-size sandwiches (egg salad, watercress, and cucumber), scones with Devonshire cream, éclairs, lemon and fruit tarts, opera cakes, and chocolate roulade—washed down with sips of, say, pear caramel tea and followed by oh-my-god-no chocolate truffles. Through it all, classical piano music (you might catch composer Ken Boome at the keys) lulls you into believing that gorging on cream puffs is nothing short of your ancestral duty. 1321 Commerce, 214-742-8200, hoteladolphus.com. After a summer break, tea service resumes on September 12, Thursday through Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m.; $35, reservations required.

13. As I sat in Pegasus Plaza one Thursday evening enjoying a FREE CONCERT by the local rock band Mur, I thought about a column I'd read in the Dallas Morning News in which Steve Blow questioned a guidebook's assertion that downtown Dallas is a "vibrant social center." Wrote Blow: "A vibrant social center? Someday, we hope." Well, all I can say is, if it's not vibrant, it isn't the fault of booster groups like the Downtown Partnership and the Downtown Improvement District, who pack the calendar with free musical events from happy-hour jazz concerts to lunchtime performances by the likes of Joe King Carrasco and Brave Combo. downtowndallas.org/downtown_partners or downtowndallas.org/did.htm.

14. I thought they were giving away Botox injections when I pulled into the jam-packed parking lot at SAM MOON TRADING COMPANY. But no, it was just the same old shopping frenzy that takes place all the time at this wholesale outlet for baubles, bags, and more. I entered the fray (where signs implored customers to "Please shop neatly") with the superior air of an anthropologist, bemused by the natives' zeal for purses emblazoned with black and white images of Elvis or Marilyn, rhinestone tarantula brooches as big as your hand, giant flowered duffel bags, and metallic hair scrunchies. And what did I leave with? A little less superiority and a lot of sparkling artifacts, including a hot-pink beaded evening purse ($15) and several colorful Austrian-crystal bracelets ($3.95 each). 11635 Harry Hines Boulevard, 972-484-3084, sammoongroup.com. Closed Sunday.

15. Down at the eastern end of Deep Ellum, a safe distance from the theme bars, tattoo parlors, and outlandish attitudes, sits an unassuming two-story building whose only exterior flash is a red-and-teal neon sign identifying it as the SONS OF HERMANN HALL. But inside this Dallas landmark, built in 1911 by a German fraternal order, things are hopping—at least at the Wednesday-night swing classes in the upstairs ballroom, a yesteryear scene complete with blue velvet swags on the windows, a mirrored ball dangling from the coffered ceiling, and a worn wooden floor underfoot. Earnest students from teenagers to grandmothers, dressed in everything from grungewear to zoot suits, circle around the two dance instructors for an hour-long lesson in East Coast jitterbug. Just remember: side-side-rock-step; bounce on two and four; keep tension in the arms; he's a door and she's a hinge; don't let the elbow go behind the back—and ta-da! The next thing you know, you're cutting a rug. 3414 Elm, 214-747-4422, sonsofhermann.com. Wednesdays at 9 p.m.; $5 cover.

16. Whether it's showcasing contemporary sculpture or a collection of rare decorative furnishings crafted in the 1800's, the AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM shines an unwavering light on the black experience. In the permanent exhibit "Facing the Rising Sun: Freedman's Cemetery," the museum illuminates a dark episode in Dallas' past. In the forties and fifties a portion of this cemetery, platted in 1869, was cavalierly destroyed during the construction of North Central Expressway; the desecration wasn't publicly acknowledged until the eighties, when the expressway was slated for widening. This time, 1,150 bodies were painstakingly exhumed and reinterred on land adjacent to the remaining cemetery. More than 13,000 artifacts were also removed, from ceramic dolls to seashells that once decorated the graves. But the fate of the cemetery's dead is no more poignant than the memories of the living, captured on video. One elderly man, for instance, recalls the time when he and his friends were allowed into Fair Park—now the museum's home—only one day a year. 3536 Grand Avenue, 214-565-9026, aamdallas.org. Closed Monday; free.

17. On the Sunday morning I visited MOCKINGBIRD POINT DOG PARK, one of only two public spaces in the city where pups can frolic leash-free, joie de vivre was rampant: spontaneous games of tag with complete strangers, plunges into the muddy wading pool, impulsive yips of joy, scavenger hunts for edible tidbits on the well-trampled ground, and much sniffing of private areas. Oh, and the dogs seemed to be having fun too. 8000 Mockingbird Lane, on the north shore of White Rock Lake; dallasdogparks.org. Closed Monday.

18. Are there times when nothing but a bottle of Frostie Blue Cream Soda the color of Tidy Bowl will quench your thirst? Or maybe you can't face another Monday-morning meeting without a hit of Kickapoo Joy Juice, the Original Dogpatch Recipe? Then—no ifs, ands, or buts—you must pop into IFS ANDS & BUTTS in the Bishop Arts District of Oak Cliff. I've written about this extremely focused niche market before—we're talking only tobacco products and 135-plus soft drinks from around the world—but its oddball pairing is as endlessly fascinating as, say, Liz Taylor and that construction guy. 408 N. Bishop, 888-712-8887, ifsandsbutts.com.

19. If fame comes in quarter-hour increments, why not arts education? During the lunchtime 15-MINUTE FRIDAYS at the Dallas Museum of Art, a staff member or volunteer dispenses a digestible amount of edification on one piece of the museum's vast collection. Go ahead: Ask me something about that pale-green bearlike mask wreathed in sticks. Yes, it was made by the Yup'ik, the culture considered the cradle of Eskimo civilization, and was probably used as a storytelling tool or ceremonial prop during the late nineteenth century. So there. Every Friday at 12:45 at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood, 214-922-1200, dallasmuseumofart.org; $6, senior citizens and ages 12 through 17 $4, free with receipt from either of the museum's two restaurants.

20. I've never felt more solidarity with Dallasites than I did on the KATY TRAIL, a 2.2-mile corridor of greenery smack-dab in the middle of the urban jungle. Sure, a couple of the in-line skaters and gazellelike sprinters were so perfectly toned and attired they appeared to be computer-generated, but the rest were lumpy, sweat-soaked, self-conscious, plodding, and pear-shaped—my people! Although the trail, built on a section of the defunct Katy Railroad line, is twelve feet wide and paved, cyclists should attempt it only if they have a thing for riding through an obstacle course of exhausted and oblivious humans, especially on weekends, when an estimated three thousand urbanites pound the pavement each day. Friends of the Katy Trail, 214-303-1180, katytraildallas.org. Official access points at Knox near Abbott Avenue and up a forty-foot flight of WPA steps from Reverchon Park. Closed midnight to 5 a.m.

21. Every gal remembers her first—pedicure, that is. And it's especially memorable if you happen to have exchanged pleasantries with Robert Altman—also in for his first—while waiting your turn at the PAULA MCCLURE MOOD SPA. But even without the celebrity sightings at this understated establishment, you're not likely to forget the treatment your tootsies receive during an Essential Mood Pedicure, complete with a sensuous foot rub, while the rest of your body is distracted by the undulations of your massage-chair throne. But be forewarned: Beautiful feet can be hazardous. When I left the spa, I was so enthralled with my perfect pink toenails that I couldn't take my eyes off them and walked right into a tree, much to the amusement of the diners at a nearby sidewalk cafe. 2723 McKinney Avenue, 214-303-1223 <!--moodspa.com.--!>

22. NGOZI'S, a jubilantly chaotic shop of African fashions, is tucked away in Wynnewood Village, a tidy Eisenhower-era shopping center with a forest of mature oaks and a parking lot as complex as the Jersey Turnpike. Although owner Churchline "Ngozi" Penny favors the subdued and authentic caftans made of mud cloth, a coarse, earth-tone fabric from Mali ($59 to $89), most of her shop is given over to more resplendent attire, like chieftains' outfits of purple velvet imprinted with gold elephants ($150 to $299) and everyday tunics in eye-popping prints ($59 to $89). Accessories include cowrie-shell caps ($19.99) and cummerbunds and bow ties made from red-black-and-green Kente cloth ($39.99 for a set). One regular customer, Nneka Okonkwo, buys material here for her own designs. She's partial to the iridescent patterned silk fabric known as "george." "We Nigerians are the only ones that wear it," she says. "We love to dress up real flashy." 137 Wynnewood, 214-942-1775. Closed Sunday.

23. The sunset viewed through the glass wall of the Meyerson Symphony Center was pretty flamboyant, but it had nothing on the evening's performance by the TURTLE CREEK CHORALE, a two-hundred-member gay men's choir. A tribute to Elton John, "The Soundtrack of Our Lives"—featuring everything from "Candle in the Wind" to songs from The Lion King—was a whirl of sequins, feather boas, outrageous eyewear and platform shoes, and hats so gaudy they'd make a pimp blush. My favorite moments were when the full choir sang a cappella and the sound transcended all the glitzy props and campy affectations and filled the hall with pure beauty. Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora, 800-494-8497. Turtle Creek Chorale, 214-526-3214 or 800-746-4412, turtlecreek.org.

24. The roosters may have been banished from old Oak Cliff and Starbucks may be moving in, but there's still enough personality in this collection of historic 'hoods—the vibrant Hispanic business district on Jefferson Boulevard, complete with pushcarts selling paletas; picturesque Lake Cliff Park, dating back to 1906; the rambling ranch-style houses in the rolling hills of hyperlandscaped Kessler Park—to make you forget the homogeneity of points farther north. I fell hardest, however, for WINNETKA HEIGHTS, developed in the early 1900's. At fifty square blocks, it's the largest historic district in Dallas and—thanks to a period of neglect in the seventies, when it was redlined by banks and ignored by developers—the most intact. The shady streets are lined with bungalows and Prairie-style houses, their faces (wide-eyed windows flanking a door's open mouth) peering out from behind deep porches. Southwest of downtown between I-30 and I-35, bordered by Davis on the north, Twelfth on the south, Rosemont on the west, and Willomet on the east; winnetkaheights.com.

25. The mammoth HONG KONG MARKET PLACE is the Asian answer to Central Market. Its selection of noodles alone—at least fifty varieties, I'm guessing—commands one whole side of a 75-foot-long, 8-foot-high aisle. When I visited, live tilapia, lobsters, and eels languidly awaited their fate, but the serve-yourself blue crabs ($2.49 a pound) were determined not to go without a fight. The packaged foods were alluringly enigmatic. Would I rather wet my whistle with chrysanthemum beverage, grass jelly drink, or pennywort juice? And even though the price was right (59 cents for a bag of ten), would I dare try Guozhi Bang High Food: Kool-Aid-colored liquids encapsulated in what looked like horse suppositories? Although I was fascinated by the soy protein in the shapes of tuna steaks and little chickens and the dozens of varieties of bulk ginseng, I felt more comfortable around the fresh produce, especially the lush greens such as yu choy, cai ngot, and ong choy. I also liked the store's straightforward marketing. The sign above a pile of durian, a tropical fruit that resembles a football with serious goose bumps, read "Buy at your own risk. We will not guarantee you'll like the taste." 9780 Walnut, Suite 360; 972-437-9888.

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