Funny thing, hometowns. It wasn’t until after I graduated from Plano East Senior High, in 1990, and headed off for college in Denton that I realized what an easy target mine is. Whenever I told someone where I had grown up, I always heard about the rich kids and the castle-size homes and the obsessive parents—none of which resembled my neighborhood at all. It’s true that Plano has more than its fair share of cut-and-paste shops and restaurants, and the number of strip malls is fast approaching the legal limit. But if you know where to look and you have the time, the east side of town can offer up spots that might make you think twice before you crack another joke.
There’s no better way to start than with breakfast, and Poor Richard’s (2442 Avenue K at Park Boulevard; 972-423-1524) is a classic spot, complete with down-home service and a no-frills menu. (You’d be wise to try the pecan pancakes.) Yes, the restaurant may be in a strip center, but don’t let that fool you. Poor Richard’s has been at this location for ages; it’s no wonder that the sign on the door brags that the cafe is “Plano’s oldest restaurant since 1973.” Be advised that it’s okay to go here for lunch, but don’t wait longer than that. Poor Richard’s may be open every day except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it closes daily at two-thirty in the afternoon.
After you get your fill at Poor Richard’s, head east on Park Boulevard and enjoy the tree-lined neighborhoods. Turn left when you come to San Gabriel, which will lead to Bob Woodruff Park. Plano boasts a fantastic parks system, and even Austinites would approve of its extensive network of hike-and-bike trails. Bob Woodruff offers miles of these trails, a beautiful pond for teaching your little ones to fish, and playgrounds and pavilions. If you’re up for a stroll, hotfoot it to the path that leads west and before long you’ll discover one of East Plano’s hidden spots: Bowman Cemetery (in the 2700 block of Oak Grove, across the street from the trail). The cemetery, which dates back to the nineteenth century, sits on a peaceful hill and fits quietly into the surrounding neighborhood. Here monuments for some of Plano’s earliest settlers rest (yes, even Plano had early settlers). The cemetery is just an alleyway from the back yards of some neatly kept homes, and you can see the graves of members of the prominent Bowman family (George W., who has a nearby middle school named after him, died on June 24, 1921) as well as a headstone for W. Wheeler, who died in 1873. The best part about this place, aside from its local history, is how naturally it fits in with the surroundings. On the day that I visited, three children were running around the field with butterfly nets, catching insects.
When you’ve finished exploring, return to your car and make your way back to Park Boulevard. Turn left, heading east, and continue until you dead-end at Murphy Road. Turn left again, continue past the Longhorns on your right, and stop at 3700 Hogge, better known as Southfork Ranch (open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 972-442-7800). Okay, the ranch is just outside Plano, in the community of Parker, but it’s awfully close (and heck, the kids in Parker go to school in Plano). Besides, visiting Southfork should be on the required list of places for all real Texans to visit. Though Dallas aired its final episode more than a decade ago, even on a weekday afternoon the parking lot was full. Step inside the Ranch Round-Up gift shop where you’ll find larger-than-life black and white photos of Miss Ellie, Bobby, J.R., and the gang. And, of course, you’ll be inundated with Southfork mugs, glasses, mousepads, socks, and sheriff’s badges—all at gift shop prices. The only disappointment is that the store doesn’t sell any Dallas merchandise. (When I asked a clerk if I could buy a “Who Shot J.R.?” T-shirt, he laughed politely but shook his head.) The highlight, obviously, is a tour of the property and the Ewing mansion; you should be shot if you don’t take it ($7.95 for adults, $6.95 for seniors, and $5.95 for children ages 4-12; call for times).
As you try to get the show’s theme song out of your head (you’re humming it right now, aren’t you?), drive back to Plano by way of Park. As you’re driving west, look to the left toward the horizon. On a clear day you can make out the skyline of downtown Dallas to the south. When you reach Avenue K, turn left until you come to Fifteenth Street, which is the center of the old downtown. This renovated area—with redbrick streets, a fountain, and a beautiful park just to the west—is full of the antiques shops and gift emporiums one would expect, along with tearooms, coffeehouses, and a small museum. It also boasts Queen of Hearts (1032 E. Fifteenth), a magic and costume store that has been at the corner of Fifteenth and Avenue K for twenty years and is worth a look; I don’t know why it’s so hard to resist the temptation of putting on a Nixon mask. Just down the street is Plano Barbers (1031 E. Fifteenth), with an old-fashioned barber’s pole. The sign on the door here says everything there is to know about the shop’s small-town feel: “Open: When we get here.” If you’re still up for walking, head over to Haggard Park, then north to Sixteenth Street, which houses the Haggard Park Heritage District. This area is perfect for getting lost among the age-old trees and renovated Victorian homes that mark the day when this was the center of Plano and not the mall.
By now, it’s lunchtime—and you have two great choices. You can find some of the best Mexican food in town at Aparicio’s Plano Tortilla Factory and Cafe (1009 E. Eighteenth; 972-423-6980). This tiny spot is famous for its tortillas, chips, and salsa, but stay for the authentic specials. I particularly like the decor; it’s hard not to like a dining room whose focus is a poster of the Dallas Cowboys celebrating their 1994 Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills. (With the rest of the team sitting stiffly on the risers, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin are lying on the ground, sporting sunglasses.) If burgers sound better, take Avenue K south to Fourteenth Street and turn left. Soon you’ll come to Country Burger (1700 E. Fourteenth Street; 972-423-2210), a homegrown business that opened in 1973 and stood in as a primary food group for me when I was in high school. Country Burger reminds me of another one of my favorite Texas eating establishments. Just like at Cooper’s in Llano, you smell the food long before you even get out of your car.
Once inside, don’t be distracted by the suggestion of chicken strips on the menu. Order a burger. The No. 1 special comes with a double-double, fries, and a drink (all for $6.24). That’s a meal that can be tough to get a handle on, and no one will think less of you for ordering the No. 2, which has a country burger, fries, and a drink ($4.85). These are the burgers you remember from growing up, served with mustard and red onion, along with the rest of the fixin’s. For just 35 cents, you might as well throw in two jalapeños. After you take your seat, take in the surroundings that are far more country than suburban, including a Texas flag and a U.S. flag hanging from the ceiling and the sweet sounds of C&W playing on the radio. And if you still have room, finish up with a Blue Bell milk shake. Take your time, though—if you’re not convinced that you’ve seen all you need to see, you’re just minutes away from the mall on the west side, but you already know what that looks like.