With the contestants locked in and the Super Bowl days away, Houston is in a tizzy reminiscent of those those jittery days leading up to a hurricane or the city’s ultimate doomsday scenario: a half-inch or so of snow. From Pearland to The Woodlands, Baytown to Katy, you hear “hunker down talk”: Line up shows to binge-watch! Plan to order food in! Restock the liquor cabinet! Make sure you’ve got plenty of fresh water and toilet paper, or risk death in a supermarket stampede! Reddit Houston has even had a post stickied for over a week now:
We are all thinking it, and there should probably be a sticky about it. How should the average Houstonian prepare for the super bowl?I know I’m probably exaggerating, but my wife and I are planning to grocery shop the weekend before, not drive on any freeway from Thursday until Monday…..like it’s Armageddon.
Two questions. 1) what is realistic to prepare. 2) how are y’all preparing realistically?
Having lived through both previous Super Bowls in Houston, I can take those questions: 1) Little to nothing; and 2) Not at all.
Houston is vast, so the entirety of it won’t be transformed into a seething cauldron of traffic, nor will most restaurants and bars be swamped with Georgians or wicked-awesome Bahston accents. The impact on the city as a whole is not much different than that of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (which sees NRG thronged for 19 days as opposed to the Super Bowl’s one) or the days leading up to any given Christmas. To avoid Super Bowl mania, just party like it’s 1999—roughly the year the city redoubled its efforts to spruce up its inner core.
As was the case in 2004, virtually all of the visitors and shindigs will be confined to downtown and adjacent neighborhoods, especially those to the south along the Red MetroRail line, including Midtown (and by extension Montrose), the Museum District, and the Reliant Park/NRG Stadium area. You’ll also want to avoid Houston’s high-end shopping precincts—the Galleria/Uptown Park, River Oaks District/Highland Village, and Rice Village.
The Pats’ HQ will be the JW Marriott Galleria hotel, giving you another reason to shun that megamall. The Falcons’ nest, meanwhile, is the Westin Memorial City, thus eliminating Memorial City and by extension City Centre, the heart of the Energy Corridor, one of Houston’s newest, shiniest edge cities. And that’s it. Everywhere else in the near-Massachusetts-sized Greater Houston Metro will hum along as usual.
So, in short, if you want to avoid the Super Bowl, everywhere Houston has made a concerted, centrally-planned effort to appeal to outsiders in this century is off the table. Luckily, that leaves you with plenty that is wild, wonderful, and weird in this slapdash cosmopolitan metropolis. Often times, Houston is at its best when it tries the least, a point famously made by Anthony Bourdain: the Parts Unknown host’s recent Houston episode was a love letter to the city’s multiethnic suburbs that are only now beginning to be valued as the national treasures that they are.
Take the Asian enclaves on the southwest side of town, most notably Chinatown and the Gandhi District. Don’t be fooled by the last few remaining signs proclaiming Houston’s eastern edge of downtown as Chinatown—with its few remaining buffets and gift shops from its 1980s heyday, it will inevitably disappoint. The one you want to see is about a dozen miles southwest of downtown, running along Bellaire Boulevard from South Gessner on the east and westward for about five miles.
Chinatown is something of a misnomer, as the sprawling procession of strip malls house businesses from pretty much every east Asian nation, with China and Vietnam predominating. It’s a diner’s paradise: there’s everything from Cantonese seafood to spicy Sichuan hot pots to halal lamb kebabs and pilafs from China’s Uighur Xinjiang Autonomous Region and all points in between. That is just from China alone. You will also find countless Vietnamese restaurants and crawfish houses with liberal sprinklings of Thai, Korean, Malaysian, Filipino, Japanese, and Indonesian eateries as well.
For a quick trip to “Asia Town,” check out the two-story strip mall Dun Huang Plaza and the enclosed Hong Kong City Mall. Dun Huang offers dueling Indonesian restaurants, one of Houston’s top ramen houses (Tiger Den), an abundance of diverse Chinese restaurants. Not to mention great gift and novelty shopping at stores like Fit JP Store and a multitude of options for a $20 massage. Despite it’s Chinese name, Hong Kong City Mall is heavily Vietnamese. Its food court is full of old men playing Vietnamese checkers over cans of cold Bud and diners feasting on banh mi and those spicy lemongrass and ginger-scented Vietnamese mudbugs washed down with mango or durian smoothies, bubble tea, or Vietnamese iced coffee.
Southeast Asian Houston gives way to the Indian subcontinent a couple of miles northwest of Chinatown in the Gandhi District. A compact area along Hillcroft Avenue north of Interstate 69, Houston’s Little India offers saris, gold jewelry, and yet another trove of cuisines, most of them spicy. There are the famous meat curries and tender long-grained rice at Himalaya, but the area is probably Texas’s most abundant hunting ground for vegetarians and vegans, who rave about the flavorful dishes at Bombay Sweets and Shri Balaji Bhavan, among many others either significantly or totally given over to meatless options. This is also home to several Central Asian restaurants: Don’t miss Bijan Persian Grill, and for a taste of Afghanistan, Saffron Kabob House. And you might just walk into an impromptu dance party in one of the district’s Indian groceries.
If you are into the steampunk aesthetic, or are a devotee of naval warfare, check out the Battleship Texas, one of the world’s foremost relics of ducting, smokestacks, and big guns, and while there, take in the San Jacinto Battleground. The obelisk (a few token feet taller than the Washington Monument, ‘cause this is Texas) offers a panoramic view of Greater Houston. Better still, time your visit so that your return trip affords you a chance to take in the refineries at night, best viewed along Highway 225 to a soundtrack of contrasting classical music. Hungry? Chow down on fried seafood at the Monument Inn, which is not quite the San Jacinto Inn of yore, but the best we have today.
Houston not blessed with much in the way of natural beauty, but the city does offer some gentle thrills. About an hour southwest of town, Brazos Bend State Park gives you the opportunity to snap selfies with wild alligators in a palmetto-studded, saurian environment, while the Spring Creek trails at the Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center can whisk you away to the Hill Country. It’s handy at both of those locales to remember the old Texas adage about coral snakes and king snakes: “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow, red touch black, friend to Jack.”
Every weekend Airline Drive north of downtown turns into an open-air promenade of Mexican and Central American goods and services. Canino Produce Company hosts the area’s foremost farmer’s market, and a few miles further north, there stands north Houston’s Chinese-Mexican souk: Sunny Flea Market, acres and acres of tacos, beer, household goods, Catholic statuary, live music, rides for the kids, and more recently, the newly-opened Lucky Land, a Chinese-themed historical park tucked in the Sunny parking lot that has to be seen to be believed. It features replicas of the Terra Cotta Army, a Shaolin kung fu exhibit, a garden of concrete pandas. It’s home to quite a few food stalls, many of which bypass English, translating the Vietnamese “pho” as “sopa de fideo.”
There’s no better manifestation of Houston’s status as Fusion City than that—and as you leave Lucky Land and enter the sprawling mercado, the traditional Chinese music gives way to grito-laced ranchera, the thump-chicka-hiss of cumbia, and the rat-a-tat-tat of reggaeton, all scented by the meats sizzling at dozens of taco stalls. It’s easily the best place to feel you are alive in Houston, Texas, and it’s a good bet that almost nobody there gives a rip about the point spread at the Super Bowl.