The first column I wrote for Texas Monthly appeared in the March 2000 issue. The article was titled “Voting Rites,” and I argued that the Voting Rights Act, which Lyndon Johnson had proposed to a joint session of Congress 35 years earlier, was the greatest accomplishment of his presidency. The truth is, I didn’t know very much about LBJ before I came to work at Texas Monthly. I am a native Texan who passed seventh-grade history with straight A’s, but I remembered him only for his role in the Vietnam War. I’m ashamed to say that when I was a freshman at the University of North Texas and saw Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which came out in 1991, I assumed that Johnson could have played a role in John Kennedy’s assassination. That changed when I started reading the magazine’s terrific archive of stories about LBJ. I began to understand the Shakespearean complexity of the man, who could be cruel and kind, thoughtful and crude in the span of a single conversation. That led me to volumes by Robert Dallek, Robert Caro, and Michael Beschloss. Never have I laughed out loud so often while reading about a president; never have I been so awed by a politician’s sheer determination to achieve; never have I shaken my head in such dismay at so many missed opportunities. But when it came to civil rights, the critical domestic issue of his administration, Johnson purposefully set out to finish what Abraham Lincoln had started—and did precisely that. This issue contains a trio of stories that examines the complicated legacy of the Voting Rights Act, which became law fifty years ago this month. In “The Agitator,” Katy Vine profiles Curtis Graves, who, in 1967, became the first African American to serve in the Texas House in the twentieth century but who often labored in the shadow of Barbara Jordan. John Phillip Santos explores his family’s roots in “Return to Cotulla,” revisiting the town where a young LBJ taught Mexican American students at the local public school. A photo essay called “While We’re Young,” shot by Joel Salcido and featuring interviews by Pamela Colloff, examines the attitudes of the newest generation of voters in the Rio Grande Valley. Taken together, the package offers context for a problem that is far from settled: in 2013 key portions of the Voting Rights Act were set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a redistricting case, with roots in the state Senate, that could diminish minority representation will be heard by the high court in its upcoming term. It may soon be the case that LBJ’s greatest legislative achievement could itself be history.

When it comes to traveling around the state, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of destinations to choose from. One of the things I love most about Texas is that you can drive a few hours (or more than a few hours) in one direction and be at, say, the beach and then head another direction and find yourself in the mountains or in the rolling Hill Country or in the Piney Woods. For the last several years, a few of my colleagues and I have been visiting small towns and exploring interesting areas of big cities in search of noteworthy things to do, see, and eat. Here’s a cheat sheet guide to what you can expect to find in a few of the places we’ve singled out across the state recently . . . 

Head WEST to . . .

Fort Davis for javelina sightings, homemade nuts, and a daily bugle retreat parade.


Midland for a 75-acre nursery, the Museum of the Southwest, and frozen pecan toffee.

Head EAST to . . . 

Historic downtown Marshall for the Michelson Museum of Art, a three-story co-op, and an unusual Lady Justice.

Legendary are the travelers who route themselves through this little town just to eat at this unexpected oasis. The exceptional food comes from immensely talented chef Laurie Williamson (who just opened a new steakhouse next door and whose B&B, Rancho Loma, brings gourmands from all over the state). Order this to go: Pizzas, of course! From the wood-fired oven come crispy, bubbly crusts given traditional treatments, such as the margherita (crushed tomato, mozzarella, Parm, and basil), and clever creations like the pie topped with béchamel, fontina, white truffle oil, prosciutto, and wild arugula. Excellent non-pie choices include roasted sweet piquillo chiles, oozing melted goat cheese, and hefty, textured meatballs in a tomato sauce bath. Pro tip: Smart packaging ensures that nothing wilts; the arugula on that pizza is boxed separately, as are salad dressings. Note: Review reflects COVID-19 protocols in place at the time of visit.

Palestine for homemade pies, lots of antiques, and the Dogwood Trails Festival (in March).

COLBERT: Williams Old Style Bar-B-Que 306 Moore Avenue Colbert, OK 74733 580-296-5858 Open Tues-F 11-8, Sat 11-7Texoma Living certainly has the best coverage of the BBQ in the Sherman/Denison area, and until this visit their reviews had not steered me wrong. After learning that Williams Old Style, just one exit across the border in Colbert, Oklahoma, served beef shoulder clod and had a homemade brown gravy sauce, I just had to visit. It’s a small shack on a gravel parking lot along the main drag in tiny Colbert. Orders are taken at the window and only cash is accepted. A friendly guy waiting for his tamale order told me about a few joints in the area that had decent ‘cue, but lamented that nothing great existed in the immediate area. I was about to find out if I agreed.I walked away with an order to feed the family of slaw, pork, clod, sausage and ribs. The ribs are sold by the rack, but what comes out is a ramshackle pile of odd rib ends that were dry and crispy. A thick rub was heavy on the paprika, and that spice’s flavor outshined everything else including the smoke. There were a few decent bites in there, but it was barely worth the search. Sausage was Eckrich variety, but had been well smoked. In fact, a link wrapped in a slice of bread with some brown gravy sauce was the best part of the meal. This regional sauce was subtle with flavors of a meaty gravy and a BBQ sauce mixed. There was nothing aggressive about the seasoning in the original sauce, and it didn’t have a lick of sugar, but I enjoyed the flavor.Next up was the clod…or was it the pork? See the photo above and tell me which of those chopped meats is which. I was eventually able to distinguish the beef from pork, but neither of these meats was notable. They were both equally devoid of crust, smoke, seasoning or really any flavor at all. It was stunning how much alike the two meats tasted. Luckily the finely chopped mayo slaw was very good, so a sandwich with slaw and sauce covered all of those smoked meat sins.Rating *


Head to NORTH CENTRAL Texas to . . . 

Fort Worth’s West Seventh Street District for vintage clothes, an eco-friendly boutique, and Fred’s famous Diablo burger.

OKLAHOMA: Ben’s Bar-B-Que 8146 US Hwy 70 W Mead, OK 73449 580-924-5853 Open Tues-Thur 11-8, F-Sat 11-9, Sun 11-2I was out tooling around the Oklahoma side of Lake Texoma when I came across Ben’s BBQ between Mead and Durant. A small parking lot had just a few cars at lunch time on a Saturday during prime lake season, but I was hoping the crowds had already come and gone. I placed and order for a three meat plate, one of which would be ham for my wife. She hates barbecue sauce, and ironically they covered only the ham in a layer of thick sweet sauce.The other meats could have used a similar sauce bath. Brisket had that dried up look of yesterday’s meat. The fat was chewy and the meat had little smokiness. It was thick sliced but still falling apart from being so overdone. Spare ribs were huge and meaty, but tough and also lacking smokiness. Not even a dunk in the sauce could save them. I didn’t even bother with the ham.Rating *


Grapevine for glassblowing, bowls of Original Texas Red chili, and rides on a vintage train.


Head to CENTRAL Texas to . . . 

Johnson City for fresh jerky, beer flights, and tours of LBJ’s boyhood home.


Kerrville for a chic department store, local arts and crafts, and a subterranean cocktail lounge.

OKLAHOMA: Bubby’s Backyard BBQ 5414 Hwy. 70 West Mead, OK 73449 580-924-9841 Open ?Inside a gas station called “Push ’em Station” along Highway 70 is Bubby’s Backyard BBQ. Squeezed between a soda fountain and fast food pizza is the mini storefront with a wide menu of BBQ and various fried items. I went for the two meat plate, available in both small and large sizes. The small combo plate held a decent amount of thinly sliced beef and three St. Louis style ribs.The brisket had that corporate BBQ flavor so often associated with the Southern Pride smoker they employ. The meat was tender, moist, completely trimmed of fat and lacking smoke altogether. It was certainly edible, but just not special. Ribs were also good and tender, but any flavor they may have had on their own was marred by the thick, dark and sweet sauce lathered over top. The sacue was commercial, but was actually pretty good. It worked well on the ribs, which probably needed the extra boost. My guess is that this joint probably does a mean chopped beef sandwich.Rating **


San Antonio’s North River Walk for an upscale Italian osteria, the San Antonio Museum of Art, and Melissa Guerra’s modern mercado.

Alberico, a combination restaurant and wine store, lets guests take a gastronomic tour without leaving town, populating its menu with replications of favorite dishes from other restaurants. We started with a lobster empanada (Ola, Miami), a fun combination of tender meat, grilled corn, and cheddar. Among the main courses, we enjoyed both the French-cut lamb (inspired by a meal in Pons, France) and the grilled sea bass (Del Bosque, Mexico City). The little rib chops were just as ordered, medium-rare, with a crisp mustard crust, while the fish was extraordinarily fine, with an ocean-fresh flavor. The quietly stylish dining room, with cream yellow walls and white tablecloths, is relaxing. (7/15)

Head to the GULF COAST to . . . 

Historic downtown Galveston for nautical antiques, samples of warm taffy, and an 1877 ship.


Old Town Spring for Delftware, live music at Puffabelly’s, and fried Twinkies.

MEMPHIS: A&R Bar-B-Q 3721 Hickory Hill Rd Memphis, TN 38115 901-365-9777 Open M-Thur 10-10, F-Sat 10-11www.aandrbbq.comAfter just a few visits to the charcoal fueled joints in Memphis, the smell of burning charcoal is unmistakable. The odor outside of A&R was richer than that of a simple wood fire, and I already knew the answer before asking about their fuel at the counter, or so I thought. They also burn down hickory to coals and mix them with the charcoal in their direct heat cooker.That direct heat put plenty of charcoal flavor into the thick, meaty St. Louis ribs, but they cook up a little tougher as well. While the flavor was good, and nicely complemented by the pleasantly spicy sauce, it just took too much work to get these bones clean.This pork sandwich may have been more satisfying if we hadn’t sampled so many great ones on this day, but it just seemed unremarkable. While the meat was moist, it just lacked a bold flavor. Opting for the mild sauce was also a mistake as it was a simple sweet sauce that lacked the complexity of the hot sauce. The fired pies are famous here, and I bought on to-go with every intention of eating it, but after a full day of stuffing my face with meat, slaw and sauce, I just couldn’t take any more and left it my buddy’s house for his enjoyment.Rating **

Head to the PANHANDLE to . . .

Historic downtown Abilene for the Grace Museum, a steak dinner, and a cool Texas novelty shop.

MEMPHIS: Payne’s Bar-B-Q 1762 Lamar Ave Memphis, TN 38114 901-272-1523 Open Sun-Thur 11-6:30, F 11-8Pleasantly unrefined is the best way to describe this truly unique BBQ joint along Lamar Avenue. A homemade pit fueled with hardwood charcoal sits deep inside the dark kitchen, but when the doors open the sunlight pours in from above creating a glorious image. That tiny kitchen opens up into the high ceiling of the eerily quiet dining room, while a small flame shoots up from the residential style stove top just behind the counter.Ordering is done at the counter here, and drinks are by the can only. This was the only joint on this Memphis tour without sweet tea. It’s also one of the few that mix the sauce with their pork. They are proud of this thin spicy sauce heavy on the vinegar, and it’s liberally applied to all the meats. Smoky flavors from the charcoal were evident on the moist and tender pork, and a mustardy kick was provided by the thin slaw. Sure the sandwich may have been a mess, but who cares when the table cloths are plastic.Vinegar fumes could knock you over when opening the styrofoam container, so be sure to stay seated. These ribs weren’t anything to look at, but the flavors and textures were incredibly diverse. Again, the charcoal flavor shines through even with a hefty helping of that vinegar sauce. A chewy and sweet outer crust covered luscious and tender rib meat beneath. They were almost like rib candy.A side of slaw had too much mustard when not atop the pork sandwich, but the thick sweet beans had a great smoky flavor and plenty of meaty bits. I have a feeling there’s not much on this menu that I wouldn’t like. I’ll have to see how the bologna and sausage stack up next time.Rating ****

[All information was accurate at the time of publication, but please call ahead or check websites provided for the most up-to-date info.]