Let me be honest: everything about Houston intimidates me, from its sprawling size to its infinite destinations. And did I mention the traffic? Whenever I visit, my Houston friends never want to leave their particular parts of town to meet at whatever buzzy restaurant or blockbuster exhibit I’ve come to check out. Maybe I’ve been exploring the city all wrong. So this time, instead of driving from one far-flung corner to another to see its sights, I decide to do what the locals do: find a hood and hunker down.
After consulting several longtime Houstonians, I choose Montrose, the area that’s roughly bordered by Allen Parkway, Bagby Street, U.S. 59, and Shepherd Drive. I head directly to its heart: lower Westheimer Road, the bustling (if pothole-riddled) thoroughfare that serves as Montrose’s equator. As I walk along the sidewalks, window-shopping evolves into active browsing at Mortar (1911 Westheimer Road, 713-529-0009), a boutique stocked with indie labels for nattily dressed men who favor woodsy plaids and high-end lip balms.
Several blocks down, browsing turns to inspecting as I size up refurbished furniture and pre-owned tchotchkes at a cluster of resale shops, like B. J. Oldies Antiques (1435 Westheimer Road, 832-651-8477) and Linda Mann’s Old Blue House Antiques and Curiosities (1719 Westheimer Road, 713-521-2515), where the clerk nudges me toward two items I could live without but shouldn’t. Unfortunately, the rare Beatles album is not in my price range ($950), and the vintage chartreuse-feathered fascinator looks like wilted lettuce on my head. I do get a free tip, though: “Try the Greek cafe across the street,” the clerk suggests, pointing toward Agora (1712 Westheimer Road, 713-526-7212), the neighborhood’s beloved anti-Starbucks hangout. By the time the caffeine from my frappé kicks in, I’ve moved along to Space Montrose (2608 Dunlavy), where most of the artsy wares (everything from jewelry to baby bibs) are handmade by crafty Texans. Satisfied that I’ve left no display unseen, I continue east to the Hay Merchant (1100 Westheimer Road, 713-528-9805) to meet a friend for drinks. I’m overwhelmed by the more than 75 craft beers on tap, so the bartender pours samples of a white pilsner and a milk stout. For dinner we walk next door to Underbelly (1100 Westheimer Road, 713-528-9800), where we feast on chef Chris Shepherd’s pickled shrimp, wagyu carpaccio, and a pork meatball the size of an ostrich egg. I feel a food coma coming on. Thankfully, it’s a short drive over to La Maison in Midtown (2800 Brazos, 713-529-3600), the seven-room redbrick bed-and-breakfast just east of Montrose where I’ll be zonking out. My third-floor accommodations are cozy enough (read: comfy mattress, whirlpool tub) that it feels like I’m at home, albeit a much plusher version. I draw the blackout curtains, knowing I’ll soon be dreaming of that meatball.
From La Maison, it’s a five-minute drive over to the Menil Collection (1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400), the understated home of hundreds of antiquities and artworks (from Byzantine to contemporary) that the late philanthropist Dominique de Menil created as a gift to Houston. In one gallery, I sit on a bench and stare into Mark Rothko’s inky purple-black canvases. In another, I gaze into the hollow sockets of a wooden African mask. I loiter for a while longer in the museum’s bookstore, across the street, until my growling hunger becomes unbearable. Lunch, it turns out, has come to me: two food trucks have set up shop in the parking lot. Armed with a gourmet frankfurter from Good Dog Hot Dogs (various locations, 832-800-3647) and a mini coconut Bundt cake from Porch Swing Desserts (various locations, 713-429-1338), I find a shady patch of grass under a massive live oak. If only I’d brought a picnic blanket.
With so few shopping hours left, I plot out my next stops: Settlement Goods and Design (3939 Montrose Boulevard, 713-701-7872), an urban-chic purveyor of made-in-America home goods, clothing, and accessories; Soundwaves (3509 Montrose Boulevard, 713-520-9283), which brags that it’s the state’s largest surf and skate shop; and Reeves Antiques (2415 Taft, 713-523-5577), a showroom and block-long warehouse where I ogle Mad Men–era furniture. I overhear a woman say “frozen mojito,” and about a minute after I’ve inquired as to where one can procure such a treat, I’m walking into Boheme Cafe and Wine Bar (307 Fairview, 713-529-1099). In its soft red light, I can make out a mishmash of furniture (low leather couches, mustard velvet armchairs) and patrons, who are eating lavash pizzas and sipping the frosty yellow-green drink. This is my kind of neighborhood bar. Especially since it’s close enough to my B&B that I can walk “home.”
Over the past two days, I’ve been polling my fellow Montroseans (is that what we’re called?) on their favorite spots. One place has been mentioned more than any other: La Guadalupana Bakery and Cafe (2109 Dunlavy, 713-522-2301). I’ve been told that it has good migas and great pastries and that I must order the Vampiro, a tall glass of orange, carrot, and beet juice, which I do. As I’m paying, the proprietor, Trancito Diaz, hands me a to-go box with a gratis slice of his signature tres leches cake. I get the feeling I’m not the first unfamiliar face to receive such a welcome gift.
On the way out, I notice a small knot of activity a few blocks down near the Guild Shop (2009 Dunlavy, 713-528-5095). Though technically a thrift store that’s run by a local Episcopal church, it feels more like an estate sale that all the neighbors have rushed over to pick through. A nice walnut half-circle entryway table catches my eye, but then so does the long checkout line, and I balk. As I’m walking back to my car, a frazzled-looking driver slows down next to me and asks if I know where a local bookstore is. I start to explain that I’m not from around here, but then I realize I can tell her exactly where to go.