By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Beyond the Bridges
Adventurers are rediscovering the wilderness of Buffalo Bayou right in the middle of the city.
By Brittanie Shey
On a recent Friday evening around dusk, a pontoon boat came to rest below the Waugh Street Bridge on Buffalo Bayou. About 20 people were on board, hoping to get a glimpse of the bridge's bat colony during its nightly fly-out in search of food. But the pontoon boat had been beaten to the spot. Seven or eight kayaks and canoes, some piloted solo and some carrying two people, had already gathered under the bridge for one of the best viewing spots of the Mexican freetailed bat colony in the city.
The pontoon boat was part of a biweekly tour organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, but the kayakers were part of a growing group of adventurers rediscovering the wilderness below street level in Houston — the longest urban paddle trail in the state of Texas.
"There are sections of the bayou where you can't believe you're in the city," says Rico Torres, president of Bayou Shuttle Service, the leading provider of boat rentals and tours along Buffalo Bayou.
Torres, who grew up in Florida and Texas, and was a Boy Scout, has always been interested in water sports. He surfed and boogie-boarded as a kid, but paddled Buffalo Bayou for the first time over Easter weekend two years ago. Since then, he's become one of the city's biggest advocates for sporting on Buffalo Bayou.
He started Bayou Shuttle Service in 2010 as a way to solve the inconvenient logistics of paddling from Point A to Point B on the bayou. Instead of paddlers having to enlist the help of an additional driver to drop off or pick up them and their boats, Bayou Shuttle Service will do it for them.
In addition to shuttles and rentals, Torres runs an online meet-up group for paddlers, offers free kayaking lessons on the Bayou and in the lake at Discovery Green, and leads tours such as the Skyline Tour, which covers Houston history from the Civil War to the present day from the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
Torres says he's seen everything from herons to turtles to snakes and gar in the waters of the bayou. But most people never give themselves the chance to see the water that close.
"The only thing they ever see is the view from the bridges," he says, noting that bridges are a natural place for trash and debris to build up. "They'd be surprised to learn that thousands of people paddle Buffalo Bayou."
Wade Woehrmann, owner of the Texas Adventure Racing Club, helps lead a group of about 30 of those paddlers every other week. TAR is an organization for athletes who train and compete in multi-discipline races throughout the state. Often those races include paddling, and so at regular intervals, members of TAR meet at Lot H by the Sabine Street Bridge just west of downtown for on-the-water practice. Below the Sabine Street Lofts is one of ten access points along the 26 miles of the Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail, which starts in Fort Bend County past Highway 6 and ends near the spot where the Allen Brothers founded the city of Houston.
Four TAR coaches help the club's two groups — novices and veterans — get into the water and paddle upstream to either the Waugh Bridge or the Shepherd Bridge. Woehrmann says the club gets its fair share of funny looks.
"It's surprisingly nice most of the time. It seems like the bayou is always changing," he says. "Usually there are people gathered on the bridges or on the trails, and they can't help but turn their heads and watch the paddlers."
Woehrmann says the questions he gets from onlookers give him the chance to advocate the pleasures of Harris County's bayous to those who wouldn't dream of getting near the water.
"A third to a half (of the paddlers) have never done anything like this before. They're both terrified because they're on the bayou, and they're also grinning from ear to ear."
Earlier this year, Woehrmann partnered with the Bayou Preservation Association to put on a short adventure race in Terry Hershey Park to help bring attention to the Buffalo Bayou Paddle Trail. The race included trail running, mountain biking and a 3K paddle on the bayou. In October, there may be a similar race on Cypress Creek. That's because, by October, the Buffalo Preservation Association hopes to get a 38-mile stretch of Cypress Creek designated by Texas Parks & Wildlife as the city's newest, and longest, official paddle trail.
Katharine Lord, executive director of BPA, says all that remains is the completion of the last of ten launches before TPW can officially designate the trail.
"It's pretty exciting because Cypress Creek is just gorgeous," she says. "We hope to have it finalized by fall, but you can still paddle it now."
Soon, Torres plans to expand his shuttle service to Cypress Creek, and he also wants to start teaching surfing classes and stand-up paddle-boarding classes. BPA has partnered with Torres to record a video advocating the use of the bayous that will play on screens inside Bayou Shuttle Service's buses.
Cypress Creek is a different experience from Buffalo Bayou, according to paddlers. While Buffalo Bayou is deep and urban, Cypress Creek is shallower and more off the beaten path. Part of what has delayed the creek's designation as an official paddling trail was last year's drought — TPW employees have to paddle it themselves before the designation can take place. To protect against future droughts, improvements made by BPA to the creek include sluices, which help direct water flow away from natural dams and debris build-up.
"The best time to paddle Cypress Creek is three or four days after a rain," Woehrmann says. "Thirty years ago when I was a kid, back when it used to rain, we'd drag surfboards or whatever we had out to the water. That's not quite acceptable today, but it's becoming more acceptable."
Woehrmann says opinions of Houston's bayous are changing, gradually. Thanks to improvements by the Bayou Preservation Association and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, fewer Houstonians view them as polluted and dangerous. Over the past few years, a loose group of kids who used to gather to skimboard at the confluence of Cypress Creek and Little Cypress Creek has now become the Skim Jam, the largest flatland skimboarding competition in Texas. April's Skim Jam was the fifth annual competition and featured top skimmers from across the country, with entry fees going toward The Rose, Houston's nonprofit breast cancer organization.
Cypress Creek is ideal for skimboarding, which requires a flat, shallow water surface.
"You do with what you have," Woehrmann says. "The sugar sand (in Cypress Creek) is nicer than what you find on the beach.
"On Buffalo Bayou at dusk, you can see the buildings downtown twinkling. You've got this wilderness right in the middle of town, and you're below the city of Houston, looking up."
Anything goes on everyone's favorite summer snack.
Although nothing's stopping you from eating them all year round, there's something about the appeal of a hot dog in the summer that's simple and pure. Yet as hot dogs experience a renaissance — appearing on high-end menus, in hot dog-themed food trucks and in hot dog-centric restaurants — the dogs themselves have become anything but simple. In fact, the best thing about topping a hot dog is that anything goes.
At Happy Fatz in the Heights, that "anything" includes breakfast. The little bungalow specializes in both baked goods and hot dogs, and frequently tops its dogs with everything from white pimento cheese and red cabbage to hash browns and fried eggs. Those last two toppings are featured on The Clucker — Happy Fatz's answer to a breakfast sandwich — along with hot sauce and an all-beef Hebrew National frank.
Surprisingly, breakfast condiments partner pretty well with hot dogs. Just ask the Good Dog Hot Dogs truck, whose cream cheese-topped Sunshine Dog is one of its best sellers. Along with the cream cheese, the hot dog is brightened up with ample amounts of pickled red onions and freshly made dill relish. For something more Tex-Mex, though, check out its avocado-and-jalapeño-topped Guac-a-Dog with cumin and lime.
Tex-Mex dogs are also popular right now at James Coney Island. The 89-year-old chain has recently introduced a line of specialty dogs made with Hebrew National franks and buns from local bakery Slow Dough. Check out the Baja, which comes with guacamole and chipotle mayo, or go all Texan with the Lonestar, topped with barbecue sauce and onion rings.
In keeping with Houston's ever-growing Asian population, you can even find Korean and Japanese-inspired hot dogs hitting the streets at Happy Endings. The food truck has a range of all-beef hot dogs topped with ingredients such as kimchi, katsu sauce, bonito flakes and seaweed. On one of its most popular dogs, the Hiroshima, you'll get the sweet tang of katsu sauce along with the crunch of deep-fried tempura bits.
Over at The Burger Guys, you can get your entire hot dog with crunch: The restaurant frequently offers specials like twice-fried hot dogs, although the un-fried franks are enough to contend with on their own. Each hot dog here is a foot long (that's why they call them "double fisted dogs," after all), and comes with house-made condiments like rémoulade, chow-chow and mustard made with local favorite Saint Arnold Lawnmower beer.
Revival Market also specializes in house-made condiments for its hot dogs and — like many of the hot doggeries listed here — supports local bakeries and producers in the process, including itself. That's because the market/butcher shop makes its own franks on site. A natural casing provides a pleasant snap, and the softly fatty Mangalitsa pork inside is a terrific departure from all-beef or blended franks. And on top, Revival adds a few crispy chicharrones from the same pig that likely made up the hot dog underneath.
For something even wilder than Mangalitsa dogs, head to Sammy's Wild Game Grill. There, you'll find a rotating menu of game hot dogs that have included buffalo, venison and lamb, each on a soft pretzel bun. You can top it with your choice of items like bacon bits or fried onions, but it's the addictive ghost pepper sauce that Sammy's makes in-house that really stands out — if you can take the heat, that is.
If you aren't opposed to the heat, you can enjoy a hot dog at Discovery Green, whether you decide to grab-and-go from The Lake House or get something fancier from The Grove. At The Lake House, you can top your all-beef dog with more all-beef chili, but the queso-topped dog is a messy favorite that's perfect for eating outside. Just across the park, you can indulge in an American Kobe beef hot dog with homemade mustard and chow-chow at lunch with a view from The Grove's broad, beautiful patio onto the verdant park and glittering skyline beyond.
But what does a hot dog fan do if they just want something simple? Head on out to partake in another summer pastime: a ballgame. Minute Maid Park sells nearly 10,000 hot dogs per game, most of which are simple ketchup-or-mustard-topped affairs. But not even the ballpark is exempt from over-the-top hot dogs anymore: The stadium has introduced the Astros Sizzling Extreme Grill this year in sections 125 and 154, which specializes in everything from Chicago-style and New York-style dogs to spicy Diablo Dogs and chili-topped Cincinnati dogs. And starting this year, you can download the At Bat app onto your iPhone and order hot dogs (and other ballpark food) right from your seat.
Ordering your franks may not be that simple anymore, but the joy of eating a good hot dog always will be simple indeed.
Sugar Land gets Minor League Baseball team the Skeeters — and a whole lot more.
"We are going to have a guy who lights himself on fire and then runs around the bases. It's gonna be amazing!" — Bryan Hodge, marketing communications manager of the Sugar Land Skeeters
If there is a nexus of the entertainment universe where sport meets spectacle, there's a decent chance that it's probably in a Minor League Baseball ballpark somewhere. For years, in market sizes ranging from secondary to "back woods," minor league baseball has provided a cost-effective alternative to Major League Baseball by combining the basics (cheap tickets, cheap beer) with the bizarre (cowboy monkeys, anyone?).
Finally, this unique brand of diversion has made its way to the Houston area.
The Sugar Land Skeeters officially opened for business in late April as a member of the Atlantic League. Just to give you a little background, within the various species of Minor League Baseball, the Atlantic League is a bit of a different animal in that its teams don't each directly feed their own major league franchise. Instead, the AL is actually what's called a "free agent league," in which individual players can and do get noticed by major league franchises. In fact, more than 600 players have been sold back to major league organizations, and 71 have gone on to play at the highest level in the major leagues.
To the average Skeeters fan, though, where the players on the field come from and eventually wind up is secondary to the game day experience at palatial Constellation Field. Does the team want to win? Absolutely. But that's just part of the overall goal, which Bryan Hodge will tell you is to "provide a fun, affordable, unique entertainment package for families and baseball fans."
It starts with the facility. Constellation Field has an uncanny ability to give almost 6,000 seats the coziness of 2,000 seats and the "big time" feel of 30,000 seats. Whether it's the reserved seats in the lower part of the park (a steal, with the most expensive seats at $12), the grass hill in right field ($8 general admission and a perfect place to catch home run balls or banter with relief pitchers), the Ice House bar in center field or one of the 25 luxury suites, there's not a bad vantage point in the house.
Visually, the park is gorgeous, combining certain characteristics of ballparks across the sport. As someone who has been to roughly two thirds of the stadiums in Major League Baseball, I would say if Coors Field were to have a "stadium baby" with Fenway Park, Constellation Field would be that facility.
If it feels as if, for a team that's brand-new, the Skeeters seem to know what they're doing, it's because their owners have done this before. "Our ownership has opened up over 15 ballparks. They know what they're doing," says Hodge. And while there is a blueprint that clearly works, the owners want the Skeeters "experience" to have some nuances unique to their being the Atlantic League's first franchise in Texas. "We've got some things that are different from other Atlantic League teams to set us apart. For example, we have the Texas board (a monstrous high-def screen in center field). We have the splash pad, because it's Texas and people need to cool off."
And in case you think they hadn't thought of literally every weather-related detail in constructing the ballpark: "We even set up the stadium so the sun sets behind it and fans are in the shade in the summertime."
In fact, the only thing that's not major league about the facility itself is the price of parking — free.
Perhaps as a baseball metaphor of sorts, the charm in Sugar Land Skeeters baseball is in its entertainment versatility, a true leisure-time utility player, if you will.
Have a family with kids? Well, the Skeeters provide the perfect combination of on-field baseball with sensory distraction, including a carousel in center field, the aforementioned splash pad and an entire playground stretching from the right-field foul line to straight away center field. And in the spirit of cost effectiveness, kids in youth baseball uniforms get into the games for free.
Want to go hang out with your buddies? The backdrop for "festivities" ranges from the leisurely outdoor Ice House in center field to the picnic plaza and pool pavilion (with an actual outdoor swimming pool) to the upscale sports bar atmosphere of the Legends Club, complete with billiards and shuffleboard tables.
And the pièce de résistance, of course, is the promotions, the life blood of Minor League Baseball. Whether it's a Roger Creager concert, a Swatson (the Skeeters' frenetic mascot) bobblehead giveaway or Star Wars night (one of several theme-related fireworks nights, although admittedly the only one where you'll likely see a grown man dressed as Chewbacca), the Skeeters are undeterred in their goal to send you home satisfied.
In a sport defined by boundaries and walls, the beauty in the Skeeters' offering is in its lack thereof. It's sports and entertainment. I asked Hodge what promotions he'd like to do that aren't on the list for 2012.
His answer? "Mutton busting."
"The kids that wrestle the sheep at the rodeo? They'll bring that to a ballpark?" I asked.
"I don't know, but why not? Wouldn't it be awesome?" Hodge beamed.
It's a Pleasure
Galveston gets an amusement park on the water.
Galveston has long been known for its murky water and less-than-pristine beaches, but this summer a native of the seaside city hopes to make it synonymous with something else. Tilman Fertitta, owner of Landry's and the force behind the Kemah Boardwalk, plans to open the Pleasure Pier, an amusement park built completely over the water.
"Mr. Fertitta has always had kind of an affinity for that type of operation," says the regional director of Landry's new theme park division, Mark Kane. "And he's from Galveston, dedicated and loyal to Galveston."
A few years back, Fertitta decided to make the pier into a center of family entertainment similar to his other properties, which include the Rainforest Café and the Downtown Aquarium. However, he did not start from scratch.
"This was an existing pier. Historically, back in the '50s, it was an amusement pier," Kane says. "After one of these many hurricanes it was converted to a hotel and fishing pier, a Flagship Hotel."
The hotel, which was built in 1965, managed to stick around until 2008, when Hurricane Ike cleared the property once again. It was then that Fertitta purchased the property to begin the construction of the new Historic Pleasure Pier.
The park will feature a number of classic rides, including a double-tier carousel, a 100-foot Ferris wheel and old-fashioned bumper cars, in the hopes of inspiring nostalgia and fond reminiscence. But the pier will feature modern rides, too.
Says Kane, "We have something for everybody. There's the kids' zone with the frog hopper, big wheel and truck ride, the Texas teacups...for the thrill-seekers, we have what's called the Iron Shark, a steel roller coaster that has a 100-foot lift, and we also have the tallest swing ride in the state of Texas."
And of course, all the foodstuffs a person might expect when visiting an amusement park — funnel cakes, hot dogs, fried turkey legs, chicken fingers, milk shakes and more — will be available.
There also will be a main restaurant just outside the park called Bubba Gump's, a shrimp-centric restaurant that's part of a chain making its Texas debut, and expected to seat up to 600 people.
With that number in mind, and with the predicted turnout following the pier's opening day, there may be a slight problem for visitors of the theme park.
"We do have a premium lot across the street and space for 420 cars. After that, it's wherever we can find parking," Kane admits. "It's one of the challenges."
Another slight concern might be the tendency of hurricanes to destroy this particular piece of paradise, as history has demonstrated.
"There's been a significant effort to reinforce the pier," Kane says. "We're actually building a pier on top of the pier reinforced underneath." So maybe this one will last a little longer than its predecessors.
Hurricanes aside, the pier is a source of hope for many Galveston residents, both for its potential to generate tourism and for its employment opportunities. Opening early this summer, The Pleasure Pier is located at 2501 Seawall Boulevard.