On the Road Again: Touring Texas with a European

The San Antonio Riverwalk on a lovely May evening.
The San Antonio Riverwalk on a lovely May evening.
Photo by Loretta Ruggiero

I love Houston and I enjoy showing out-of-town visitors the diversity, the culture and the great fun that can be had in this sprawling metropolis. Still, there are times when the proud Texan in me wants to show off some of the other cool towns and cities that give Texas its almost mythological status above all the other states.

With my French friend of 33 years visiting me for two weeks, I wanted to give her as much of the Texas experience as possible. While we had done many wonderful things all over Houston, it also meant that we had spent a lot of time stuck in Houston traffic. It was time to hit the open road.

I knew San Antonio would be a big hit, but I decided to stop in Austin first. Twenty-five years ago, a trip from Houston to Austin was a country drive up Highway 290. Now, much of it has become suburban strip malls and chain restaurants. However, the rolling hills and the occasional cattle ranch remind you that you are still in the Lone Star State.

I put in a CD of Willie Nelson's greatest hits and we were on our way. With our Frenglish, we discussed our different yet quite similar lives.

I needed to get gas, so we stopped off at a Buc-ees's in Eagle Lake, a small town that still has some hundred-year-old buildings lining Main Street. This was the smallest Buc-ee's I had ever seen. I tried to explain the popularity of this Texas convenience store and told my friend that we would stop at a gigantic one on the way home. That would surely be an experience for a European visitor.

Once we hit Austin, it began to drizzle. I figured a tour of the Texas State Capitol Building would be a good place to showcase the grandeur of old Texas. As we parked the car, we saw one of my least favorite political figures getting into a large, black SUV.

We walked around the lovely grounds and admired the gorgeous old oak trees. Walking into the giant pink granite building, I pointed out the various statues of Texas notables. She was familiar only with Davy Crockett.

There was a protest going on in the rotunda. A group of about 20 young women stood in a semicircle, silent and holding signs. They were dressed in long red capes and wearing white bonnets, a scene out of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale.

We were also lucky enough to witness the legislature at work, passing bills so quickly; it made our heads spin. I hope none of them affect me.

After the walking and driving, we were ready for a bite to eat. Not wanting to drive all over Austin in search of food, I decided to go to a place I'm familiar with: The Hula Hut.

I know many people consider it a tired tourist trap, but I was seeking an experience that a French visitor would like and that would make for some great Facebook posts back home in Gay Paree. She was happy to be by the water and she loved the kitschy tiki decor, taking photos nonstop with her phone.

We started off with a Mango Margarita for her and a frozen Mai Tai for me. Though they were about the same price, her margarita was much smaller than my drink. Considering the fact that three sips of the last margarita she'd had made her tipsy, it wasn't a bad thing. The drinks weren't strong, but they were yummy.

My French buddy was thrilled to see salad entrées and ordered the Hula Hut Chopped Salad with grilled shrimp.

Deciding I could use a salad after my hedonistic week at various Houston restaurants, I went with the Caesar Salad Combo with chicken flautas. The salads were huge. I swapped a couple of my flautas for her grilled shrimp.

For a touristy restaurant, the grilled shrimp were amazing. They were charred perfectly with a sweet and spicy rub. My friend loved the crispy thin chips, and I couldn't get enough of the fresh tomato salsa. With our fruity drinks and a view of Lake Austin, it made for a nice tropical interlude.

But man, they need to refresh their restrooms.

We headed back on the road to San Antonio. The traffic and a spectacular car fire put us behind schedule a bit.

After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we made our way to the Riverwalk. My last visit had been with the kids during spring break. We had trudged up and down the stone steps en masse with other vacationing families. I swore never to do it again.

This time, however, was enchanting. My friend was oo-la-la-ing as we walked along the winding green river. Honestly, of all the times I have been, I have never seen it look so lovely.

We passed restaurant after restaurant until coming to a small Italian place called Bella. Spying an open table outside, we hurried up the steps to find a host. It was quaint with its old-world stone walls and candlelight, but we had our girly hearts set on sitting riverside.

We lucked out with a table right under an old, beautiful fig tree growing out of the rock, twinkling with fairy lights. As tour barges made their way past, the guides would point out the tree to the tourists. We began to point to the tree with our hands like the Price Is Right models every time the barges went by. 

We started off with the bruschetta of the day, polenta with pork bolognese. I wished the bread had been a little crustier to offset the softness of the polenta and the sauce.

My friend ordered yet another salad, with shrimp. At first she was daunted by the idea of a mint pesto, but it came on the side and she liked the flavor. I had the Eggplant Josephine, a layered dish of fried eggplant, mozzarella and hollandaise sauce. It was very rich, but then, what was I expecting? 

We toasted the strange circumstances of being brought together as teenage pen pals. Now we were seated under a venerable old fig tree watching the barges go by on the Riverwalk, 33 years later.

After our late dinner, we wandered over to the Main Plaza to watch "The Saga," a light show projected onto the facade of San Fernando Cathedral, telling the story of San Antonio and Texas. It is a stunning do-not-miss in this lovely, old city.

"The Saga" at San Fernando Cathedral.
"The Saga" at San Fernando Cathedral.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The next day, we did the obligatory visit to the Alamo and wandered around downtown, finding ourselves back at the Riverwalk. The rain began to fall lightly, nixing our plans for another riverside meal. Instead, we ended up at Boudro's Texas Bistro, an elegant, small restaurant, its stone walls lined with antique mirrors. Despite its white tablecloths and candles, the lunch menu was reasonably priced and we loved the intimacy of the dimly lit bistro.

My friend started off with the restaurant's signature drink, the prickly pear margarita. The taste of the prickly pear puree was a little strange, but it was a very pretty drink and made for the perfect photo to incite envy in the hearts of her Parisian friends.

I had a glass of the Becker Vineyard's Iconoclast. For a restaurant with the name Texas in it, the wine list could have benefited from more local selections, rather than the preponderance of California vintages.

My friend had the spinach salad with mesquite-grilled salmon and really liked the bacon-mustard dressing that accompanied it. I didn't want to mention that all these salads she was eating might not be altogether healthy.

I had no intention of being healthy, and ordered the Boudros Burger. The avocado salsa was a refreshing addition. The so-called "fire fries" were good, but with such a name I had expected something a little spicier. I offered some to the French bunny, who was munching happily on her greens. She confessed that she'd already snuck a few while I was in the ladies' room (much lovelier restroom than Hula Hut's, by the way).

Our server, Fernando (like the cathedral), was a pleasant mix of formality and friendliness. It was a wonderful end to our Riverwalk experience.

We bid adieu to the river and headed out to Mission San Jose, the grandest of the four "other" missions that San Antonio still possesses. Texas has so few really old buildings. The missions are a treasure.

As we headed back to the hustle and bustle of Houston, my friend fell asleep. As we passed by the giant Buc-ee's along I-10, I considered waking her to go have a look. I decided it could wait for next time.


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