Howdy and Bienvenue: What's Houston Like for a European Vacationer?

A crisp Caesar salad, a Shiner Bock and a view.EXPAND
A crisp Caesar salad, a Shiner Bock and a view.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

As a 15-year-old girl, I was thrilled when our French teacher offered us a chance to correspond with another class of students in France. I wrote asking for a French boy my age, with fantasies of Jean-Pierre falling madly in love with me and inviting me to his home in the south of France one day. Instead, I received a letter from a 17-year-old girl informing me that she was sorry she was not a boy but that the boys in her class were stupid anyway. Thus began a pen pal friendship that has lasted 30-plus years.

She first visited Texas in 1987, when I was a broke 19-year-old, so her visit was a little lacking, to say the least. Ten years ago, I visited her for a day while traveling through France. Facebook has helped us keep in touch and when she informed me that she would like to visit for a couple of weeks (the French do like their vacations), I was excited, but a little daunted by the prospect of entertaining someone who lives 20 minutes outside of Paris, one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities in the world.

Our own city, Houston, has become the most diverse in the United States. The restaurant scene, the bounty of new parks, the traffic and constant construction are all the result of its economy and livability. I wanted to showcase our friendly town, state and our delicious food too.

I waited for more than two hours at the airport. I received a heart-stopping text from my friend saying that "the police arrestation me." The police had taken her aside with several other travelers. When she finally appeared, her rapid French was overwhelming, but we soon hit our Franglais/Frenglish groove.

I had asked her to bring me some fleur de sel. When she gave me a two-pound bag with a twist tie, I realized why the police may have "arrestationed" her.

We decided a meal at Del Pueblo, a Mexican restaurant five minutes from our home, would be a good way to introduce her to local cuisine. She had been an exchange student in Mexico as a teen, so I figured she would love the food. When she told us that she didn't like anything spicy, I panicked a little. She also said she wanted a salad.

Fortunately, she also was a big fan of meat on her salads, so the beef fajita salad hit the spot. The beef fajitas at Del Pueblo can be inconsistent sometimes, but I love the grilled onions and rice that accompany the meat. Del Pueblo puts its rice straight on the skillet, which I think every Mexican restaurant should do. It caramelizes the rice on the bottom and imparts a great flavor to an otherwise bland side dish.

Frozen margaritas are de rigueurwhen entertaining a visitor in Houston, and Del Pueblo's pack a punch more than most — When my friend said she was drunk after three sips, we laughed.

Our next day was gorgeous and sunny, perfect weather to take a visitor to Houston's beautiful Hermann Park area. After a brief stop at the Museum of Fine Arts, a walk around the lake and a stroll through the Japanese Garden, we had time to grab some lunch at Market Square Bar and Grill before our scheduled tour of the cistern at Buffalo Bayou.

The Market Square Bar and Grill is a good start before a pub crawl of Warren's Inn and La Carafe. The courtyard in the back has a European feel, with its ramshackle buildings and ivy climbing the walls. My friend enjoyed a Caesar salad with grilled chicken, while I went for a plain burger. Not fancy food, but the sunny atmosphere was the real star.

The next beautiful day begged for more al fresco dining. We decided on Papa's On the Lake in Conroe. On a busy summer weekend, Papa's can be teeming with lake-bound party animals, but during the week, before school is out, it's a little oasis.

We met some lakeside regulars who recommended the muffuletta. The waitress suggested I get the whole one for just a couple of dollars more. It was bigger than my head and I have a pretty big noggin.

Muffuletta is all about the bread and this one was nice and soft, with a yummy olive relish. I took more than half of it to go.

We convinced Frenchie that she had to forgo a salad for once, and she opted for a bacon cheeseburger with onion rings. I was starting to detect a slight Texas twang sneaking into her voice as she chatted happily, enjoying the lake view and the beefy goodness of her first American burger.

Next on our itinerary was the Tomball Rails and Tails Mudbug Festival. With live zydeco music and real cowboys strolling around, she really got a taste of true Americana. We couldn't convince her to try the crawfish, because of the spice, but she did eat a pork crackling. I told her I hardly thought that was adventuresome, considering some of the things the French like to eat.

With more great weather the next day, we headed to Piñatas on the Esplanade, a festival in the east end of Houston. There were two different mariachi bands and a hipster couple singing folk songs, amid colorful piñatas and piñata-inspired artwork. We planned to take her to the Original Ninfa's on Navigation, but, deciding against a very long wait, we ended up finding a perfect table on the patio at El Tiempo Cantina next door instead.

The prices at El Tiempo can run along the lines of some of Houston's fine-dining establishments. For lunch and brunch, however, there are a few deals to be had. I like the pork tamales. For less than ten dollars, you get three tamales covered in either red or green chili. I prefer the house-made red chili, which far outshines the canned chili gravy some other restaurants serve.

Our friend was back on her salad kick. She chose the Parilla salad with chicken, avocados, jicama and praline pecans, served with cilantro citrus dressing. Of all the salads she had on her trip, this was her favorite. Not a leaf of lettuce was left on the plate.

She attempted to drink a whole margarita, but alas, I had to finish it for her. There are benefits to hanging out with lightweights.

The French Salad Queen gives the Parilla Salad at El Tiempo cinq étoiles.
The French Salad Queen gives the Parilla Salad at El Tiempo cinq étoiles.
photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

After a few heavy days of festivals and restaurants, we gave ourselves a day off, eating tomato salads out of my garden and homemade buttermilk pancakes, a food she had first tasted and loved on her previous visit, 30 years ago.

I didn't realize how strong a passion had been ignited then. I explained to her all the different ingredients as she watched me creating one of her favorite foods. What I thought of as super-simple, she regarded as a culinary feat.

As I flipped each new pancake onto her plate, her eyes lit up with childlike joy. We giggled like the teenage girls we used to be.

After our day of rest, we decided to make the drive to Galveston. We made a brief tour of the Seawall and the Strand, but she was ready for the sun and sand. I warned her that our beaches weren't exactly the prettiest stretches of coastline, but we found a fairly isolated spot on Pirate's Beach and worshipped the sun for an hour.

I decided to take the Bluewater Highway to Surfside Beach for a different experience. We munched on fresh strawberries and marveled at the multitude of beach houses that now line the coast, from sweet little turquoise cabins to multi-leveled behemoths.

Ready for something more filling than strawberries, we stopped off at the Pirate's Alley Cafe, which seems to be in the middle of reinventing itself as the Seahorse Grill

Surfside Beach is seeing an upswing in real estate and tourism. It was only a matter of time before the few restaurants in Surfside followed suit. The seafood prices rival those of the more famous spots in Galveston.

My petite amie stuck to a Caesar salad with grilled chicken.

Under the delusion that my swimsuit cover-up could hide my culinary indiscretions, I ordered the patty melt. I was tempted by the description of Texas Toast. Unfortunately, the bread was not toasted enough and the juices from the meat created a bit of a soggy mess.

No matter. The restaurant offers a great view of the beach and ocean. Our server, with her Southern accent, was an added charm.

We decided to end our coastal excursion with another hour on the beach before heading into the hell that is south Houston traffic. It was worth it.

Our next adventure was organized by my husband. The three of us made our way Midtown on a Saturday night to Natachee's Supper 'n Punch. The interior is an eclectic mix of music posters, vintage decor, and odds and ends.

Our friend was shocked by the casual attire of the servers, saying that it would not happen in Paris. I tried to explain the bohemian vibe of the joint as best I could in my limited French.      

We enjoyed our various punches. My husband went for Paw Paw's Paloma Punch, and our friend tried the Maw Maw's Mellowrama Punch. She liked the sweetness of the melon liqueur. I had the Triple Dog Dare Punch, which sounded more fierce than it actually was.

After a quick bite that included more salads and chili cheese fries that had an undercurrent of a sweet spice in them, like cinnamon, we headed a couple of doors down to the Continental Club and its sister (or brother) club, Shoeshine Charley's Bigtop Lounge.

Our friend was quite taken with the colored lights and the El

vis-themed decorations. I liked the big booths and the flattering glow of red.

We grabbed a couple of canned Coronas (they were on special for three bucks) and a planter's punch for the Gallic newbie. The band at the Continental Club was about to start, so we made our way through the back garden that connects the two clubs.

My French femme was very much into the music of the ’80s and I got tickled listening to her sing lyrics in English. Once the Xanadudes ( Now We Are Here) opened their set with The Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star, she became a dancing fool, despite her earlier admission that she was too timid.

Shaking to the Go-Go's and Human League, I think, she worked off all those salads.

Our final day was spent at the Johnson Space Center, a must-do on her list. After spending several hours there, we were ready to rest our space-addled minds and get a bite to eat. I realized that many of our dining experiences had been near a body of water. This last one would be no exception.

A few minutes drive and we were at the Kemah Boardwalk. I am not a fan of crowds, amusement parks, and over-priced tourist traps, so I had never visited. That day, however, there were very few people and the boardwalk was walkable and charming in the sea breeze.

We decided to get a bite at Landry's Seafood House, simply because of the great view. The service was good. The food was fine. My lobster bisque was tasty, but an entire bowl was too much. I also had a side order of orzo with crab, a sticky and tasteless disappointment. 

The Caesar salad with chicken got a c'est bon.

As my friend and I sat there, watching the shrimp boats come in, the seagulls and pelicans circling in their wake, she said, "Every idea you have had has been great."

I realized that most of my dining choices had been based on the experience rather than the food. We were just lucky to have some pretty nice meals at the same time.


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