Category: U.S.


North coast, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Travel to San Juan by sea at least once because no other view can compare.

Here in the same time zone as Nova Scotia and Bermuda the sun rises early and as dawn breaks the island’s highest peaks rise out of a lush emerald carpet and thrust through the layer of clouds.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

The whole thing seems to float on the ocean like a mirage, slowly filling the horizon as it draws nearer.

Harbor, San Juan, Puerto Rico

The ship almost completely circles the city before docking in the harbor on the inside of the peninsula.

 

The course delivers a 360 degree view of the city’s signature trio of castles – Castillo San d Cristóbal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (“El Cañuelo”) – which anchor the city’s shoreline.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Spaniards began building the castles in 1539, less than 50 years after Columbus claimed the island for them on his second voyage.

 

 

They left only after the Spanish-American war evicted them from the hemisphere over 400 years later.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan was so heavily fortified for good reason. Its great harbor sat astride the entrance to the Caribbean and it was the last stop made by the Spanish King’s treasure ships before the Atlantic crossing. It was justifiably known as the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean”.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

 

 

 

There’s more castle to see here for any but the most ardent military buff.

 

 

Castillo del Morro won out as my one-castle only pick and I wasn’t disappointed.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

There’s a 20th century scale to this serpentine conglomeration of gun emplacement and turret and overlooks.

Think “Maginot Line.” The walls look thick enough to resist an atomic blast.

Hotel El Convento, San Juan, Puerto Rico

When not bunking on a cruise ship I stay at the Hotel El Convento. It’s centrally located in Old San Juan, most of which is within walking distance and some of which goes up and down the hill on which the city sits.

El Convento occupies a building inaugurated as a Carmelite convent in 1651 and sits directly across from the Western Hemisphere’s oldest cathedral. Coffee in its cloistered courtyard is a great way to start every day.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

The architecture of the shops and homes of Old San Juan are very reminiscent of Spanish New Orleans.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

It has a different feeling here, with landscape views of sea and coast and fresh ocean breezes only blocks away from just about any spot .

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Side streets narrow until there’s no way to travel them except on foot.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Plenty of street scene photos await here.

There’s no lack of good restaurants in the old city, but my favorite for authentic Puerto Rican food is a short cab ride to the Condado district.

The dining room of Restaurante Ajili-Mojili  feels like the verandah of a tropical plantation house.

Nothing on the menu has ever disappointed, but I enjoy and heartily recommend the asopaos – a bisque with rice and chicken, shrimp, seafood, or lobster – almost as much as the mofongos. A Puerto Rican original, the mofongo is fried dough made of mashed green plantains, garlic and pork rinds and stuffed with shrimp, seafood, lobster, veal, chicken or beef.

Condada, San Juan, Puerto Rico

You’ll need to walk this meal off, and there’s no better place thanthe Condado neighborhood, which affords an opportunity to see some great deco architecture in a tropical setting that evokes Miami Beach, but is a lot more intimate.

Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is home to the distillers of more than a dozen national brands of rum among which the most well-known is Bacardi. I’ve seen enough rum distilleries elsewhere to pass on a tour here, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure this is a good place to seek one out.

From San Juan the plan is to make a day trip to the El Yunque National Forest, which bills itself as “the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system”. Watch for it in my next Americana post!

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Big-spirited Little Italy

The Little Italy neighborhoods in Manhattan, The Bronx, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco may be better known, but few offer a more intimate experience than the one on Cleveland’s Murray Hill.

Wall mural, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Wall mural, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Street scene, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Cleveland’s Little Italy was largely insulated from Rust Belt urban blight by its unique location.

Tucked between the University Hospitals complex, the sprawling Lakeview Cemetery, and the hill which crests above it, it’s a virtual urban island.

Holy Rosary Church, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

It’s not surprising that many of the monuments in the adjacent cemetery were fashioned by Italian stonecutters over a century ago.

Mayfield Road, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

This is a truly organic neighborhood built on a pedestrian scale.

In its heyday early in the last century it boasted a parish church, school, shops and restaurants all within blocks of each other and many of which still operate today.  Even the bocce ball court is still in use.

Many restaurants are located around the intersection of Mayfield Road and Murray Hill, but plenty are scattered among the residences to create the feel of a truly organic neighborhood.  Today it makes for a picturesque walkabout..

Nido Italia restaurant, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Many restaurants are located around the intersection of Mayfield Road and Murray Hill, but plenty are scattered among the residences to create the feel of a truly organic neighborhood. Today it makes for a picturesque walkabout.

Italia Apartments, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Anthony’s Restaurant, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Street scene, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

 

Beginning in May and continuing through September nearly every restaurant features sidewalk dining, with the added bonus of a people-watching spectacle.

Local residents, visitors in from the suburbs, and a growing influx of professionals from the nearby hospitals all walking the sidewalks make for an entertaining meal.

 

 

 

La Dolce Vita Restaurant, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

At La Dolce Vita, a personal favorite, Fellini’s movie of the same name seems to run perpetually, projected high on a dining room wall. On weekends, the crowd often spills out onto the patio in back.

Behind La Dolce Vita Restaurant, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Vintage home, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Murray Hill attracts visitors from all over the city, and with Cleveland’s other Italian immigrant neighborhoods now long gone has become a cultural touchstone for local Italian-Americans now five and six generations removed from the old country.

Il Bacio Restaurant, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

It’s hard to eat a meal here that doesn’t have the flavor of authentic recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Fiori Gallery, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Walk off a hearty meal at least far enough down the block to have a gelato dessert or grab an evening smoke at the cigar shop.

Apartments, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

Apartments, Murray Hill, Little Italy, Cleveland

This entire experience goes on steroids every August at the Feast of the Assumption, a Mardi-Gras style celebration of music, food, and culture. At other times of year there’s opera in the Italian Cultural Garden, and Italian film festival, and the obligatory Columbus Day parade.

In the evening the lighted restaurants, streetlamps, and strolling visitors give the place the feel of an Italian piazza on a Saturday night.

Street parking on weekends and during big events can be a challenge here, but a turn off Euclid onto Mayfield goes right past a large parking lot on the left by the railroad bridge.

More here on Cleveland’s Little Italy

Also check out my related posts:

Dallas’s Italian Grocery

The Italian-Argentine connection

Surf Texas!

Corpus Christ bayfront

The biggest of many surprises when I first came to Texas was Corpus Christi.  It is, after all, not often that the words “beach” and “Texas” are spoken in the same sentence outside the state.

No matter how many outside stereotypes it may up-end, though, Corpus Christi is quintessentially Texan.

Corpus Christi marina

Corpus was once on my regular travel circuit, but it had been years since my last visit when I arrived on this trip.

Corpus Christi seawaal

The first thing I notice is that the city has since not only acquired a skyline, but has razed blocks of old and unsightly buildings that once faced the bay.

Statue on Corpus Christi seawall

I could cut here to photos of magnificent sunrises over seashell-strewn beaches and there’s no lack of them within a 20 minute drive.

To reduce Corpus Christi to a stretch of sand and sea horizon, though, ignores some of the best part of the experience.

The city is wrapped around Corpus Christi Bay, sheltered from the Gulf by the northern end of Padre Island.

Corpus Christ bayfront parasailor

Here the Gulf has a distinctly Tex-Mex flavor, and the town exudes the same warmth and hospitality which seems to characterize all of South Texas (see my related post on San Antonio’s King William District).

 

 

 

A publicly accessible bayfront stretches more than 6 miles from the Convention Center to Swanter Park, passing through several other parks along the way.

 

 

It’s a magnet for walkers, joggers, and cyclists and a great way to begin any day.

 

 

World’s largest Whataburger, in the city where the chain was born

 

South Texas Music Hall of Fame, Corpus Christi

I turn away from the bay on Water Street and stumble upon an eclectic collection of sights that in combination could be located absolutely nowhere else.

 

The statue of Tejana music star Selena on the seawall is only one of many places where residents and fans pay homage.
Her star is among those on the South Texas Music Walk of Fame, which highlights other musical notables who were either born or lived in South Texas.

 

Selena memorial, Corpus Christi seawall

Selena memorial, Corpus Christi seawall

Some of the better known include Freddie Fender, Guy Clark, Selena, Christopher Cross, Kris Kristofferson, Rusty Weir, Doug Sahm, and Bill Haley.

More about it here.
 

 

 

 

 

Texas Surf Museum, Corpus Christi

Whether you’re a surfer or not, The Texas Surf Museum is great fun in a kitschsy sort of way. It’ll leave you humming ’60’s California surf tunes for the rest of the day!

More about it here.

 

 

 

Next door I find a great latte at Coffee Waves. I add it to my collection of “anywhere but Starbucks” coffeehouses!
Just over the Nueces River bridge sits the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, now a floating museum.

USS Lexington, Corpus Christi

Mess hall kitchen, USS Lexington, Corpus Christi

There’s enough hardware on this vessel – planes, engines, compressors, pumps, gauges, switches and dials – to keep any war buff or engineer mesmerized for weeks, but I found the living quarters far more engaging.

Crew’s quarters, USS Lexington, Corpus Christi

As I roamed this part of the ship I had a very palpable sense of the many who had lived aboard the Lex during its 48 years of service.
More about it here.

 

 

 

 

Just a stone’s throw from the Lex is the Texas State Aquarium. It may not be the world’s largest or most ostentatious, but it contains sea and shore life painstakingly selected only from species native to Texas.

Texas State Aquarium, Corpus Christi

Texas State Aquarium, Corpus Christi

 

Some great sculptures mark the entrance, and anyone with kids in tow will be glad to know that even here they’ll find the obligatory porpoise show.

More about it here.

I find myself on more than one evening – including my final night – having dinner just a couple of blocks from the seawall at the City Diner & Oyster Bar.  The atmosphere is classic 40’s diner, the service is friendly, the prices reasonable, and the food outstanding.  Like many popular local eateries, City Diner has no web site, but more information, including reviews, can be found here on Yelp.

I cross the river bridge for the last time.  Below me an oil tanker passes through the channel and oil rigs dot the sea horizon.  As I head northward I’m startled by a sight I never expected to see:  A wind farm stretches for miles, hundreds of vanes stirring in the breezes.  Texas is nothing if not a place of contradictions!

Wind farm just outside of Corpus Christi

B.Y.O. chic

If you can do without condescending sommeliers, thrice-marked-up wines, and valet parking… you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the great dining experiences – not to mention great values – to be had at Dallas’s B.Y.O restaurants.

I’m talking about genuine B.Y.O.’s that will uncork your bottle or lend you a corkscrew without charging a corking fee.  In these establishments there’s no worry about whether the wine list will have something which appeals to you at a price less than your car payment.   Here if you’re not drinking a bottle of your very favorite with the meal or if you’ve overpaid for it you’ve no one to blame but yourself!

These three East Dallas B.Y.O.’s prove the point that the food has to be damned good in a restaurant that serves no alcohol!

Bangkok Inn, Dallas

BANGKOK INN.  Located at 6033 Oram just off Skillman (at the edge of the Skillman/Live Oak Shopping Center), this is not one of those Thai restaurants that look like the movie set of The King & I.

Bangkok Inn, Dallas

It evokes instead the feel of a country village restaurant.  It’s bright and warm with plenty of Thai artifacts on the walls. Twenty or so tables are spread across two adjacent dining rooms to create very intimate spaces.

Bangkok Inn, Dallas

Bangkok Inn is owned and operated by the Schuskul family, who came to Dallas from Thailand via Maryland and later Houston.

Expect much of the traditional on this menu.  There are good Tom Yam Kai and Kai Tom Kha soups and egg rolls and spring rolls appetizers.   Also be delighted by a great Thai Dumpling or a satay in pork, shrimp, or chicken.

For me the entrée always comes down to the hard choice between equally tasty green, red and yellow chicken or beef curries.  For dessert check out the fried banana with honey over ice cream or the banana in coconut milk.

There’s a good selection of vegetarian entrees here and no entrée is priced above $10.95

 

SEVAN G&G CAFE.  Located at 2221 Greenville between Richmond and Belmont, this restaurant’s name reflects the purchase in 2004 of the Sevan restaurant by current owners Grace and George.

Sevan G&G Cafe, Dallas

Walk through covered patio dining to enter the dining room, where wood paneling and a cozy layout create the warm and comfortable atmosphere of a true neighborhood bistro.

The owners are originally from Lebanon, and art and implements from the Mediterranean decorate the walls.  Like an increasing number of restaurants in the area, Sevan G&G draws an eclectic crowd ranging from Lakewood and M Street homeowners to young apartment dwellers.

Sevan G&G Cafe, Dallas

The expected Mediterranean fare – hummus, baba ganoush, dolmas, and gyro are all without exception well done.

Then there are unique offerings like the Pistachio Chicken, an amply-sized chicken breast encrusted with ground pistachios and stuffed with feta cheese.

Sevan G&G Cafe, Dallas

At just under $23, the rack of lamb is the most expensive item on the menu by a far shot; most entrees range between $10-$15.  The owners are always to be seen in both the front and back of the house, and they make you feel like you’ve been invited to dine in their home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

JADE GARDEN.  If there’s an inverse relationship between the flashiness of the restaurant and the quality of the food, then Jade Garden is absolute proof positive.

Jade Garden Restaurant, Dallas

Jade Garden Restaurant, Dallas

Located in a building that looks like it was a Dairy Queen in a past life, the interior can be charitably described as ‘60’s kitsch.

Located at 4800 Bryan and Fitzhugh, Jade Garden sits within eyesight of Jimmy’s Food Store (see my separate post “Dallas’s Italian Grocery“) in a neighborhood best described as transitional.

There’s lots more here, though, than first meets the eye.

A first tip-off is that menu items are listed in English, Chinese, and Vietnamese and there are usually at least as many Asian diners as not.

Jade Garden Restaurant, Dallas

The menu’s so robust as to almost intimidate, but I always order from the whiteboard specials, usually after the owner walks me through my options.  A favorite of mine is the Salt & Pepper Soft Shell Crab.  Trust me… the unassuming name doesn’t even begin to do it justice.

Jade Garden Restaurant, Dallas

(For those who can’t appreciate the kitch there’s always take-out!)

These unique eateries all have in common their focus on great food served in unpretentious surroundings by immigrant owners who take a very personal role in the delivery of customer satisfaction.  They’ve all been around long enough to prove their timeless appeal and you’ll see fanatically-loyal customers regularly at their tables.

Buon appetito!

American Galapagos

I can’t count the number of times over the years that I’ve driven the Pacific Coast Highway from Ventura to Santa Barbara and passed the silhouetted Channel Islands without giving them a second thought.  It was a visit to friends and family in Ventura that created an opportunity to give them a serious look.

Ventura harbor, California

It’s overcast as I board the ferry from Ventura harbor to cover the 20 miles to California’s largest island, Santa Cruz.

Its 100 square miles of terrain and 77 miles of coastline make it the centerpiece of the Channel Islands National Park.

Seal lions sunning on channel buoy

Along the way we pass seals sunning themselves on a channel marker. Oil rigs dot the water in the distance.

Sea caves from above, Santa Cruz Island

Kayaks ashore, Santa Cruz Island

As the ferry approaches, the Island’s rugged mountain ranges loom larger, and coastal tidepools, beaches and sea caves come into view.

 

The Island’s Painted Cave may be one of the world’s largest and deepest and a big draw for divers and kayakers, but I’m ready to be back on dry land after almost an hour on the ferry.

 

 

Santa Cruz Island kayaks 04

Kayaks in tow

We anchor in Scorpion Bay and I take to the trail and a climb to a better view.

This island is home to more than 600 plant species in ecosystems range from marshes and grasslands to chaparral and pine forests.

Millions of years of isolation have resulted in adaptation to the island’s unique environment by many distinctive plant and animals species, including 9 found nowhere else in the world.

Santa Cruz was first inhabited more than 9,000 years ago by Native Americans, and here the Chumash tribe produced shell-bead money used by tribes throughout California.

Europeans first arrived on the island only late in the 16th century, and more than 200 years would pass before a Mexican land grant established what would become the largest privately owned island in the U.S.

Scorpion Ranch, Santa Cruz Island

It also marked the beginning of a ranching operation which introduced non-native species including French Merino sheep to the island, and the herd swelled to over 20,000 head during the Civil War as demand for wool army uniforms peaked.

Scorpion Ranch house, Santa Cruz Island

Ranching continued until 1984 through several changes of property ownership. The ranch houses, barns, blacksmith and saddle shops, and wineries all still survive.

Scorpion Ranch farm implements, Santa Cruz Island

Scorpion Ranch cellar

The introduction by Europeans of non-native animals and plants is responsible for the severe disruption of the island’s native plant communities and its archeological sites.

Rooting by pigs gone feral has created bare ground that is easily eroded and colonized by invasive weeds. It has also damaged a large number of Chumash archeological sites.

Feral piglets provide a year-round food source for golden eagles, and the eagles’ growing numbers drove another of their prey – island foxes – to the brink of extinction.

The Santa Barbara Island song sparrow and the Santa Cruz Island monkey, once found only on these islands, are already extinct.

The Nature Conservancy acquired much of the island’s property in 1987 and the Federal government completed acquisition of the remaining land in 1996. In and effort to rescue 10 species from the brink of extinction and to protect more than 3,000 archeological sites, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy embarked upon a long term program to restore Santa Cruz Island.

Their eradication of feral pigs, European rabbits, sheep, and burros has already enabled a tremendous natural recovery. In addition, a captive breeding program for island foxes has successfully re-established a wild population and golden eagles have been captured and relocated to northeast California.

Native bald eagles – the last of which perished in the 1950’s from DDT poisoning –  have been reintroduced to drive off any returning golden eagles, and for the first time in more than 50 years bald eagle chicks have hatched unaided from two separate nests on Santa Cruz Island.

Coastline, Santa Cruz Island

Now hikers encounter sweeping ocean and mainland vistas almost completely free of human imprint, broken by deep canyons dotted with year-round springs and streams.

Cypress tree, Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz deserves far more than a day trip, and there’s overnight camping available on the Island. Just remember that whether you’re an over-nighter or just a day-tripper this rule applies: You pack out everything that you pack in.

Blue Dallas

Quick… name another Dallas club or bar – besides the one pictured here -that hangs its hat on Blues music. If you’re stumped that’s because it’s a short, short list.

House of Blues, Dallas

One of my few disappointments upon first moving to Texas was the absence of Blues music venues.  This seemed such a paradox since more Blues musicians have come out of Texas than anywhere except the Mississippi Delta or Chicago.

Between the World Wars railroads passing through Dallas made it a prominent way station for the Black migration to the industrial north.  Before the Texas & Pacific Railroad laid track up Pacific Avenue on its westerly expansion and the Dallas rail station was moved to Reunion Station, tracks of the Houston & Texas Central railroad running north and south through Dallas passed through a terminal that long remained a popular stop-off in what came to be known as Deep Ellum.

Banjo man, DART Deep Ellum Station, Dallas

Beginning in the 1920’s and continuing through the 1930’s, Deep Ellum was the site of an burgeoning cluster of nightclubs, saloons and domino parlors that also served as venues for Blues musicians. It was rivaled only by Beale Street and Bourbon Street.  Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, and Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins were only a few of the notables who often performed in Deep Ellum and who earned for Dallas a reputation as the “one of the hottest cities in the South”.

Deep Ellum was also a place where up-and-coming Blues performers polished their art before moving on to Kansas City, Chicago, or New York City.  D.A.R.T.’s Deep Ellum station now stands where the Good-Latimer underpass once featured inspired graffiti art, and across from it curbside sits a statue of a banjo player which is one of the few remaining testaments to Deep Ellum’s rich Blues heritage.

508 Park Ave, Robert Johnson recording site, Dallas

There were so many Blues performers in Dallas in those years that recording companies regularly came here to scout talent.  In 1937, Blues legend Robert Johnson recorded 13 tracks in a building which served as a film distribution point for Dallas movie theaters, and which still stands at 508 Park Avenue.  (Johnson’s only other recording session occurred the year before in San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel.)  The deserted building on Park has fallen into disrepair and its current owner, repeatedly cited for code violations, has on more than one occasion been thwarted by Blues aficionados from having it demolished.  Its future is still in limbo.

Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial, Austin

I don’t know if Stevie Ray Vaughn adopted Austin or if it was the other way around, but the well-known association often obscures the fact that Stevie Ray was from Dallas’s Oak Cliff neighborhood.

This statue sits on the walking trail not far from Austin’s Zilker Park along the riverfront.  For a time there was a standing display of SRV memorabilia in Dallas’s Southside-On-Lamar, but it’s disappeared.
I know of no memorial to Stevie in Dallas other than his tombstone at Laurel Land Cemetery.

Stevie Ray Vaughan grave, Laurel Land Cemetery, Dallas

I can’t resist, though, sharing a photo of a Dia de los Muertos alter dedicated to Stevie Ray and seen at the Bath House Cultural Center’s Day of the Dead exhibition in 2010.

Dia de los Muertos, Bath House Cultural Center, Dallas

 

All of this brings us back to the question: Where in today’s Dallas can you find Blues-dedicated venues?

R L Griffin’s Blues Palace, Dallas

Blues Palace.  This nightclub is owned and operated by “The Right Reverend of Dallas Blues” R.L. Griffin. He also DJ’s a classic blues and R&B show on Dallas radio station KKDA and he broadcasts live from the club on Saturdays from 11 to midnight.  Located at 3100 Grand Avenue just a few blocks west of Fair Park, this is the closest you’ll get to an authentic juke joint experience in Dallas.  This neighborhood isn’t exactly the Plano Shops At Legacy, so you might want to leave the Rolex and the Mercedes at home for this visit. (I’m just sayin’.)

More info here.

Pearl @ Commerce.  This stands on the edge of Downtown at 2038 Commerce, not a mile from Deep Ellum and a few blocks from 408 Park. There’s metered street parking and nearby pay parking runs $5, but it’s also only a couple of blocks from DART’s Pearl Station.

Pearl At Commerce, Dallas

Pearl At Commerce, Dallas

Closed briefly last year, it’s now back in operation and well worthy of a visit.  There’s open seating downstairs and a reservation-only V.I.P. lounge on the mezzanine level.

More info here.

Alligator Cafe, Dallas

 

Alligator Café. Alligator Café recently relocated to the Casa Linda Shopping Plaza (the northeast corner) from its former site on Live Oak.

There’s a Cajun ambiance here and an authentic menu to go with it.  (Boudin, fried pickles, oysters, catfish and, yes, fried alligator tail).

Alligator Cafe, Dallas

Alligator barstools at the Alligator Cafe, Dallas

This is an intimate little venue that features Texas style acoustic blues Thursday through Saturday.

More info here.

Bedford Blues & BBQ Festival.  I’ve attended this on each of the past two Labor Day weekends, and have found it not only to be one of the Metroplex’s better organized outdoor musical events, but also a place to see some great talent:  Buddy Guy last year and Robert Cray the year before.  This year’s headliner is Keb’ Mo’.

More info here.

 

If you’re traveling outside of Dallas, check out these two of my all-time favorite Blues bars:

Rosa’s Lounge in Chicago, (no Blues fan should pass through Chicago without taking in a show there)

Ground Zero in Clarksdale, Mississippi  (film star Morgan Freeman is one of the owners).  Ground Zero is one of those places where so many patrons have written on the walls that every inch of it seems covered.  Here some drunken fan approaching the edge of consciousness scrawled this appropriate Robert Johnson lyric:

“Standing at the crossroads, believe I’m sinking down”

San Antonio’s hidden gem

Each year millions of tourists visit San Antonio’s Seaworld or Fiesta Texas theme parks and its Riverwalk without ever realizing that its uniquely charming King William Historic District is less than a mile from the Alamo.

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William is a neighborhood of elegant homes dating back to the late 1800’s, when prosperous immigrant merchants from what was to later become Germany made it their home.

Much of it has been renovated in the past two decades following a long period of decline.

The District can be reached from downtown by following the Riverwalk south, but I usually opt instead for a healthy dose of neighborhood atmosphere by walking through La Villita to the intersection of Alamo and St. Mary Streets.

That’s where Rosario’s Mexican Café & Cantina sits behind an historic storefront at the hub of a collection of restaurants, bars, and galleries.

 

Rosario’s Mexican Cafe & Cantina, San Antonio, TX

 

Rosario’s serves authentic Mexican (not to be confused with Tex-Mex) food in a fun atmosphere full of neon and great people-watching; San Antonio residents come here from all parts of the city.

This place has been a favorite of mine since it first opened in a location just down the street, and a meal here is a ritual part of my every visit to San Antonio.

 

On most Friday and Saturday nights, when there’s often live music, a waiting line spills onto the sidewalk.  Fortunately, the place is cavernous and the line moves quickly.

 

The Filling Station, San Antonio, TX

 

 

 

The historic flavor of this little business district also survives at the whimsical Filling Station a block to the north.

Tito’s Mexican Restaurant, San Antonio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across the street and to the south is Tito’s Mexican Restaurant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

 

A turn into the streets behind it ushers sidewalk strollers into to quiet neighborhood of broad streets that frame two dozen blocks packed with delightful architectural images of an even earlier time.

 

 

 

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

 

 

At the heart of King William is the community of Germans who settled Texas in large numbers beginning in the 1840’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

Their traditions of brewing, sausage-making, and music fueled a fusion of American, Mexican, and German cultures unique to Central Texas.

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

Within a generation of the Germans’ arrival, the ablest among them owned San Antonio’s largest flour mill, meat packing house, and breweries.

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

 

Their newfound prosperity led them to create a residential compound convenient to downtown along a stretch of the San Antonio River.

 

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

While homes in parts of King William are modestly charming and their architecture distinctly Texan, they become  more elegantly extravagant with each passing block.

 

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

King William Historic District home, San Antonio, TX

 

 

 

There is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, and bed-and-breakfasts scattered about the neighborhood present a great alternative to downtown’s mega-hotels and cheesy motels.

 

 

 

Pioneer Flour Mill & Guenther House Restaurant, San Antonio, TX

Pioneer Flour Mill & Guenther House Restaurant, San Antonio, TX

The tower of the old Pioneer Flour Mill stands watch at the southernmost end of King William.  The name of the Guenther family which owned it survives today both as the name of the District avenue that passes it, and as the name of the Guenther House restaurant which sits in the tower’s shadow.

The King William District is part of artsy, funky Southtown, and if you’ve still got spring left in your step after walking King William you may want to wander less than a mile further south on Alamo, where the Blue Star Brewing Company serves up artisan beers right next door to the Blue Star Contemporary Arts Center.

Even further south, if not walkable, is the San Antonio Missions Trail, and if you, too, were disappointed by the Alamo mission’s unassuming profile and footrpint this is where you’ll find Franciscan missions that can hold their own with the missions of Southern California.

If your visit is timed to include a First Friday of the month, street vendors selling art and jewelry join Southtown’s mix of galleries, art spaces, vintage stores, and live music fills the air.

Whether in daytime or nighttime, a trip to San Antonio without visiting King William is incomplete.

Anywhere but Starbucks

Remember when Starbucks was an honest-to-goodness coffeehouse?  Back when the help had enough tattoos that their flesh looked like wallpaper, enough piercings to set off an airport metal detector at 50 paces, and just enough of that cooler-than-thou attitude? Back when people were still reading newspapers?

Me, too… but barely.

I knew it was the end of an era when the soccer mom in line ahead of me brought rush hour to a halt while she agonized over whether to order the scone or the muffin. (I finally told the cashier to just give her both and put it on my tab, to the applause of everyone in line behind me.)

Where did it all go so wrong?

Maybe it was when Starbucks started selling more sandwiches than music CD’s, or when they began offering food-and-beverage “pairings” (a Happy Meal by any other name…).  Maybe it was when they began pumping out more frozen drinks every summer than a Dairy Queen, or when you couldn’t indulge yourself in the coffeehouse experience because the tables were all taken by not-actually-customers seeking only free wi-fi.

“All of the above,” is not a bad answer, but at the heart of Starbucks metamorphosis into a McDonald’s clone is its expansion into suburbs and Interstate rest stops.  That’s when the cashiers started to look and talk like they would fit in at least as well in a Dunkin’ Donuts.  It’s when patrons at the inside counter started taking a back seat to lengthening lines of drive-thru customers.  It’s when pre-teen kids started showing up for after-school treats at Starbucks instead of Baskin-Robbins.  (I expect any day now to see the first Starbucks with its own Playland or the Starbucks logo perched on the roofs of delivery cars.)

Fortunately, urban Dallasites don’t have to settle for so little, because independent coffeehouses are taking up Starbucks’ slack.  These are my top anywhere-but-Starbucks picks for Dallas, in no particular order:
DRIP COFFEE is located in the Park Cities on the south side of Lover’s Lane just east of the Dallas Tollway.

Drip coffeehouse, Dallas

Drip coffeehouse, Dallas

It has a Euro-contemporary ambiance that exudes passion for coffee.  Foodservice is limited to light fare that complements coffee.

The walls are hung with contemporary art, which makes it feel as much like a gallery as a coffeehouse.

Drip coffeehouse, Dallas

Drip coffeehouse, Dallas

Drip coffeehouse Dallas 02

Drip Coffeehouse, Dallas

Its bright, uncluttered modern minimalism generates a tranquility all its own.

More about Drip at http://www.dripcoffeeco.com

 

 

WHITE ROCK COFFEE is located on East Northwest Highway just east of Audelia.

White Rock Coffee, Dallas

While the stone walls and steel roof are charmingly Texana, this is a a newly-built-for-the-purpose structure, which along with its movie marquee style sign creates for me an off-putting first impression.  Fortunately it gets nothing but   better inside.

White Rock Coffee, Dallas

A high, open-bean ceiling opens into loft seating that has an intimate feeling without the claustrophobia… kind of like sitting in a tree house.

White Rock Coffee, Dallas

White Rock Coffee, Dallas

It’s not unusual to find the tables downstairs almost mostly empty, but the loft filled with silent laptop users.  Barstools and a counter along the loft railing look down on the dining area.

These guys are serious enough about coffee to roast their own, and serious enough about social responsibility and sustainability that the place is both a Certified Fair Trade Roaster and a Certified Rainforest Alliance Roaster.

There’s light entertainment here several nights weekly and an open mike night on Tuesdays.

More about White Rock at http://www.wrcoffee.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pearl Cup coffehouse, Dallas

Pearl Cup coffehouse, Dallas

THE PEARL CUP is located in a can’t-miss-it-lime-green building at the corner of Henderson and McMillan, just a couple of blocks north of where Ross meets Lower Greenville.

Metal tables, exposed rafters, concrete floors, and brick walls produce an industrial loft ambiance, although there’s plenty of art hanging.

Pearl Cup coffehouse, Dallas

Pearl Cup coffehouse, Dallas

 

The crowd here is a mix of young apartment dwellers, students and (more so on weekends)  M Street  homeowners. The menu is mostly limited to goes-well-with-coffee items.

Pearl Cup coffehouse, Dallas

Pearl Cup coffehouse, Dallas

There’s counter seating and table seating inside. There’s also patio seating when fickle Dallas weather permits and, of course, wi-fi.

More about Pearl Cup at:  http://www.thepearlcup.com
CORNER MARKET is located on Lower Greenville at McCommas.   It’s in the same building that houses the Buffalo Exchange recycled clothing store, a block south of the Granada Theater.

Corner Market, Dallas

Corner Market, Dallas

It connects through inside doors to a neighboring florist shop on one side and the Society Bakery on the other, creating the feeling of a covered urban market.

Corner Market, Dallas

Corner Market, Dallas

The crowd here is a bit older than at nearby Pearl Cup, a mix of Lower Greenville renters and – particularly on weekends – a big infusion of M Street homeowners.

There are plenty of pastries and chocolates in the display case here,  but the food menu is mostly deli – heavy on salads and sandwiches that earned it Dallas Observer Best Of in the Sandwich category.   The coffees are quite good, too. (No web site.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ESPUMOSO COFFEE  is located in an old Bishop Arts District streetfront store between 7th and 8thStreets just across from Eno’s Pizza Tavern.

Espumoso Cafe, Dallas

Coffee is the undisputed centerpiece of a light menu of smoothies, ice cream, desserts, and pastries.  The house specialty is a selection of homemade empanadas.

Espumoso Cafe, Dallas

The piped-in music can get a bit loud, but the place is uncrowded during the day and although seating is limited the couches are quite comfortable.

Espumoso Cafe, Dallas

Espumoso Cafe, Dallas

And they have by far the coolest T-shirt of any Dallas coffeehouse.

More on Espumoso at:  http://www.espumosocaffe.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE OPENING BELL is located in the historic Sears Building in Southside On Lamar, a block from the DART Rail Cedars Station (the Dallas nighttime skyline looks incredible from here, especially since the convention center hotel has lighted up.)  This place has the look of a Greenwich Village or North Beach coffeehouse.

Opening Bell coffeehouse Dallas

To begin with it’s a basement walk-down.

Then there’s the life-sized poster of Townes Van Zandt, and the small stage and microphone set up in one corner.

Opening Bell coffeehouse Dallas

Opening Bell coffeehouse Dallas

The place serves pastries and sandwiches, but more importantly also beer and wine.  Wi-fi is free and its within stone-throwing distance of Brooklyn’s Jazz Café and the Absinthe Lounge, Poor David’s, and Gilley’s.  http://www.openingbellcoffee.com

 

 

 

There are  7 important attributes which separate these urban gems from the Starbucks Devolution:

  1. The architecture includes a ceiling of old tin tiles or exposed rafters and/or an exposed concrete floor.
  2. The décor exudes a funky or artsy one-of-a-kind ambiance.
  3. It has no drive-thru.
  4. Drinks consumed on-premise are served in ceramic cups instead of paper cups.
  5. The limited food menu pays homage to the caf-o-holic customer base… and it’s all hand-printed on a chalkboard.
  6. The staff has the requisite number of tats and piercings, dresses in black both on and off the job, and looks totally caffeine-wired and/or sleep-deprived.
  7. There is one and only one location.

P.S. Local chain Café Brazil is a noteworthy exception:  These people never let their restaurant business get in the way of their coffee business, and the people-watching – surely an important component of a great coffeehouse – can’t be beat.  I recommend the locations on Lower Greenville, in Deep Ellum, and in Oaklawn; best viewing around 3AM on just about any Sunday morning. http://cafebrazil.com


What happens in Vegas…

I went to Las Vegas this week for the first time in over 10 years, and it took some of my expectations by surprise.

Neon-lit balloon, Paris Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas

Parts of The Strip are virtually unchanged.  At night the neon is as brilliant and animated as ever and the Chippendale strippers still pose on posters and billboards.

Cirque de Soleil and Blue Man Group and LaReve are all still alive and well, if moved to new venues in a Las Vegas version of musical chairs.  New faces fill the perennial marquee slots.  Comics, country singers, and tribute bands.

The Steve Wynn hotel casino extravaganzas built during the run-up to the Great Recession, however, have rendered some long-familiar stretches virtually unrecognizable.  There are new pedestrian bridges and added miles of monorail.  The slot machines are now all flat screen digital, which is appropriate since Vegas seems to be one big virtual reality video game.

High-rise condos stand against the night sky speckled only occasionally by the lights of neighborless occupants. A vacant lot right on The Strip is unmarked by any sign of impending ground-breaking.  A bit further on construction looks long interrupted on the steel skeleton of a new building.

The Strip’s panhandler population has grown exponentially and dogs sit at the feet of so many that it can only be presumed they earn more than the cost of their keep.  The homeless sleep hidden in the shadows of lush landscaping only a stone’s throw away.  Handouts must come more easily within earshot of a slot machine payoff.

Donnie & Marie at the Flamingo

Donnie & Marie at the Flamingo

The looming billboard images of a forever young Siegfried & Roy are conspicuously absent, along with $5 Prime Rib dinners and all-you-can-eat buffets.  Even in Vegas there appears to be no free lunch anymore.

Throngs shuffle along the sidewalks in opposing streams, and the obvious carb-and-fat addicts among them seem more numerous and even more super-sized than I’d remembered.  It seems like anyone not drinking is talking on a cellphone, anyone not walking is playing a video game, and everyone else is texting. At times the sidewalk hustlers passing out photo cards of near-nude escorts seem to outnumber the tourists.  High unemployment seems to have swelled the ranks of sex trade workers.

The crowd seems both younger and more Asian and Latino than before.  This may be simply a reflection of America’s changing demography, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s also because unemployment has disproportionately stricken the older, whiter Americans who have been Vegas’s historic mainstays.  One day in the not too distant future I expect to see the few surviving Baby Boomer grandsons and granddaughters of European immigrants from the Midwest make their last stand at Caesar’s Palace.

As I scan the face of the oncoming stream it strikes me that few in the crowd are laughing or even smiling as they wind their way from casino to casino.  Many, in fact, are downright grim, as if Vegas has failed to shake whatever weighs them down back home.

I’ve often wondered at foreign tourists who, faced with the daunting task of touring America’s coast-to-coast vastness, opt for Orlando’s DisneyWorld or L.A.’s Universal Studios or Las Vegas as their windows into the American experience.  Americans tour Europe to see the cultural settings from which more of us than not still remain in some way descended.  Europeans come here to see America’s self-parodies.

As I walk The Strip for the last time I see in the dark sky far above the bright pinpoints of planets in their once-in-a-lifetime alignment, and it drives home the transiency of this unnatural desert oasis.

Perhaps the long-separate Vegas reality has at last converged with the broader American reality.  This time, it’s what’s happened outside of Vegas that has stayed in Vegas.

Glass art lobby chandelier, Bellagio

Arts nouveau

Indigo 1745 and Zen Sushi, 380 W. 7th

The Bishop Arts District  is one of a handful of old Dallas neighborhoods that in their rebirth have embraced their past.

 

US 80 sidewalk grate, Davis St.

Bishop Arts dates from a time when Oak Cliff was a stop on the Interurban electric train connecting Dallas and Fort Worth, and locals still remembered when the Houston Street Viaduct first permanently connected them to Dallas… and when Dallas annexed them.

Corner store, Davis @ Woodlawn

 

The patronage of Winnetka Heights and Kessler Park residents may be fueling the Bishop Arts revival, but the District is actually the hole in the West Dallas donut of a vibrant Latino neighborhood.

I rarely pass through it without coming upon a sight that makes me smile or pause to reflect.

Wall mural, Davis near Haines

This is a neighborhood in transition, and all along the edges of Bishop Arts contrasting images of its patchwork identity often appear side by side.

Tattoo parlor, W. Davis near Haines

This kitschy sidewalk grate made good on its promise for more of the same inside.

Tattoo parlor, W. Davis near Haines

La Michoacana Ice Cream, Davis near Haines

 

 

 

 

There’s a rich tradition of ice cream-making in the Mexican state of Michoacan, and it’s alive and well here at the edge of Bishop Arts.

Bishop Street Market, N. Bishop at Davis

Bishop Street Market, N. Bishop at Davis

 

 

 

 

 

Local businesses have banded together to create Bishop Arts First Thursdays, an evening showcase experience.
(While I’ve never failed to find parking here, it’s sometimes on the street 3 blocks away. First try the large lot at 7th and Madison.)

Epiphany, 412 N. Bishop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On First Thursdays boutiques and galleries join neighboring restaurants and bars in keeping lights on and doors open well into the evening.

Zola’s Vintage, 414 N. Bishop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I arrive just before dusk as the streets slowly come alive.  There are almost no darkened storefronts, and the retail shops and galleries draw well beyond the young singles bar crowd.

W. 7th, between N. Bishop & N. Madison

 

 

 

Several continuous blocks of sidewalk invite the stroller to drop in and make of the evening meal a moveable feast.

Whitehall Exchange, N. Bishop @ 7th

 

 

With the weather warming, many restaurants have flung open doors and windows, and you can have a drink seated at a sidewalk stool comfortably close to the bar.  I’m reminded just for a moment of Bourbon Street.

Whitehall Exchange, N. Bishop @ 7th

 

Oddfellows, 316 W. 7th

Lockhart Smoke House, N. Bishop @ Davis

 

There’s plenty of patio dining to be found.  Within 2 blocks of Bishop and Davis there’s BBQ and Thai and just about everything in between.

 

 

With so many great one-of-a-kind eateries, you may want to leave local chains like Hunky’s and Gloria’s for another day… but both are to be commended for rehabbing historic structures.  (Café Brazil opted for a strip center location.)

Hunky’s, 321 N. Bishop

Bishop Arts District, W. 7th

Gloria's, in the old fire station W. Davis @ N. Madiso

Gloria’s, in the old fire station W. Davis @ N. Madiso

 

 

Nothing in Bishop Arts seems run-of-the-mill, and it’s clearly attracted like-minded merchants and restaurateurs.

 

 

 

 

You won’t find Gap or Anthropologie or anything that smacks of a national chain here, and it’s refreshing to spend an evening outside the cookie cutter!

 

The Soda Gallery has to have the world’s largest selection of soft drinks, made up mostly of old and regional brands like Nehi, Faygo, and Frostie that I haven’t seen since childhood.  Somehow, and aluminum can just doesn’t have the same cachet.  How about a nice red pop?

 

The Soda Gallery, 408 N. Bishop

The Soda Gallery, 408 N. Bishop

Some of the shops have great signs, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t enticed into Maria’s Closet by its sign.  I’ll also admit that I had to go in and ask the folks at M’Antiques if it was Captain Kirk’s phaser or Flash Gordon’s ray gun woven into their logo.

Veracruz Café is one of the standout Mexican restaurants in a town which has no lack of them.

Veracruz Café, Bishop @ 7th

Veracruz Café, Bishop @ 7th

The regional menu draws from the cuisine of Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and here you’ll find new dishes and flavors that will make you completely rethink Mexican food.  They’ve twice expanded into adjacent space and gotten a liquor license since I first came a few years ago. I often top off a meal here with a latté at Espumoso Café just a couple of doors down.

Band sets up on Bishop @ 7th

Under the canopy of what looks to have once been a service station a band is setting up, chit-chatting with passers-by and seemingly in no hurry to begin.

It’s a lack of concern for the exact time that seems to hang over the District; everyone’s already where they’re going.

Artisan’s Collective

 

 

 

I first wandered into the Artisan’s Collective over a year ago.

The sheer number of pieces on display is awesome, and with over 100 Dallas artists on exhibition it’s an unmatched smorgasbord of media and styles.

This is one of those places that invites you to a quick walk-through and keeps you browsing for a worthwhile hour.

Eno’s Pizza Tavern

 

 

“Pizza Tavern” doesn’t seem to adequately sum up the Eno’s experience.

On this evening strollers take turns sitting in big Adirondack chairs that Eno’s has placed on the sidewalk.

As much fun as this place can be on First Thursdays, it’s also a great place for Tuesday live jazz and Sunday brunch.  The building is a classic and the renovation inspired!

Comederia Il Padrino, Davis near 7th

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dusk is now long gone, and as I head back to my car the Il Padrino Comederia glows like some alien spaceship hovering over the District. All along Davis neon blazes and people are out in the streets.

 

 

 

I cross the Trinity on the old Jefferson Street Viaduct.  Off to the far left the lighted arch and steel strands of the Calatrava bridge glow in the darkness.  Waves of colored light wash across the face of the new convention center hotel.  And far above it all the pinpoint lights of the Reunion Tower globe sparkle.

 

(See also my related posts “Dallas’s Erasable Past,” and “Bicycle Perspective”).