HOUSTON — Apparently there’s going to be a football game here.
I’ve heard some low-level chatter about a New England Patriots match taking place Feb. 5 in Houston. The Supper Plate? The Super Plate? The Super Bowl? That’s it. It’s a bowl.
New England fans will flood Houston in their finest Gronk jerseys and Bill Belichick-inspired couture hooded sweatshirts to see their beloved team battle the Atlanta Falcons. But can the sights and sounds of Houston offer up as much excitement as the big game itself?
America’s fourth largest city is a massive, automobile-dependent metropolis that is circled and dissected by multi-lane motorways with ramps that twist around like asphalt cyclones. The car mentality continues into the neighborhoods, where people drive to stylish downtown restaurants and bars rather than walk. I felt odder walking around Houston than I ever did in Los Angeles.
These neighborhoods, each with its own flavor, are where fans will converge for Super Bowl LI. If these fans are anything like me, they’ll get lost quite often. Admittedly, my sense of direction is on par with a visually impaired groundhog that has lost its contact lenses.
That’s the downside, unless you’re on a party bus, in which case there is no downside because you won’t be driving and the only thing you’ll be concerned with is the location of the beer cooler. Here’s the upside: Houston has a unique restaurant scene, some fascinating cultural attractions, and if you’ll be here for the big game, there will be more parties then there are hours in a weekend.
“It’s a diverse and wacky city,” said Clifford Pugh, editor-in-chief of the Houston-based website CultureMap. “Outsiders don’t understand it and have a lot of stereotypes that are usually dispelled when they visit.”
According to census data, Houston is one of the most racially diverse cities in the country. According to that same census, Houston is one of the youngest cities in the country. The median age of its residents is well under 35. What does this mean for you? Super Bowl or Supper Plate, you’ll find plenty to keep yourself occupied. Here is your itinerary for the weekend of the big game.
Go green: Discovery Green , a 12-acre park in downtown, is a hub of family activities during non-Super Bowl weekends. It’s the kind of place where you can ice skate and toss around footballs. During Super Bowl weekend, Discovery Green is all Super Bowl, all the time. The big party, called Super Bowl Live, is a 10-day celebration with free concerts from artists such as ZZ Top (get there Thursday night to see Solange), and a virtual reality ride that simulates a trip to Mars, designed by the nerds at nearby NASA. Given the high number of road closures, there will be a bike valet to assist those wishing to arrive on two wheels. The city’s bike share program makes getting around the downtown easy. Public transportation is limited, so biking to the Green may be the most convenient option.
Icy reception: Food trucks at Discovery Green will be plentiful, but other lunch options in the vicinity are limited, so make plans to hit the trucks. (I recommend the tasty, weird hybrid Pho-Jita Fusion truck, or Miss Patty’s Wagon. ) Then get in your car and seek out one of the city’s many ice houses. One of my first bits of Houston education was learning the definition of an ice house. Once pre-refrigeration outposts for ice sales, Texas’s ice houses eventually became bars and community centers. Those remaining are now a bit like beer gardens where you can pound your brews outside. The essential Houston ice house experience is the West Alabama Ice House. It’s an ideal way to soak up the local culture. The of-the-moment ice house is Beaver’s. It refers to itself as both an ice house and a gastro-pub. But don’t let that gastro-pub business drive you away. I spent an afternoon lingering outside on a deliciously warm January afternoon over a glass of iced tea and plate of tater tots, or, as I call it, heaven.
Park life: It will be warm in Houston (the average February high is 67 degrees), so continue your outdoor adventure sans beer in the recently-completed Bayou Buffalo Park. The 160-acre park offers the best skyline views of Houston, plus endless bike and running trails.
Hipster diversion: During one of my evenings of getting lost, I wound up in a neighborhood called Midtown, which is squeezed in between downtown and the Museum District. I spotted a place called Natachee’s Supper ’n Punch. I was compelled to stop because I enjoy both supper and punch. But on this block I also found a collection of oddball thrift stores, an amazing record store, and a very cool barber shop. I looked across the street, and a venue called the Continental Club was hosting a shared birthday party for Elvis and David Bowie (Bowielvis Fest). I slipped in to listen to local bands play the music of the two greats while fans in costume sang along. I adored these occasional slivers of cool in Houston. The night before the Super Bowl, national treasure Wanda Jackson performs at the Continental. During the day, Midtown hosts a party featuring the Polyphonic Spree.
The dinner dilemma
Planning meals in Houston is like trying to see Texas in a day. It’s impossible. The city has an incredibly diverse scene filled with foodie fanatics religiously following the comings and goings of their favorite chefs. I tried the comfort food and cocktails at the newly opened Edison . Chef Michael Sanguinetti seems to enjoy putting quail eggs on many dishes, but if that’s not your thing, you can sit out by the fire and drink classic cocktails. I recommend the relaxed feel of Eloise Nichols Grill & Liquors, a modern spin on Southern cuisine and cocktails. During my time in Houston, people were tripping over themselves to get to Agu Ramen, Hawaii-based ramen chain. I opted for El Real Tex-Mex, which is regularly anointed the best Tex-Mex joint in Houston.
Space case: The essential Houston neighborhoods are Montrose, Rice Village, Upper Kirby, Galleria, Washington Corridor, Heights, and Midtown. But I suggest you get in your car Saturday morning and leave them all behind. Head out of town (about 30 minutes) to the Johnson Space Center, where you can tour the facilities, check out the history of the space program, and fill the trunk of your car with freeze-dried astronaut ice cream.
Get baked: One of the joys of my weekend in Houston was people watching at Common Bond Cafe & Bakery in Montrose. If you only hit one bakery in Houston, this is it. I had the fig, brie, and prosciutto tartine, and although I was thoroughly stuffed, I went back up to the counter to order some sweets for the road.
Culture club: I’m going to crawl out on an unpopular limb and suggest that you take some time out from bar hopping (please, don’t throw your beer can at me) and head to the city’s museum district on Saturday afternoon. The Menil Collection was founded by oil heiress Dominique De Menil, a pioneer for civil rights in Houston. She amassed one of the best collections of Surrealist art in the world. The collection is wide-ranging and housed in a building that is also a work of art. Nearby is the Rothko Chapel, which was designed by Mark Rothko and is filled with his nuanced work. It’s a somber, ecumenical chapel where you can stop, reflect, and perhaps say a small prayer for your misdeeds of the weekend.
Night cap: The parties will be plentiful in the city’s generic sports bars Saturday night, so use the time to see some places that are unique to Houston. Anvil Bar & Refuge started the craft cocktail movement in Houston. They’re so unique that they have a Cuba Libre on tap. The Pastry War may sound like a violent food fight, but it’s a mezcaleria from Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta that serves agave spirits from family-owned distilleries in Mexico.
Wake up call: Breakfast will be the most important meal of the day on Super Bowl Sunday, particularly because the remainder of your intake will likely be burgers and hot dogs. Locals mob the Breakfast Klub on Sunday morning for chicken and waffles, or pork chops and eggs. Yes, I ate pork chops for breakfast, and it felt quite liberating.
Kicked off: If you’ve traveled to Houston simply for the camaraderie (meaning you couldn’t get your hands on tickets), there are plenty of places to watch the game. Pimlico Irish Pub will transform its parking lot into a communal tailgate party with barbecue and booze specials. Plus it’s Irish, so it will feel a little like home, but warmer. If you want something a bit more festive, Christian’s Tailgate (White Oak Drive location) is charging $25 ($50 VIP) for a party with cotton candy, adult snowcones, and other carny-style amusements. Oh, they’re also showing the game.