And most of all the sizzle. It is everywhere. Sizzle is a good way of describing the night life, the temperature in summer, the life blood of the city of Houston, growing and turning every year into another knot of highways, but the familiar places are no longer familiar.
Things are different here. The only place in the world where the legislature is campaigning to RAISE speed limits is Houston.
In this melting pot of cultures, mainly Hispanic ones but Asian as well (Vietnamese is the third language of the city, on the storyboards alongside English and Spanish) much of the melting is going on in the kitchens behind the attractive restaurants in the tapestry of homesteads which make up the fourth largest city in the USA.
This is the beef capital of the States, maybe the world, and it is produce of the tradition.
Texas steak was once sneered at, the equivalent of a steak-and-kidney pie belt. The renovation of the steak is as big a story as the renovation of the cowboy.
Big. Now it is the star act in a teeming network of culinary experimentation. The steaks are high, or stacked high.
Taste of Texas serves the huge 22 ounce steaks that cascade over the side of the plates, but the real story here is less of a cliché, the eight ouncer you select in the kitchen and track through the cooking process.
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Each meal has a story to tell, and a chef who created it. Michael Cordua of the Americas restaurant in River Oaks wants to celebrate the original diet of pre-Columban America.
Before someone threw the Spaniards in the works, indigenous Americans ate more healthy and hearty meals than their European counterparts.
Michael says that American ingredients then stoked Europe’s industrial revolution. Where would we be without potatoes, maize, and chocolate?
His own family story is equally complicated, with relations on both sides of the Somoza-Sandista divide. He is the perfect dinner guest, that he owns the restaurant as well is a bonus.
On another side of town Hugo Gomez set off on a tour of his native Mexico to bring a variety of experimental food back to his place on Westheimer Road. Tacos are history, he claims. Mexican food is far more interesting than Texans ever gave them credit for.
Tex-Mex was invented here, and the inventor’s son Roland Laurenzo has a new restaurant. He says that Mexicans didn’t cook beef at home, and when they came to Texas to the beef capital of the world, the inevitable happened. The flour taco, created in his mother Ninfa Laurenzo’s kitchen, now rules the city of the plains. Marcus Davis found there was nothing that African-Americans could identify with in the city of 2,000 restaurants. He wanted grits, and after a conversation with four beautiful women one night, he founded the Breakfast Klub and each morning you can see the queues of WASPish business men buying into one of the oldest and most neglected parts of the Texan culinary tradition.
It is to Europe that Matthew Gray and Damien Rice look, they cook at Chez Roux at La Torretta Lake Resort.
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Johnson Space Centre is one of the greatest tourist attractions on the planet, 25 miles from downtown Houston, near Ellington Air Force base on the shores of Clear Lake, an inlet of Galveston Bay. It used to be grazing land for cattle until it was donated to NASA by Rice University.
Houston threw the biggest parade and barbecue to honour the arrival of the original seven astronauts on July 4, 1962. It was opened in September 1963 and renamed ten years later in honour of President Lyndon Johnson. Once the spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Mission Control Center in Houston took over.
Historic Mission Control is familiar to everyone who grew up in the space age, rows of consoles with 70 flight control engineers studying data, monitoring progress and providing advice during the mission. It looked so cutting edge. It now looks ancient. The technology bears a quirky resemblance to the equipment on Captain Kirk’s Starship Enterprise. Engineers could read data but could not change anything or provide any input whatsoever.
Steve Shapiro, who conducts the tour, came to work in NASA in 1973. All those screens, he says, are an illusion, and proceeds to explain the underwhelming reality. The entire memory of the NASA technology that brought astronauts to the moon, all the great computers that filled rooms of this facility, was about ten megs.
“My new phone has about 60 gigs,” he says. Steve conducts a tour on a trolley car through the premises on the half hour. The tour lasts three hours and has just three stops, at historic mission control, the training centre and the rocket park.
There are taped memoirs from astronauts, tributes to those who died in the Apollo 7 or space shuttle accidents, and the jokes. There are cows at Nasa, part of a research project: “Maybe they are going to the moooohooon, or the Milky Way,” he jokes.
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