When you hear “Texas”—if you’re an out-of-towner—you probably think Old West and big sky, right? You wouldn’t be wrong to think that. That stuff still reigns. Rodeos are alive and museums, well, a lot are dedicated to legendary outlaws. Plus, no other place in the U.S. has as pretty a sky as ol’ Texas (arguably). It’s a wild blue yonder by day and a big-and-bright diamond canopy by night. Some things never change.
But remember, this state is big and dynamic. The cities here are always redefining themselves. Austin is tramping ever-forward as the go-to for music. Houston is more cultural and culinary than ever. And gone is the sports-only reputation of Dallas. Welcome to an architectural wonderland known for thrilling nightlife. If any of these claims floor you, keep reading. If any of these claims don’t floor you, still, keep reading. You have much to learn about this infinitely eclectic state. What follows is a painstaking (yet not exhaustive) list of the best eateries, best bars and best pastimes in the biggest Texas cities.
First up, Austin
Best Eatery: Looking for a Tex-Mex meal? Austin’s got the answer. Head to North Loop Boulevard. Keep driving until you spot a hacienda-like building. You know you've made it when you see elaborate and endearingly clunky wooden doors. Welcome to Fonda San Miguel—a 40-year-old restaurant replete with orange walls and bona fide art. It might not look like much. But believe me, it’s much. Even the complimentary chips and salsa are criminally good.
Want a real treat? Try the fall-off-the-bone cochinita pibil (pork baked in a banana leaf). Oh, and here's something noteworthy, most every vegetable and fruit is plucked fresh from the restaurant’s own garden. And every last meal on the menu has its roots in seven different regions of Mexico. This place sings authenticity, mi amigos.
Best Bar: Oh man, this was a tough one. The results are in…Whip In takes the cake. Or the beer? Cocktail? I don’t know. Either way, no trip to Austin is complete without a stop in this fine establishment. A lot’s on tap here. A lot’s also in bottle-form. In fact, this little pub is one of the best bottle shops in town (meaning it has a fine selection). Plus, it’s won awards for its red-blooded house brew. Definitely stop by this place for good music and malt.
Best Pastime: It’s obvious, isn’t it? Austin is home to music. Everyone knows that. You’ve got Carnaval Brasileiro with samba and spirited people. Then there’s Rodeo Austin with country and culture. And who can forget SXSW? This is where filmmakers frequent and musicians mingle—and perform.
Here are more tremendous Austin-based fests: Urban Music Festival, Louisiana Swamp Thing and Crawfish Festival, Art City Austin, Old Settlers Music Festival, Austin Reggae Festival, Austin Psych Fest, Old Pecan Street Spring Arts Festival, Pachanga Music Fest, Austin City Limits Music Festival, and the Fun Fun Fun Fest. Starting to get the picture? Head here for all-things music.
Due north, Dallas
Best Eatery: It’s hard to dub just one Dallas restaurant the cream of the crop. You’re probably thinking it has to be a steakhouse. That’s too easy. No, we need something shocking yet traditional; something classically Texas with a twist. That place is CBD (“Central Business District”) Provisions. This modern brasserie is a must-eatery. With a commitment to local produce and time-honored recipes, this relatively new establishment has already made a name for itself. Not to mention its design and look is something of pure beauty. Get here, try the 18-hour pork shoulder, butcher’s steak or grass-fed beef burger. Or, if you're vegetarian, grab the house-made strozzapreti. You won’t regret it.
Best Bar: You might recognize this bar’s namesake if you’re an enthusiast of once-banned literature. Its appellation comes from the infamous novel, The Ginger Man. The book tells the tale of a young American living in Ireland, and all the misadventures he gets into. Apparently, the (previous) owner lived a similar life for some time. That’s neither here nor there. Want to know the ins and outs, the comings and goings of this watering hole? It has an endless amount of events—from Irish-themed to Belgian-themed, and of course, Texas-themed. You better believe it has the very same in beer. And cider. And wine. And cocktails. Check out The Ginger Man for a good time. It’s a community favorite.
Best Pastime: Okay, so this is slightly north of Dallas but it’s for good reason. No trip to this portion of Texas is complete without a fair and/or rodeo. And in this case it’s both. Mark your calendars. From August 15-23 is the North Texas Fair and Rodeo in Denton. It includes rodeo clowns and queens, bull riding, authentic country music and barrel racing. That’s just a taste. Carnival rides, cook-offs, livestock shows and the most delicious fried food you’ll ever have is all right here, too. Travel to Denton for a true Texas experience. It’s worth it.
Last stop, Houston
Best Eatery: It’s not uncommon to find a line out the door at Gatlin’s BBQ in the Heights area of Houston. There's no doubt about it, it’s because of the ribs. You’ll find two kinds here: meaty baby back and rich St. Louis-style. I know what you’re thinking. All this time and I’m barely getting to the best barbecue joint in Texas. It’s for good reason. Save the best for last. You absolutely can’t leave here without trying a pork slider complete with a side of ranch-style beans. The menu’s simple but the food is intricate.
Best Bar: Mongoose vs. Cobra. No, I’m not asking you who would win. I’m stating a fact. Mongoose vs. Cobra is hands down one of the best bars. It was once a single-family home, next a roller skating rink, then a grocery store, an auto repair shop, a printing company, a post office branch, and now a respectable pub. (That's certainly a storied past.) Over 40 delicious craft brews and interesting cocktails make up this establishment’s personality. Some describe it as Brooklyn-esque. I say it’s Texas all its own.
Best Pastime: Let’s be honest, it gets hot in Texas. That calls for a cool-down. Time to hit up the local swimming holes! Every Houstonite knows about Lake Conroe. It has lots of beach and greener-than-green trees but that barely begins to describe the frills this place showcases.
There’s also Clear Lake with the best boating and fishing and Lake Houston with cool water, lots of coastline and nature trails. Those are the favorites. They all have stunning views. They all have relaxation. And most importantly they all have a bit of solitude.
If you haven’t caught the message...
Texas is not a state to pass up. And not solely for these reasons. I could write a near-infinite list detailing a slew of golden experiences. That wouldn’t be fun though. It’s better to find out firsthand. Fortunately, we have locum tenens opportunities for doctors throughout the Lone Star State. You're welcome to find out more here.
In the meantime, here’s some inspiration.