There is really no better way to explore a new city than by bicycle. I joined Phil Butcher, owner of Bayou City Bike Tours this morning for a trip around part of downtown Houston, and I was impressed.
Before I took off on our ride, some of the people at the conference mentioned that it was hot. Yes, it was already in the mid-eighties, but that didn’t deter me. We made our way to one of the city’s many bike rental kiosks, and with the insertion of a credit card I was on board a bike. The first 60 minutes are free, so if you switch bikes every hour, you don’t have to pay.
Our route was on a long section of street painted green with rubber bumper barriers, a protected bike lane that Phil said many delivery trucks and other vehicles often ignore. But it felt safe as we pedaled toward the Buffalo Bayou Hike and Bike trail, that runs for eight miles along the chocolate-milk colored Buffalo Bayou river. This is the river that flooded in April 2016, and though this had happened last month, there was no sign of it on our ride, as we rode past egrets and large ducks and the skateboard park named for a famous local attorney and his wife.
Phil told me lots of things about Houston that were impressive. It’s the most diverse city in the US, with 6.2 million people speaking 100 different languages in the 627 square miles that make up the city. Vietnamese are just one of many countries where large numbers of Houstonites came from. This is the headquarters for giant companies like Exxon Mobile, United Airlines, Waste Management and AIG, it’s the home of more Fortune 500 companies anywhere but New York City. The theater district here is also 2nd only to NYC, with more shows and more tickets sold than any other city besides the Apple.
Our ride took us to Market Square Park, where under a leafy canopy, people queued up for Greek food and coffee at Niko’s, and on a rectangular brick patio we sat at the site of the city’s original town hall. Birds sang in the trees as we relaxed at the table.
I asked Phil about his favorite Houston restaurants, and he told me about Pico’s, where a specialty is fried soft shell crab. His favorite beer bar is the Hay Merchant, and if he wants something fancy, he’ll take his girlfriend to the Mockingbird Bistro, or The Raven in Rice Village. I took an Uber across town to a very upscale joint last night called Peska, where they had the perfect pea soup and a soft shell crab taco that really hit the spot.
I also enjoyed another recommendation of Phil’s–The Phoenicia Specialty Foods, a Mediterranean gourmet food store, bar and restaurant. We waited in a line for lamb shawarma, served hot in a wheat pita with tzatziki sauce and roasted brussels sprouts on the side. I loved that place and stayed around after Phil left to pick up some spices they sell in bulk, including sumac, chicken shawarma spice and a Moroccan spice blend called Ras El Hanout. The next time I cook I’ll remember Phoenicia Specialty in Houston!