Sorry, Calgary, you're not the only Cowtown. Just look south to Texas and you have competition for that claim. While you both have steers and beers, hiccups and pickups, not all Cowtowns, even ones in Texas, are created equal.
Take Fort Worth, for example. Though it has a smaller population (just over 740,000 residents) than Calgary, it shares a ranching history. Situated along the Chisholm Trail, a kind of super-highway for herding cattle to the railheads of Kansas, Fort Worth served as a convenient stop.
More than five million head of cattle sauntered their way through town. With the arrival of a railway in Fort Worth to move the animals from the stockyards to markets east in 1876, its Cowtown reputation was rock solid.
Fast forward 136 years and Fort Worth is now an oil and natural gas hub. Sound like another Canadian city you know? And where there is that kind of money culture follows. The Cultural District packs together seven of its finest museums in a four-block area.
If the kids are in tow, The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History has plenty to entertain short attention spans with plenty of buttons to push and interactive displays centred around things like dinosaurs, and hometown-inspired topics like cattle ranching and energy.
If you're an art school dropout, you'll recognize the names of the artists whose works are on display at the Kimbell Art Museum. All the A-listers are here, from Cezanne to Matisse, but the facility isn't overly huge and it won't leave your head foggy and overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, the Modern Art Museum showcases art that you can't explain (like a single glass and chrome cube, or a black strip of paint down a white canvas) in a stunner of a building erected in 2002. You can get the maximum impact of the glass/steel/water structure by booking dinner at the Cafe Modern, available just on Friday nights.
But this is a self-acclaimed Cowtown, remember? So you won't be surprised when you see the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame -- the only of its kind in the world. It might sound odd, but it manages to amuse with salutes to western women like Annie Oakley, Dale Evans, Georgia O'Keeffe and Laura Ingalls Wilder (author of the Little House on the Prairie books), plus a bronco ride to tap into your inner cowboy. Go ahead and wear your souvenir Stetson here. No one will blink twice.
In the Stockyards National Historic District, it can be tricky to identify genuine cowboys in the crowd who may have come to compete in the rodeo (held every weekend) and who are the tourist/cowboy wannabes. Look for these identifying signs: Real cowboys always wear Wrangler jeans. They wear boots, not sneakers, and their belt buckles are bigger than a grapefruit, and shinier than a chrome tailpipe,
It doesn't really matter because everyone strolls along Exchange Avenue to shop (for western-wear, of course), drink beer or margaritas (wine is sissy stuff) at popular hangouts like the White Elephant Saloon before taking in twice-daily cattle drive (the world's only). Back up and give these massive Texas longhorns cattle and the cowboys that wrangle them plenty of room as they dash down the main drag.
Then head to Billy Bob's Texas, the world's largest honky-tonk bar. It has an indoor rodeo, stages for live act, copious dance floors and plenty of bar rails to lean against so look like you belong. If you're a klutz and can't dance to save your life, go on a Thursday night for free line dance lessons so you can "boot-scoot" across the dance floor with finesse.
Billy Bob's has a restaurant on-site where you can get beef brisket, steak, burgers and catfish, but there are better places to eat in Fort Worth. The locals put blinders on to the dated decor, complete with wedding banquet-like like chairs and tables, at Angelo's Bar-B-Que. The brisket is the star attraction here, slowly smoked over a hickory fire. Grab a beef plate piled high with meat, beans, salad, coleslaw, pickle and onion. Pair it with a draft beer (a steal at US$2.35) and you'll fit in fine among the locals.
If you want something a bit fancier, but not fussy, Fort Worth has those places, too. A top pick is Ellerbe Fine Foods, helmed by chef Molly McCook. The restaurant focuses on local produce and flavours -- who doesn't these days? But she does it better than most by offering a dinner menu that opts for quality over quantity with just seven entrees, eight appetizers and six desserts.
It's mom's cooking smartened up with modern touches. Say yes to bacon wrapped salmon, Gulf flounder with crabmeat stuffing and Maw Maw's bread pudding.
Don't call Dallas "Cowtown." The folks don't like it. Dallas is like Fort Worth's sophisticated sister city -- one that went away to boarding school and came home with worldly ideas. Seeing that Dallas is less than an hour from Fort Worth, you need to experience it, too. Dallas might have the image of being all big-time corporate with JR Ewing look-a-likes coming out of office towers, the reality is quite different.
Dallas has earned big kudos for its urban planning. City planners thought the freeway running through the downtown cut off the core from surrounding neighbours. The solution? They covered the freeway with an urban park to create a seamless transition from the booming Arts District and the downtown. It works beautifully.
The Arts District is one of the world's largest. (This is Texas after all. Bigger is better, even hairdos -- higher the hair, the closer to God they say.) You can exhaust yourself running from museum to museum, but pick a few favourites.
The Nasher Sculpture Center is a beauty. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, it has an excellent collection with big names like Picasso, Giacometti, Henry Moore and Richard Serra (whose Tilted Spheres work in terminal one of Toronto's Pearson Airport).
The Dallas Museum of Fine Art is a one-stop hop with 5,000 years of art and 23,000 pieces, if you're short on time. Here is where you are most likely to find those really big exhibits like last year's Jean Paul Gaultier show. This fall won't disappoint with Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries, starting October 14.
Maybe the biggest surprise about Dallas is its funky neighbourhoods. For example, Deep Ellum was once an industrial wasteland. Now, it's an unpretentious area where hip-hops clubs share a zip code with artists, bike shops, galleries, and tattoo parlours. It's a harmonious melange that feels welcoming and oh-so-chill.
Do stand in line with the rest of the locals to get the most delicious slab of ground beef you've ever find on a bun at Twisted Root Burger Co. Or nix the beef and go for a patty of turkey, black bean, buffalo or even kangaroo or venison. They're sheer perfection, especially paired with homemade custard shake, sips of heaven sucked up with a straw. If the place looks familiar, it has been featured on the latest version of TV's Dallas and Guy Fieri from Diners, Drive-ins & Dives ate here.
New to the tourist radar is the Bishop Arts District. The shopping is unique -- no big chain stores here -- and plenty of indie shops. For example, there's a store that sells just soda, but ones sourced from all over the world like Asia's Kickapoo Joy Juice or Peru's Inca Cola. Here you're more likely to find locals wearing organic hemp T-shirts instead of cowboy shirts, surfer shorts over Wranglers.
The vibe is almost Seattle-like, minus that city's infamous fog and dampness. For proof, park your butt at the Oddfellows, an artsy cafe that creates even artsier-looking coffees and excellent food. For breakfast, try its gingerbread or red velvet pancakes, guaranteed to make you throw out your Aunt Jemima mix.
And then there's San Antonio. It's no Cowtown, despite places called Cowtown Boots or Cowtown BBQ. San Antonio is where Mexican culture marries the West and makes a beautiful child. Here, the Alamo stands guard in the downtown and picturesque missions from the 1700s are dotted around the outlying area.
But the city is at its most glorious along the famed River Walk (the second most popular tourist attraction, next to the Alamo). When it's too hot, just jump into a boat to get the best view of the changing landscapes along the river. Or make reservations for a resto along the River Walk for great people-watching opportunities.
Luke is the creation of Louisiana chef John Besh and the menu definitely oozes southern charm with dishes like seafood gumbo, buttermilk fried quail, shrimp & grits or cochon au last (slow roasted suckling pig). A nice surprise is the Pearl Brewery site. There aren't any suds here now, but the former industrial area has had an extreme makeover and become a hub for great food and arts.
Sign up for a half-day cooking class at the esteemed Culinary Institute of the Arts. This is the latest location of the college and its roster of sessions is impressive. The well-equipped kitchens will make you envious and even Food Network know-it-alls will come away with a new batch of tips and ideas.
If the DIY approach to eating isn't your thing, let chef Johnny Hernandez cook for you at La Gloria. The beloved chef (and guest judge on TV's Top Chef) channels the flavours of Mexican street food to the plate. This is not Tex Mex, where one or two dominant flavours carry the load of every meal; this is authentic Mexican with layers of flavours creating joyous mouthfuls.
The selection of margaritas is stellar, but don't fill up on those or the fantastic nacho chips and dips that land on your table right away. Save room for the ceviche, tostadas with chicken and queso fresco (fresh cheese) and gorditas with black beans, crowned with pulled pork.
But in San Antonio, the nearest steer is most likely served on your plate. When it comes right down it, it's hard to beat Fort Worth for being the quintessential Cowtown. Its cowboy culture permeates every post and pillar. And for that, hats off to you. You do Texas proud!
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-- Postmedia News