Longhorns, barbecue, rockets and grits – these are a few of my favourite Houstonian things

If you’re driving along Texas State Highway 6 and happen to pass the turn-off to Galveston Island, chances are that at least one of your travel companions will burst into song: “Galveston, oh Galvestooo-o-on,” they’ll trill. While this Glenn Campbell classic may not be on high rotation in anyone’s home these days, it makes a fun soundtrack to a holiday in Houston.

Nailing the chorus of the 1969 hit is as much of a must-do here as touching a moon rock at Space Center Houston, eating smokey brisket at Roegel’s Barbecue Co and visiting the Museum District. Or, in fact, visiting Galveston Island itself, which was once a hotbed of illegal speakeasies and gambling dens in the Prohibition Era (it’s where they invented the flip table to obscure their activities from the police) and is now a tranquil island getaway offering fresh seafood pulled straight from the Gulf of Mexico. Today, Houston remains a gambling-free zone.

Independence Plaza at Houston Space Center. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Independence Plaza at Houston Space Center. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Houston Museum District’s four zones and 19 museums may come as a surprise to travellers. When you think of Houston, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is probably the first thing to come to mind – that or the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a huge cowboy-fuelled event that takes place throughout March each year. The Museum District’s eclectic collective of galleries and public spaces would take weeks to explore.

If you only have a short stay, however, arty types should visit the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Rice Gallery, Houston Center for Photography, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. If your leanings are more literary, head to DiverseWorks, which showcases live performance and text-based exhibitions. Meanwhile, more “thinky” sorts can join a psychology class or check out an exhibition at the Jung Center. The district has a Children’s Museum, too.

The Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston, Texas. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
The Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston, Texas. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Perhaps the two most different-to-what-you’d-find-at-home museums are the Houston Museum of African American History and the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, which documents the history of African American soldiers in every major American war. Both rich in information, the museums are a fantastic entrée into African American culture.

The queue at the Breakfast Klub is well worth the wait. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
The queue at the Breakfast Klub is long, but the food and ambience here is well worth the wait. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

For the main course, head to the Breakfast Klub at 3711 Travis Street, Midtown (open 7am-2pm Monday-Friday and 8am to 2pm Saturdays and Sundays). Arrive early, because even at opening time there will be a queue (what Houstonians call a “line-up”) happily chatting and stretching out the door and way up the block. It won’t be long before you’re inside and getting used to the restaurant’s use of the letter K to replace Cs. The menu features koffee, katfish, (chicken) wings and waffles, green eggs and ham, biskits and gravy, and grits.

Katfish (catfish) at the Breakfast Klub. Photo credit Elisabeth Knowles
Katfish (catfish) and grits at the Breakfast Klub. Photo credit Elisabeth Knowles

If you’ve never tried grits, they are best described as a kind of porridge made from ground corn. Houston-based tour guide Darren Giles-Bey recommends lifting the flavour with a shake of salt and pepper. He is a bit of a brains trust on the Houston area, pointing out that across the road from the Breakfast Klub there are still murals that were painted for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. Apparently the owner of both the Breakfast Klub and Reggae Hut Cafe, Marcus Davis, maintains the walls, keeping them free of graffiti. The murals were huge symbols of hope pre-election and still act as reminders that African American culture is a force to be reckoned with in Houston.

If you’re not too side-splittingly stuffed full of deep-fried catfish, your next stop should be Roegel’s Barbecue Company at 2223 South Voss Road because, aside from hominy grits, barbecue is Houston’s other major food group.

A barbecue platter from Roegel's will make you giddy. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles (blur from going cross-eyed with greed)
A barbecue platter from Roegel’s will make you giddy. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles (I’ll blame the blur on going cross-eyed with greed)

You are probably thinking, “I would never eat that much food.” Good luck with that in Texas. After your first (literally) full day in Houston, you will get used to the fact that eating has become your primary occupation. It’s best to go with it. One member of our group reckons that people have “a separate stomach for dessert” – I’d go one step further and say there is a separate stomach for Texan barbecue, too.

Run by pit-master Russel Roegels, this barbecue restaurant has a relaxed vibe despite being full of customers, with long tables, booths and a lean-to out the back that holds two wall-length smokers that allegedly haven’t been turned off since Russel went on a scuba diving trip at Christmas. Dishes are served by the pound – US$19 per pound for beef brisket, and $15.50 per pound for smoked sausage, pulled pork and turkey breast. Pork ribs are $17 per pound. Ask for a mixed platter. You’ll get two slices of plastic-wrapped white bread per diner to go with it but if you fancy a side they can be ordered pub-style – in quarts, pints or half-pints. Think creamy coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, dirty rice and marinated cucumbers.

Hotel ZaZa's transfer car, complete with longhorn skull. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Hotel ZaZa’s transfer car, complete with longhorn skull. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

You will smell barbecue everywhere in Houston, the aroma will linger on your clothes well after you return to Australia and you will crave it the minute you stop eating it (almost). So it’s worth dropping by the Savory Spice Shop in the Rice Village (at 2516 Times Boulevard) to pick up an 8.5 ounce jar of Native Texan BBQ Rub before you head to the airport. It goes just as well on salmon if you don’t have your own barbecue pit at home.

Meanwhile, if you need a half-day’s reprieve from food, Space Center Houston, the official visitors’ centre for the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center, remains the city’s most popular tourist destination for good reason (it welcomed its 15 millionth visitor in 2012). A “Level 9” tour takes between four and five hours to complete and is limited to 12 guests per day, so book well in advance.

Rocket Park, Houston Space Center. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Rocket Park, Houston Space Center. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

The guided tour allows incredible access to both the current, working Mission Control and historic Mission Control, where NASA monitored both the Apollo and Gemini space missions, including Apollo 11’s journey to the moon. It still has the original banks of squat little green-screen monitors. You may also see current astronauts training in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a massive indoor pool complex where they complete simulated tasks underwater to emulate the conditions of zero gravity.

Space Center Houston has an incredible number of space-related artefacts in both permanent and temporary exhibitions, including space suits through the ages, vehicles such as a Lunar Rover, many different space modules, mock-ups of space stations and the aforementioned moon rock, which visitors are allowed to touch.

Darren Giles-Bey, aka America's Tour Guide, is an expert on Houston's local secrets. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Darren L Giles-Bey, aka America’s Tour Guide, pictured here with a plate of delicious grits, is an expert on Houston’s local secrets. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

One of the main attractions is the Rocket Garden (colloquially known as Rocket Park), where you can view a restored (i.e. it’s real!) Saturn V rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built, lying down in a massive hanger. If up-ended, it would be over 36 storeys tall.

While a new exhibit, Independence Plaza, is due to open on 23 January next year, if you visit earlier you will see the project’s first build already taking shape – a replica of the space shuttle Independence mounted on top of the original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft. It’s awe-inspiring to see.

Touching the moon in Houston.
Touching the moon in Houston.

Something you may not expect to see as you pass through NASA’s grounds are Texas Longhorn steer grazing in an open field. A lesser-known attraction here is the NASA Longhorn Project, where students are loaned animals to learn about agriculture. And although these cattle are bred for showing, not eating, it does bring us nicely back to barbecue. If you don’t build up an appetite roaming around the Space Center, I’d be very surprised.

Discarded space pants by the side of the pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Discarded space pants by the side of the pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Do it yourself

Find out more about what to do and see in Houston at visithoustontexas.com

Hire a private tour guide to show you the city’s secrets at americastourguide.com

• Getting there: Air New Zealand is now selling direct flights from Auckland to Houston. The flights commence on 15 December, 2015, and will operate up to five times a week on Air New Zealand’s refurbished Boeing 777-200.

The aircraft features three cabin classes –  Economy, Premium Economy and Business Premier, which has lie-flat beds. You can also book the award-winning Sky Coach, a series of three economy seats that fold out into a bed.

Houston is Air New Zealand’s fifth North American port – the others being Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Honolulu. Air New Zealand code shares with Star Alliance partner United to offer services from its Houston hub all across the US and beyond.

Air New Zealand also launches a direct Auckland-Buenos Aires route in December 2015. Book flights to the US with Air New Zealand at airnewzealand.com.au

More to explore

Make sure you put the following places mentioned in this story on your must-do list next time you are in Houston:

The Breakfast Klub
WHY: For katfish, grits, green eggs and ham and biscuits and gravy – and to visit the Obama campaign murals.
ADDRESS: 3711 Travis at Alabama, Houston; thebreakfastklub.com

Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
WHY: To find out about the history African American soldiers, and to get a unique perspective on American war history. The museum was founded by Vietnam veteran and military historian Captain Paul J. Matthews.
ADDRESS: 3816 Caroline, Houston; buffalosoldiermuseum.com

Roegel’s Barbecue
WHY: For platter upon platter of Texan barbecue goodness in a down-to-earth atmosphere.
ADDRESS: 2223 South Voss, Houston; roegelsbarbecue.com

Space Center Houston
WHY: It is the gateway to NASA. Who wouldn’t want to visit the control centre that oversaw the Apollo Mission or touch a moon rock or or see astronauts training in a swimming pool to emulate zero gravity or see what the International Space Station is like?
ADDRESS: 1601 NASA Parkway, Houston; spacecenter.org

NOTE: This story first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper’s Escape travel section

Biskits and gravy – salty deliciousness from the Breakfast Klub. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Biskits and gravy – salty deliciousness from the Breakfast Klub. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles