Every year, we love to share some of our favorite encounters in our many travels over the previous 12 months. The finds can encompass indie bookstores, restaurants, art spaces and artists or products. The only criteria we have is that it must be independent, local to a town that we have visited and something that we have experienced firsthand.
So, without further ado, and in no particular order…
2022 Favorite Finds
Taconeta, El Paso
We always say that this list is in no particular order, and in this case that is still mostly true. With one exception — El Paso’s phenomenal Taconeta. The vibrant and hip taqueria not only meets all the “favorite things” criteria in terms of atmosphere, quality and overall surprise and delight, it also served the best thing we had all year — a single fried mushroom, part of its Mushroom Taco. (Easy to remember!) Taconeta is adjacent to the excellent downtown El Paso, accessible by car or quick ride share.
Phoenicia Specialty Foods, Houston
Houston as a city is a wonderland of international foods, and Phoenicia is a prime destination. Its downtown location is our favorite - a multi-story building with ancient Greek iconography out front. Inside, it has a Greek and Middle Eastern grocery with usual suspects and more, but its bakery and grab-and-go cases are the real standouts, offering everything from sweets like baklava and confections to savory cheese breads, dips of all kinds, meat skewers and stew dishes. But truly, any Phoenicia Houston location is a good experience.
Winnsboro Center for the Arts, Winnsboro
Old Jail Art Center, Albany
We have long been fans of finding great art in unexpected places, and this year introduced us to two outstanding small town Texas art museums! The Winnsboro Center for the Arts, which was showing "Points of View," the trippy Western work of Ray-Mel Cornelius, and the Old Jail Art Center in Albany, which was showing Chris Powell’s tiny sculptures and installed vignettes in his “Then and Now” show. Both places are worthy road trip destinations in-and-of themselves, or part of a larger itinerary.
Frontier Coffee Company, Midland
Midland’s Frontier Coffee Company was everything that a West Texas coffee shop should be. The decor is modern cowboy, the drinks are unfussy and delicious. When we grab coffee on our way out of a town, it is a bit of a gamble, because if it’s a bad cup — and believe me, we’ve had plenty — then there’s not really time to look for a replacement. Luckily, Frontier Coffee was not just good fuel to send us further west into Alpine and Marfa, but would have been great in any scenario.
Clowndog Hot Dog Parlor, Albuquerque
Clowndog Hot Dog Parlor in Albuquerque is set along the town’s local stretch of Route 66, and while the decor isn’t Route 66 themed, there’s definitely a bit of retro kitsch in its style. However, there’s nothing at all retro about its many, MANY hot dog offerings! There is an encycolopedia's worth of options: pre-planned Clowndog Creations and build-your-own varieties. (Including one doused with Spaghetti-O’s!) We both tried the Sonoran Clowndog Creation and while usually we wish we could have gotten several to try, in this case, we are glad that we stuck to one each because these are some big dogs.
Bookish Cedar Creek, Malakoff
When we are on the road, we see as many indie bookstores as we possibly can. We visited Bookish Cedar Creek in Malakoff on Independent Bookstore Day 2022, and it was a real treat to find not only a charming place full of books, but also a place full of writers and the greater bookish community. Readers and writers need each other, and the best bookstores know that the more they connect these communities, the better it is for everyone.
Smoke n’ Ash, Arlington
We went to Smoke N’ Ash BBQ in Arlington for a meeting of a local dining out club that dined out once and then fizzled. But if we could only make one meeting of the club, I’m glad it introduced me to this restaurant. A fusion of Ethiopian and barbecue flavors, Smoke N’ Ash has perfectly blended wonderful elements of both cuisines to enhance both without losing the essence of either. We ordered the Tex-Ethiopian Platter. (Not sure if we ordered the size “jumbo” but if we didn’t, we should have.) The Hickory-Smoke Berbere Popcorn was also something special, and next time we’re going to plan ahead and leave room for an Ethiopian coffee or other hot beverage.
Di Abruzzo Italian Market, Denton
Di Abruzzo Italian Market is Denton’s relatively new Italian deli and grocery, just beyond the Denton Square, and has grab-n-go prepared food, frozen items and pantry staples along with a butcher counter and cheese that is fresh from the wheel. We especially liked its sandwiches, trying both the chicken parm and beef options. I realized too late that the sandwiches came in half and whole sizes, but the silver lining was that I had segments of delicious chicken parm for lunch three days in a row. And like most good things, it was even better with age!
Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque
Albuquerque is heavily influenced by its Native American community and the region’s place as a jewel of the American West. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque puts the Indigenous community front and center, not just in its exhibitions and cultural programming, but also in its restaurant, Indian Pueblo Kitchen. We visited at lunch/brunch, and while everything we had was good, the Native Superfood Griddle Cakes were amazing, as was the coffee to go on what for us was a rare cold and drizzly day in August.
Gladewater Books, Gladewater
Gladewater, Texas is known for its antiques, with stores clustered in historic buildings throughout its historic downtown. We zeroed in on Gladewater Books, a secondhand and vintage store offering rooms and rooms of books, periodicals and ephemera at extremely fair prices. I somehow made it out with only an addition to my "Alice in Wonderland" book collection, but only because we were on a schedule.
Rainbow Embassy, Fort Smith
Fort Smith, Arkansas is a public art town, with murals on almost every side surface — and some silos — all throughout its downtown. “Rainbow Embassy,” by Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel is a multidimensional piece, its vibrant stripes and colors splashing not just one wall, but many walls, the roof and the porch, and extending to an equally colorful accessory building. “Rainbow Embassy” is installed in the middle of a residential neighborhood just outside of downtown. Set among the homes, cars and yard ephemera of the surrounding blocks, it both enhances the neighborhood and serves as a bright, unassuming statement piece that all can enjoy.
Lonesome Pine Home, Hemphill
Being from East Texas, I admit that I am a bit partial to anything with “pine” in the name, and Lonesome Pine Home in Hemphill is everything I love about my home region. It is very special, because it stays so true to its curatorial vision. Everything in the store belongs there, and it not only knows and serves an inclusive range of its customer community and their tastes, but elevates local artists and craftspeople. Specializing in antique and hand refurbished furniture and accents, with local and handmade smaller goods and repurposed apparel, this shop showcases a side of of East Texas that goes beyond stereotypes to keep the region’s accomplished, creative artisans — and those who value their work — front and center.
Wrong Marfa, Marfa
We (sadly) hadn’t been to Marfa in years, so when we drove through on our trip West last summer, we had to prioritize the things we wanted to see in this city that had changed so much since our last visit. A friendly acquaintance here in Dallas recommended Wrong Marfa, and we were not surprised, but pleasantly delighted to find it right up our alley. Its product mix includes art in a range of prices; books; clothing and home accessories in a desert-chic aesthetic with just the right amount of quirky.
Lindale Candy Co., Lindale
Lindale Candy Co. is a busy place! We were there just as the holiday season was beginning, which meant happy people and red striped peppermint sticks as far as the eye could see. And, not just any peppermint sticks; Lindale Candy Co. still hand pulls and produces them based on a recipe from 1946, when the store was founded by “Candy Man Jim” Withrow. It has since been purchased, but in many ways remains true to the shop’s “old town charm” and its founder's legacy. Chocolates by Kaitlin’s Confections are a modern addition, and most Texans will gravitate to the Dr. Pepper truffle, and won’t be disappointed. If you go at the right time, you can watch the magic happen through Lindale Candy Company's viewing window, which looks in on candy makers hand-pulling those famous peppermints and crafting other sweets.
The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, Houston
Houston, known for its vibrant and innovative art scene, has dug even deeper (pun intended!) and turned an underground cistern into a beautiful public art piece. The space is striking on its own. Its many columns, water reflections and echoing walls give it the feel of a meditation room. Artists are invited to use the unique space to showcase their work to the public in Art in the Cistern installations that greatly enhance an already interesting landmark. There are many places we encounter that are special, but very few that are one-in-a-million. The Cistern in Houston is one-in-a-million. (And if you're a bit of a claustrophobe like I am, I can say that it doesn't feel confining at all. It is also ADA compliant and comfortable for most, with six-foot pathways, small group entry and sturdy guardrails.)
Storybook Capital of America, Abilene
In this case, a "favorite find" was an entire city. If you know me (and my collection of children's books!) personally, you will understand why!
Abilene's storybook-themed public art is everything that good public art should be: free and accessible, aesthetically beautiful, meaningful and engaging, with many sculptures contained in two small parks, but many more placed throughout downtown for easy discovery.
The Adamson-Spalding Storybook Garden is a small park is full of recognizable children’s book characters from any generations, from the Three Little Pigs to the Three Little Kittens, and Mr. Tiger, from Peter Brown’s “Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.” Each main vignette highlights a theme present in the book it represents, for example, Responsibility (The Three Little Kittens.)
Everman Park is dedicated to the work of Dr. Seuss, where you’ll see familiar favorites like Yertle the Turtle, Cat in the Hat, and The Grinch.
You’ll encounter William Joyce’s “E. Aster Bunnyman” at the corner of Cedar and N. 1 st Streets and his “Sanderson Mansnoozie" at 174 Cypress St. David Shannon’s “Duck on a Bike” is at 1201 N. First. If you find these treasures, keep looking around for many other pleasant sculpture surprises.
William Joyce’s “Nicholas of the North” marks the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, a key destination in the Abilene Storybook City. When we were there, it was exhibiting the work of R. Gregory Christie. While the center by definition showcases children’s illustration, the art itself is very sophisticated and multilayered. Just as the best children’s books meet young people where they are to express or help them understand complex, exciting and new ideas, illustrations do the same. A quick look at the Center’s planned and prior exhibitions prove that they work with the genre’s best, and provide a memorable experience for guests of all ages.
While we value and encourage in-person travel, we recognize that it's not always easy in terms of geography and personal circumstances. Many of these places have online ordering or other ways to engage, and we hope that you will. Life is better with small businesses, and we aren't just saying that because we are one!
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