To get a sense for this city, it’s going to take more than a pit stop. Home to this year’s NCAA Final Four, thousands of people are preparing to descend on Dallas—a town known for cowboys, boots, oil and much more. With nearly 7 million people calling it home, Dallas is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States. Here you can always find a cold drink, a good meal and memorable music.
For this Red Planet tour,
Then former Texan, journalist, travel guide author and our Group Director of Employee and Leadership Communications Steve Soltis takes us to his “absolutely must go-to” places. You’ll want to loosen your belt for this one so you can take in all the brews and BBQ that make up Steve’s Big-D tour (he even has a recipe for folks at home). A self-proclaimed banjo picker, he’s also got a penchant for finding great music and telling stories that will make you wish you were saddled up beside him to hear a few more.
1. Where’s the first place you go when you’re in Dallas or your regular go-to place?
DD: Having spent more than 15 years in Dallas, there are so many great things to see and do. Every time I go back, hanging out with my friends on a patio is a “must-do”. The Katy Trail Ice House has the best patio in Dallas. Located in the heart of downtown, it has a 50-foot bar that boasts 50 beers on tap ranging from Texas domestics to regional and international imports. Even better, you can bring your dog and bask in the Texas sunlight.
SS: Actually I have two “absolutely must go-to” places that I alternate depending on my level of hunger for BBQ or Mexican food. Today, I’ve got a hankering for Texas BBQ and that means Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, the original, over near the intersection of Harry Hines and Inwood. Don’t be alarmed as the neighborhood may seem a little sketchy but the ‘Q more than makes up for it. Argue all you want about the merits of Memphis or K.C. or Carolina BBQ (and they are all fine indeed) but Texas BBQ is a much deeper religious experience. The mesquite-smoked beef brisket, sausage and ribs, smothered in Bryan’s spicy, tangy sauce, are worth an airline flight to Dallas alone. The blazing hot onion rings are superb as well, especially complemented by an ice-cold fountain Coke. This is real Texas BBQ for real Texans.
2. What’s your favorite restaurant/bar and why?
DD: My favorite restaurant and bar is Javier’s. If you see the Bentleys parked out front, you’ll know you are at the right place. The menu is high-end Mexican fare in a dark, old-school setting. Order the beef tenderloin or red snapper and you won’t be disappointed. Before or after dinner, visit the cigar room. It is full of trophy mounts that are “pure Texas” and is great people watching (including occasional celebrity sightings).
SS: My other go-to place is actually my favorite Mexican restaurant – Rafa’s Café. I grew up going to the original Raphael’s on McKinney Avenue and a few years ago he opened the Café on Lovers Lane. If you like fiery salsa, brisket tacos, burritos, and chile rellenos handcrafted by the Aztec gods, this is the place, my friend. And don’t get me started on Rafa’s enchiladas, which are made in the San Luis Potosi style of red chile and masa. Outrageous. I gain six pounds just thinking of them.
3. Where is your favorite place to hear live music?
DD: While there are many locations to hear live music in Dallas, I like the Granada Theater located on Greenville Avenue. A former movie house that has been converted to a music venue, there are weekly concerts. You can hear up-and-comers or established bands in an intimate setting.
SS: The best place to hear live music today in the DFW area is also the least-touristy section of the Metroplex – the college community of Denton, about a 40-minute drive north of downtown. It may be blasphemous to say this, but Denton - per capita - has a better music scene than Austin. I attended college in both towns, and have always been amazed at how underrated the music scene was in Denton. This is a place that shaped the musical passions of many music greats. Head to Fry Street and keep your ears open.
4. What is Dallas’ least touristy attraction/area to check out?
DD: The Bishop Arts District is a unique Dallas neighborhood with more than 60 independent boutiques, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, theaters and art galleries. It’s one of Dallas’ best kept secrets!
5. What is your favorite Texas dish (or what is a must try)?
DD: In Texas, tacos are the perfect (and my favorite) dish morning, noon or night. Pair them with a great margarita and patio and you have a win-win.
SS: Green chile puerca from El Paso. Here’s what you do. Fire up your charcoal or gas grill. Lay down some chunks of soaked mesquite over the coals. In a large aluminum baking pan submerge a Boston Butt or pork shoulder in an equal part measure of water, vinegar, Coke, and Orange Fanta. Put enough liquid in the pan to just about cover the pork. Then add some foil and cover the pan with a corner open for the smoke to get in. Let that bad boy stew and smoke for about five hours over the coals (or until the pork literally shreds from the fork) with the grill lid down. Now, roast some Hatch green chile peppers on a rekindled grill. Chop those up along with some liberal amounts of onions, cilantro and cumin and mix it in with the shredded pork. Roll it all into fresh corn tortillas with salsa and guacamole and by gosh you will be a Tejano for life. Go for it.
6. If everything is “bigger in Texas,” how does Dallas live up to that motto?
DD: Not only is it bigger, but many Texans would also say it is better! The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area is known for world-class sports franchises. From the second highest valued sports franchise in the U.S. and wealthiest team in the NFL, to professional basketball, baseball, soccer and ice hockey teams, there’s no shortage of home teams.
SS: The dirty little secret is that Texas has actually shrunk over the years. The original Texas territory once extended all the way through what is now Denver and up to present-day Wyoming. I think that’s why you can get killer chile rellenos in most of our great Western cities today. Dallas is actually a very nice little prairie town ringed by a massive belt of suburbs. Sure it has a “big” attitude, but it’s also an amazingly affordable, cosmopolitan, diverse, tolerant, fun and vibrant city full of really cool and creative people.
7. If someone had time to see only do one thing
in Dallas, what would you recommend?
DD: The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. The Museum is dedicated to preserving and celebrating information on U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s life, career, assassination and death. The Museum is located at the very spot from which Lee Harvey Oswald, according to four government investigations, killed Kennedy. The Museum lets you gain a feel for how things happened in 1963. As a second option, I would recommend the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which offers a fascinating look at the eight years when the 43rd President was in office, including an especially poignant section on 9/11.
SS: Oh, man, that’s tough. For the ladies, I’d say shopping in Highland Park Village. For the guys, I’d say drive over to Fair Park and check out the old Cotton Bowl. So much sporting history has transpired there over the years, from the college Texas-OU games to the heartbreaking Longhorn loss to Georgia in the 1984 Cotton Bowl. I am still in therapy over that one.
8. What is your favorite park/area to spend down time and why do you recommend it?
DD: White Rock Lake is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. Located just 14 minutes from downtown, it is the perfect getaway. I love it because you can run, ride a bike, in-line skate, take your dog for a walk or just enjoy a beautiful sunset. It is also home to the Dallas Marathon. An official time from the Dallas Marathon can be used to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
SS: The Trinity River basin area just south of downtown has really come on as a great biking, hiking, strolling and people watching area.
9. Any tourist traps to avoid?
DD: I would avoid the West End Historic District. Although located in downtown and within walking distance to many hotels, it consists of predominately chain restaurants and very few shops.
SS: South Fork Ranch by all means. Maybe it’s me, but tourist sites based on cheesy 1970s television shows give me the willies. Also, I get wiggly in any restaurant billing itself as “Tex-Mex.” Texas has been part of Mexico much longer than it has been part of the U.S. Go have some world-class Mexican or Tejano food. No need for the Tex.
10. What’s the biggest traveling mistake you see tourists make?
DD: Not exploring the art Dallas has to offer. The Arts District of downtown Dallas is home to several art venues. Notable venues include the Dallas Museum of Art, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, The Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center.
SS: Not dressing for the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter. Dallas is mercurially hot for about 4 months a year. In the winter, it can be cold, windy and icy. I’ve seen Cotton Bowl fans from the Midwest come down in shorts and t-shirts on New Year’s Day thinking they are in Southern California. Not.
11. Do you have any recommendations for accommodations when staying in Dallas?
DD: Hotel ZaZa, located along historic McKinney Avenue in fashionable Uptown, is a hotel experience like no other. It is the only hotel in Dallas that offers concept suites with themes like 60’s retro or Texas ranch. Poolside at ZaZa is the place to be day or night. This treasured nightlife hotspot is where hot summer days are spent relaxing by the pool and nights are spent listening to a DJ and enjoying the atmosphere.
SS: Dallas has really jumped headfirst into the Airbnb movement. You can find amazing lodging for unreal low rates all over town from people who are trustworthy and accommodating.
12. Any advice/info that only a local would know?
DD: Highland Park Village is a hidden gem a few minutes from downtown. Nestled in the 100-year old town of Highland Park, Highland Park Village is a blend of luxury stores, restaurants and a few mainstays, such as Starbucks. Designers cannot seem to miss the call of Highland Park Village as many high-end stores opened their doors in 2013.
SS: The nearest mountain or desert is about a 10-hour car drive from Big D. The Wild West really begins in El Paso, not Fort Worth.
13. What’s the biggest stereotype/myth you’ve heard about Dallas/Texas?
DD: We ride horses to work, wear cowboy boots everywhere (even to bed) and live on a ranch with oil wells in our backyard. I can confidently state this is not the case for the majority of folks in Dallas. However, Dallas is a very cosmopolitan, dynamic city that has a lot to offer visitors.
SS: Red State, gun-toting, nut job cowboys. Texas is really more like four different states and two countries. It’s Western, Southern, Midwestern and Southwestern. It’s firmly rooted in Mexico and the United States, and its big-hearted people are the most enterprising and accommodating in the world.
14. Where’s the best place to buy boots?
DD: While Dallas may be lacking in the horse department, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t rock a pair of sweet cowboy boots. Pink’s Western Wear has a massive selection of men’s and women’s boots from an affordable everyday pair to ridiculously expensive ostrich numbers. Plus, they also have belt buckles, hats and western wear.
SS: Cavender’s Boot City has locations across the Metroplex and a huge variety of styles for men and women. My fashionista big sister also swears by Pink’s Western Wear.
15. What’s the best time of year to visit?
DD: September and October are the best months with highs in the 80’s and lows in the 60’s. The State Fair of Texas takes place in historic Fair Park and football season kicks off.
SS: Fall and spring. Final Four weather should be absolutely beautiful.