Cultural diversity, fed by waves of immigration from around the world, make modern-day Texas a great place to get out of your comfort zone. We test our Mandarin in Houston and learn oompah dance moves in Fredericksburg to broaden our horizons.
With its 269,000 square miles and 27 million people, Texas is rife with international flavor. Ethnic enclaves and hip melting-pot neighborhoods are the norm, not the exception, in the state’s small towns and big cities. We ventured to vibrant communities to get a virtual world tour, no passport required.
Chinatown in Houston
Since the early 1980s, the southwest Houston community known as Chinatown—or Asia Town, as some prefer—has been home to dozens of restaurants and stores from a coterie of cultures.
Businesses representing various ethnicities, chiefly Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Laotian, Thai, Malaysian, Korean, and Japanese, set up shop next to one another. Concentrated along a six-mile stretch of Bellaire Road, it’s a pan-Asian mix you might not find in other Chinatowns.
A primary starting point is Hong Kong City Mall, a shopping center featuring mostly Vietnamese-owned stores. We perused the selection of V-pop, or Vietnamese pop, at Phuong My Music and admired the áo dàis, or traditional Vietnamese dresses, at various fabric shops.
At one corner of the mall is Ocean Palace, a spacious, banquet-style Chinese restaurant known for its dim sum. Lively and loud, the restaurant features servers pushing carts displaying a feast of bite-sized goodness. The congee, noodles, and dumplings dripped with deliciousness, and the service was prompt and polite.
We made some post-lunch purchases at Harwin Drive, a bargain-shopping haven where businesses sell designer look-alikes, electronics, bags, and sunglasses. Tuckered out, we had dinner at Tony Thai, where the basil softshell crab and tom yum soup won the evening.
All this, and we felt like we hadn’t put a dent in Chinatown.
Germany in Texas
A drive through Fredericksburg, a town about 80 miles west of Austin, transports you in non-automotive ways. Quaintly beautiful storefronts lining the main street make you feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
That’s because you’re in German country—more accurately, Texas German country. Central European immigrants settled here in the mid-1800s, bringing their customs and food. To this day, Hill Country towns like New Braunfels, Boerne, Walburg, and Comfort maintain a Teutonic spirit.
Fredericksburg is especially savvy about showing its heritage. Some businesses still call the place “Fritztown,” the nickname that early German settlers used to describe the town, and half-timbered buildings on the 3.5-mile Main Street, better known as Hauptstrasse, exude Old World charm.
We stopped at Pioneer Museum, a complex of 1840s-era homes tracing the town’s early history. There, we admired the re-created Vereins Kirche, the first public building, which dates to 1896, and gazed at hundreds of artifacts and photos on a guided tour. For dinner we devoured the Wild Mushroom Maultaschen at Otto’s German Bistro, and we capped the night with a couple of swigs of Hefeweizen at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company, a long-standing craft brewpub, where the biergarten proved to be a great place to retire.
Of course, the best time to soak up German culture is during Oktoberfest. Fredericksburg’s iteration of the Bavarian holiday has all the usual trappings: beer tent after beer tent spanning several blocks; three covered stages featuring oompah, polka, and waltz tunes; two tents of juried original work by local artisans; and more than a dozen food vendors selling sizzling bratwurst and other German staples.
Bolstered by its authentic heritage and charged by waves of visitors, everything about Oktoberfest Fredericksburg seems more amplified: oompah bands have more oomph, the lederhosen seem more ubiquitous, and the annual organized chicken dance is so massive that the first 340 people who join get a prize.
In Fredericksburg, a 340-person chicken dance is what you call a good start.
Why travel outside the country when Paris is right here in the States? Save money on a plane ticket, and visit these Texas towns bearing the names of foreign cities and countries: Athens, China, Egypt, London, Paris, and Turkey.