McAllen Texas: TexMex sophistication in art and food

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The happy sounds of the Mariachi band greeted me as I emerged from the airport at McAllen, Texas. Although I was not the focus of the music (photographers were gathering around a group of beauty contest winners) it delighted me, and set the tone for my visit. McAllen is a city that will start by surprising you and end up captivating you.

Our New Book

It started with enjoying the evening on the outdoor patio of the Republic of the Rio Grande listening to live music on a Wednesday evening. Their ceviche was excellent and a fine accompaniment to their signature drink called the Flag of the Republic -- a margarita with a layer of red wine floating on top. The last call for food came at 10 pm. Much appreciated by folks who don't believe in early to bed and early to rise.

The next morning began with breakfast at Delia's Tamales. Loving tamales, I was definitely game for this. Tamales are one of those tricky dishes to do well. Too often the masa is bland and the filling meager. It's also not often considered a breakfast food, but there I was in Delia's a RGV (Rio Grande Valley) institution, devouring pork tamales. And I wasn't alone.

Although there are half-a-dozen locations now, Delia actually started the business with her sister, selling her tamales door to door and business to business. Today, Delia makes other varieties including an excellent chicken and cream cheese variety. Delia's is open 7 days a week.

Next was citrus fruit sampling at Earth Born. They are the largest organic citrus producer in all of Texas and sell citrus of all kinds, including some I hadn't known existed Stop by a try their fresh squeezed orange juice and likely you'll walk out with a gallon, and perhaps a grapefruit pie, and some of their unusual citrus. Open only from November to early May.

McAllen Expanding Arts Center

Your tour of McAllen art must start with its magnificent International Museum of Art & Science (IMAS). IMAS is home to one of the top collections of Tiffany stained glass windows in the country. On long-term loan from the private collection of Dr. Lawrence & Esperanza Gelman these are fine examples of Tiffany's brilliance with this medium.

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The newest initiative by IMAS is the artist in residence program started in 2015 -- the program highlights artists famous in their home countries but not well known in the US. Two or three artists a year are invited to create installations inside and outside the museum. Bring the kids and let them enjoy some of the special children's areas.

Closer in to town, there's a vibrant and growing art scene along North Main Street with sophisticated restaurants.

McA2 Creative Incubator in the former public library at 601 N. Main St. lets space to artists but it is also open to the public. Come in and watch an artist at work, chat with them, take a class or perhaps find just the piece of art for which you've been searching. Plus monthly exhibits.

A trio of galleries cluster at Hackberry and North Main. At the Art Village (800 North Main Street) don't miss McAllen Stained Glass and RDM photography. Nearby Art Studio by Design is home to several artists spanning the media. Another gallery that should not be missed is Nuevo Santander Fine Art built to resemble a Spanish mission. Within its walls you'll find an eclectic and beguiling collection of paintings, antiques (including firearms and other western-military items), and jewelry in a gamut of styles.

Anytime is a good time to enjoy McAllen's art scene but from September to May when the weather is at its best (and the affectionately called Winter Texans come for extended visits) the art community holds their First Fridays. Many of the galleries along North Main Street welcome visitors after normal hours. The city also fills Archer Park with art and music during these First Friday events, bringing the creativity from one end of North Main Street to the other.

Where You Find Art and Great Restaurants

Sophisticated dining was another surprise. In addition to the Republic of the Rio Grande I enjoyed upon my arrival, there was lunch at House Wine & Bistro. Whether you opt for lunch or dinner in this sleek, sophisticated concept, you'll definitely enjoy the food and (of course) the wine. Known for their innovative starters and entrees their sandwiches, pastas, and risotto are also innovative and delicious. Leave room for dessert and their Texas Apple Hand Pie.

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The upscale North Main Street not only houses the art, but it some of the more sophisticated restaurants of the city. SALT features an open kitchen and an inviting menu of small plates and entrees as well as some quite tempting sides. The fish is beautifully fresh and the mac and cheese richly delicious.

Roosevelt's at 7 is a crowded happy place known for its craft brews served with well-prepared casual food of sandwiches, burgers, and pizza..

Downtown McAllen

If you want to know more about McAllen's history stop by the McAllen Heritage Center on South Main Street. While you're in the heart of old McAllen, enjoy the cotton-candy color Quinceanera (15th birthday celebration) gowns that fill the store windows.

One of the prime shopping areas of the RGV, McAllen is quite proud of their destination mall the La Plaza Mall -- over 1,200,000 square feet filled with upscale shops and major stores that draw shoppers from the Rio Grande Valley and nearby Mexico. And while you're there enjoy the friendly and delicious Mexican dining in Costa Messa just outside the mall at 1621 N 11th St.

Learn more about surprising and sophisticated McAllen at McAllen CVB

Fun Trivia

The new McAllen public library is in a reclaimed Walmart.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: June 1st, 2015

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