Discerning travelers will eventually resume having their pick of big city luxury hotels and exotic destinations once the pandemic abates. However, with current travel restrictions, there’s something to be said about gaining a new appreciation for the incredible discoveries that can be found in our “back yard” (or, within the continental U.S.). Although “authentic” and “off the beaten path” are travel buzzwords that now have a few too many miles on them, they will certainly be applicable to Lubbock, Texas, which is poised to enter its prime in the near future.
While Lubbock has long been a destination for music fans because of Buddy Holly, Mac Davis and their long-standing influences on many different genres of music, what’s happening in food, wine and the arts is broadening the city’s appeal, especially when it comes to the commitment restaurateurs, wine producers and art gallery owners have put into the city’s downtown revitalization and its “Lubbock Cultural District” (encompassing the gallery-studded Arts District, performance-oriented Depot District, Texas Tech and Canyon Lakes).
With an “If we build it, they will come” attitude, restaurateurs Cameron and Rachel West are among those putting their creativity and energy into downtown revitalization efforts. Six years ago, their West Table Kitchen & Bar laid the groundwork and gave rise to sister eateries, The Brewery LBK and The Coffee Shop, on the ground floor of the historic Pioneer Condominium building. In fall 2020, the group followed those success with the opening of Dirk’s Fried Chicken and Bar arrived, serving up fried chicken, Texas Tech sports history and walls covered top to bottom with the art of cartoonist and former Lubbock mayor Dirk West (Cameron’s grandfather). They’re betting Texas Tech students and faculty along with newer Lubbock residents and, yes, a larger number of outside visitors will embrace modern dining concepts blending homegrown Texas sensibilities and global flair.
“For years, downtown was a barren landscape, with restaurateurs, bar and brewery entrepreneurs starting businesses closer to the Texas Tech campus and other newer developments,” says General Manager/Partner Mike Nghiem. “The West Table was one of the first chef-driven restaurants that set out to actively participate in downtown Lubbock’s revitalization, and became a hit because of its seasonal menu and cocktail program bringing something new to the city. Our menu first pivoted toward dishes that were more home-y and comforting. However, we wanted to figure in more unusual dishes as time went on. This means that if somebody comes in wanting something with Asian flavors, we are not going to serve them the same old beef-and-broccoli.”
Ngheim points to its Vietnamese steak dish, a favorite that rarely goes off the usually changeable seasonal menu. While it was developed during the pandemic as an easy, affordable stir fry dish, the kitchen wanted to upgrade it using the seasonings and ingredients found in shaken beef, a popular street food in Vietnam to get something exotic, spicy but wholly original with the ingredients sourced from nearby farms and purveyors. West Table’s versions of tempura lobster cakes, Texas-sized shrimp pad Thai and shishito peppers are follow suit. The almost minimalist and colorful Mid-Century lighting and décor is also credited for sparking downtown traffic and increasing support for a population once very set in its ways in terms of dining and the bar scene.
Burklee Hill Winery’s recently opened bistro is another downtown highlight drawing you in with its inviting and airy updated setting. Here, a former Kress Department Store main floor is opened out and enhanced with a splash of industrial chic that’s blended with Mid-Century minimalism and the original architecture’s art deco features. It sets the stage for a playful menu of wine-country chic charcuterie-cheese plates, aromatic and addictive flatbread pizzas (“Maggio,” with mushrooms, feta and white truffle oil; “Burklee,” with prosciutto, feta, shallot, pistachios, & honey drizzle; “Dolly,” which puts ordinary barbecue chicken pizza to shame) and elevated–physically and gastronomically– sandwiches.
Other surprises await beyond the downtown area and adjoining arts district. Midway between downtown and Texas Tech, Monomyth Coffee provides students, professors and anybody else needing a morning lift with a bright, sunlit space perfectly aligning with the local aesthetic rather than rely on coffeehouse tropes around for decades. The back-story is as strong and sweet as its specialty coffee: Brothers Randall and Trenton Jackson transformed a 1928 bungalow and one-time antique shop into their idealized coffee destination and opened it in 2019. The name Monomyth (“hero’s journey”) reflects their philosophy of putting the customers front and center. Every hero who starts the day with the Jacksons can expect perfectly executed coffee, indulgent specialty coffee drinks (Maple Latte on my visit) and worth-the-calories bites (ask about the buttery “slammed” chocolate chip cookies).
While there’s no shortage of excellent barbecue joints in Lubbock or food trucks cruising the Art District Neighborhood, Evie Mae’s in Lubbock’s outskirts brings something new to the plate beyond ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken and sausage smoked to perfection over a mixed variety of oak woods. Arnis and Mallory Robbins further distinguish themselves through Evie Mae’s exclusively gluten free menu and inclusion of eastern New Mexico influence in their recipes. Lagers, porters and other libations from Lubbock craft brewery Two Docs are both available for sale and blended into the marinade. Back in town, meanwhile, Two Docs has its own tap room serving their various brews.
Some of Lubbock’s fine dining restaurants beyond the downtown core also throw diners a playful curve that make them well worth the trip. Las Brisas is every bit the upscale All-American high-end steakhouse you would expect to find in Texas, with an expansive menu touting (and successfully executing) perfect New York strip, fillet, porterhouse, salmon, lobster and white fish mains and rich starters. However, look more closely, and you’ll see the kitchen sneaks in unexpected hits of spices and seasonings. Lobster Mac & Cheese and Chicken Tortellini work in zesty Hatch chiles, while several sauces and add-ons amp up flavor profiles of the other dishes.
King Street Pub, meanwhile, has fun with another form of old school fine dining ambiance, put together with an eclectic jumble of antique furniture and accessories. The cocktails and food items are equally diverse, and yet there’s nothing old fashioned about appetizers like the Shrimp, Avocado, & Mango Nachos, Texas Poutine, Cigars & Brandy duck spring rolls and “Christmas Fries” with red and green gravies, goat cheese, grilled jalapenos & roasted red peppers. In addition to several beautifully plated steak and pasta dinners, you can venture off the Texas steakhouse trail with the (often sold out) Island Salmon in Banana Leaf with cornbread stuffing and pineapple salsa or equally delicious Hot-n-Crunchy Trout with a masa cornmeal crust, red pepper coulis and coconut rice.
Granted that Lubbock is a part of “Middle America,” you’ll have to hit a diner at some point. The Cast Iron Grill is exactly the type of place you would expect to find, from enormous breakfast platters and sandwich plates (which cost about the same or less than a well drink in Manhattan) as well as indulgent pies that sell out well before the end of the breakfast shift. Stacked, tucked into a residential neighborhood strip mall, serves near-perfect chicken and waffles and unusual flavors of pancakes, taking the Southern breakfast in a modern direction.
Oenophiles who actively follow American winemaking are keenly aware that much of Texas’ high-end wine grape varietal production has been coming out of Lubbock and surrounding Texas High Plains for a few years. Therefore, it’s no accident that restaurateurs in Lubbock actively support Texas wineries. A tasting room session or a meal at Burklee Hill’s downtown restaurant reflect Texas wine production has moved on from a cottage industry to a category that could very well compete with California and Washington State in few years. English Newsom Cellars, one of the crown jewels in the West Texas wine collection, is noteworthy for the fact that its wines are crafted exclusively with Newsom Vineyard grapes. It is one of a handful of wineries in the country with full control of their product, from cultivation to aging and bottling. Back in downtown Lubbock, McPhereson Cellars’ wine room has a definitive coolness factor, from its affable winemaker and young, energetic sommelier to its tasting area in the front room of a former Coca-Cola plant. The winery taking up the rest of the building almost doubles as an art gallery as it had been planned as the original tasting space.
In looking to satisfy the rest of your five sense, follow Mac Davis Lane and Buddy Holly Avenue from downtown to explore the Art District Neighborhood, in the heart of the Lubbock Cultural Arts District (lubbockculturaldistrict.org). Its awash with street murals, workshops, a print shop and galleries making up the Charles Adams Studio Project (CASP), the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts and more. Travel a little further west, to Texas Tech’s campus for a self-guided walking tour of its Public art Collection, one of the top ten public art collections in the U.S.with over 100 pieces created by leading American and International contemporary artists.
Mac Davis Lane begins at the doors of the new Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences. The multimillion dollar complex promises to transform Lubbock from a music history pilgrimage stop to a performing arts destination over the next decade. It was designed to expand on Holly’s legacy with regularly scheduled concerts and Broadway shows in the main theater and a smaller theater space for high school and community performances. The Buddy Holly Center, the actual museum dedicated to his life and career. What makes it a must-visit is the way the deep, well-curated collection of memorabilia, instruments and personal effects flesh out the real-life Holly. Much care is put into arranging the items and photos to to explain how he created such an indelible impact on influential rock, pop and country musicians who came after him over such a short period of time.
For more information, check out the Visit Lubbock website (visitlubbock.org).
Author’s Note: While there remain many questions and concerns about the safety of travel domestically and abroad at press time, I hope this story will provide inspiration on how you can plan for interesting, enlightening and responsible journeys once circumstances allow for travel with confidence—such as increased availability of a vaccine or the dramatic slowing of new cases. In the meantime, be sure to regularly consult sites such as the U.S. State Department (state.gov), the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) and the tourism offices and official government sites of your intended destination.