NOT YOUR FATHER’S LUBBOCK
by Andrew Chalk
I have visited Lubbock over a dozen times over the course of the last decade, knowing it mainly as the center of the Texas wine grape growing industry. Over three quarters of Texas wine grapes are grown in the Texas High Plains and while the growers are dispersed, in some cases over a hundred miles apart, Lubbock is the hub. A tip of the hat to Buddy Holly too, who posthumously has become Lubbock’s most famous citizen.
It was always a friendly, but rather sleepy town where they hadn’t invented traffic and lots of downtown buildings looked a bit worse for wear. There were periodic flickers of new development but it would have been speculative to have called it a change of trend.
Now things are different. I went back last month for an extended media tour and found a city where there is substantial development on several fronts: the aforementioned wine industry, restaurants, craft brewers, and culture. All of this takes place in an environment where established historical museums, which have always been one of the town’s strengths, are as vital and viable as ever. All this changes its offering to visitors.
In tandem with the rest of Texas, the population grew from 2010 to today (from 231,000 to 256,000) and maybe it is that which has given the town critical mass to become a tourist destination in its own right.
Our accommodations were provided by the Arbor Hotel and Conference Center. Everything in this hotel looks brand spanking new but it has actually been open a decade. It is my new go-to hotel in town. It is part of Choice Hotels, in their Aspire brand, one of the two top tier brands in their portfolio of twelve. Let’s take a look at what to see and do, broken down alphabetically in categories.
The Brewery LBK
More a brewpub than a brewery but The Brewery LBK crams a lot of choices in a small space. Set in one corner of the same restored Pioneer Building as The West Table (see blow) they nonetheless brew over a dozen beers. The beer maven in our group pronounced their IPA (7.2%, 68 IBU) the best beer of the trip. I liked the Irish Red Ale (5.1%, 19 IBU) and the Brown Ale (6.5%, 31 IBU) might get me to move back to brown ale after a long hiatus.
Two Docs Brewing Company
Close to downtown, two blocks from the forthcoming Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences, Two Docs Brewing Company is a craft brewery founded by two doctors Tyson Purdy and Eric Cunningham who liked to drink together is brewing some pretty interesting beers. Buddy Hoppy IPA is the most popular with a bold 8.2% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) and 70 IBU (International Bitterness Units). At the opposite end of the power spectrum the light, easy-drinking beer is Lubbock Light, a lager with half the alcohol and only 9 IBUs. In between are a wheat beers, red ales, and a hazy New England style IPA.
As well as interior tables near the tanks, Two Docs has a large exterior patio overlooking their parking lot. Although not preparing any food of their own food trucks are encouraged to park next to the brewery and the whole social scene is family and dog-friendly.
Buddy Holly Center
The Buddy Holly Center is a celebration of one of the legends of modern music, it is hard to believe that Buddy Holly’s prolific professional career spanned only eighteen months before his tragic death in a plane crash. This museum tells us how he grew up, what was around him, and provides a chronology of his time on the music scene. Compact, it only occupies two rooms, even an hour’s visit is richly rewarding.
Currently under construction nearby is an imposing new performance hall. The City wisely decided to name it The Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts and Sciences. Dwarfing everything nearby it may be the most impressive modern building in town. When finished, Lubbock will get a lot more cultural attention from other cities. I would move the Buddy Holly Center into this building if I were in charge.
Charles Adams Studio Project
An innovative, privately funded project to give artists live-work spaces so that they can pursue their careers. The artists do have some monthly expenses for the lease and they do have to be open to the public at the First Friday Art Trail, but the overall obligations are not onerous. Four units are already leased and others are available. Plans are to extend the number as both a response to the growth of the Arts District and a cause of it.
Texas Tech University Public Art
When a major construction project is approved at the Texas Tech campus, one percent of the budget is set aside for public art. The approval of the project leads to a request-for-proposals from the global artist community. Artists with successful proposals are given a stipend to present the idea. The winner is given the budget to create their piece of work, a process that can often take as long as the construction process itself.
The result of this policy is that there are now over 100 pieces of art set around the campus, many of them by well-known artists from all over the world.It is rated as one of the top ten public art collections in the U.S. by the Public Art Review.
There is a lot more to see at the 36,000 student campus of Texas Tech University. It is a major contributor to the artistic life and Lubbock economy.
National Ranching Heritage Center
The National Ranching Heritage Center (NRHC) is a museum dedicated to preserve and interpret the history of ranching in North America and address contemporary ranching issues. Funding comes from Texas Tech University and the Ranching Heritage Association (a non-profit member organization that supports the efforts and mission of the NRHC.Rather than a building housing exhibits, the NRHC occupies a 19-acre park.
Visitors take a tour, usually self-guided via a map or app, around 50 historic structures relocated and restored to show how ranchers lived from the 1700s to the mid 1900s. Many of the buildings are dwellings and it is striking how small they are by modern standards. Some are just one room (a cabin) and others are 2 or more rooms (a house). Large families often had two bedrooms for the children. One for all the boys and one for all the girls. Ranches would often not expect or want a bed when on a cattle drove, preferring to sleep on the ground on their bedrolls.
As well as the buildings take a look at the artifacts of ranching such as saddles, utensils, and household items.
Cocina de La Sirena
Lubbock could put many larger cities to shame with the quality of its Latin American tapas scene. Leading this charge is Cocina de La Sirena, a mother-daughter restaurant in the peculiarly named Crocodile Alley.
Start with the revelatary pulled quail empanadas ($15) in which the chunky meat filling packs some of the best short pastry you’ll taste anywhere. If you choose to go with two tapas then the other might be the Peruvian style Ceviche de la Casa ($14) in which shrimp and scallops provide the protein and red onion, cucumber, and serrano chilies the punchy leche de tigre.
Complement the food with a flight of tequila. Three tequilas selected from one of three lists at varying price points ($25/$35/$45). Cocktails and wines are also available.
More a restaurant than a pub, CraftHouse Gastropub bustles around service time as a ravenous crowd descends to chow down on massive burgers, wide pizzas, grilled beef tri-tip, twice fried fries,all followed by desserts of banoffee pie (a sinful combination of dulce de leche, banana, graham crackers and brown sugar whipped cream), butternut squash cake and baked chocolate tartlet.
I recommend the cauliflower soup, a thick, tasty concoction infused with tumeric and spicy minted yogurt. The twice fried fries for that crisp exoskeleton and creamy inside. Seared jumbo scallops (with poached apple, beets, turnips, swiss chard, and honey cider reduction) and kelli’s mushroom grain risotto (sorghum, roasted mushrooms, garlic, parmesan, butter, rosemary and Brussels sprouts).
The wine list has some interesting options such as Zuccardi Cabernet Sauvignon, Pheasant Ridge Chardonnay and McPherson Tempranillo Blend ‘La Herencia’. The latter two from Texas. Overall, the selection of beers, by virtue of the reserve list, is the strongest line of adult beverages.
Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque
Head to Wolfforth, just southwest of town, for some of the best Texas barbeque in the state at Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque. Arnis and Mallory Robbins started their enterprise in Arizona in 2015 as a food truck, naming it in honor of their daughter, Evelyn. They moved to Texas for family reasons and In 2016 built the current fixed location, a large restaurant area, meat shop, and bakery. In the smoker, they use oak. In June 2017 Evie Mae’s was named the ninth best barbeque in Texas by Texas Monthly Magazine.
At noon the line stretches from the counter back to the back wall and curls around along the front wall of the building. It moves quickly but this place has a following. Hours are 11am until it’s gone, Wednesday to Sunday. As well as eat-in and take-out they also cater.
The brisket is juicy tender with a crisp bark. All beef is Certified Angus Beef, prime grade. Stuffing slices into my mouth is heaven. The earthy flavor, buttery sweetness, the oozing fat, is all glorious. The artisan-made German sausage, stuffed with green chili and cheese, satisfies a different urge. Pork ribs yield mouthfuls of meat with barely a shrug of protest. All of these can be complemented with Evie Mae’s barbeque sauce, a medium sweetness, medium acid version of the Texas standard served from large squeegee bottles set out on the tables.
The secret craving at Evie Mae’s may be the sides, The baked potato salad is hot, and made in house daily. Cream and cheese are mixed in, making it a first class dish in its own right. Warm green chile cheese grits bring corn’s sweetness to the table modulated with hits of jalapeño,, or take your corn as one of disk-shaped jalopeño cornbread cakes. Green beans are mixed with slices of bacon imparting a meaty, seasoned flavor and softening the bean fibres.
If you save room (unfortunately, I did not) there is a daily selection of homemade pies, cakes, and cookies ($3.99).
King Street Pub
It’s decor is lifted from Victorian drawing room but the menu at King Street Pub is contemporary American gastropub. Good choices for evening appetizers are avocado toast ($11), wild game meatballs ($12) built from elk, wild boar, and buffalo, all sitting in a red barbecue salsa. Best mains are a flexible tikka masala ($14) that can come vegetarian with the creamy chocolate brown sauce on black rice or amped up with chicken or shrimp ($4). Fan favorite half pound burgers (on house brioche buns) start at ($11).
King Street Pub is an ideal date choice family special occasion night out.
The West Table Kitchen and Bar
The West Table is an early example of a modern, big city style restaurant setting up for business in downtown Lubbock. Founders are Rachel and Cameron West, locals who spent 20 years in hospitality in Napa and around Texas before eventually settling back in Lubbock where Cameron’s grandfather had been mayor.
The restaurant is in the iconic Pioneer Hotel originally constructed in 1925 and restored in 2005 by McDougal Companies. The upper floors are condominiums. The ground floor is where The West Table is located.
The cuisine is New American with both local and global ingredients and a reference to sustainability. On the menu, I can vouch for the crab hushpuppies as unspoiled and uncut examples of their type. Roasted Bone Marrow with Onion Marmalade for its earthy organ meat richness. A soup du jour of green chili was heart-warming, richly flavored, and a recipe to be ‘larcenized’.
Under main courses is Chicken Tikka Masala, a dish that appears everywhere in Lubbock (by ordinance?). Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian beef stir-fry recipe, and NOLA shrimp and grits. They are all executed with aplomb.
Burklee Hill Vineyards
Burklee Hill Vineyards is a Texas winery based in nearby Levelland. They are owned by Chase and Elizabeth Hill and were only founded in 2016, but under a different name. In 2018 they adopted the Burklee Hill name. Their founding principles are to make the best wine possible and to source from 100% Texas grapes. Currently, most of their grapes come from their own Krick Hill Vineyard, making their wines truly Estate Grown. Their tasting room is in Levelland Main Street in a charming century old building. This will remain open but they expect to open an additional tasting room in downtown Lubbock before the end of 2019. That is likely to increase their direct contact with consumers manyfold as the location is superb, being just over the street from The West Table and The Brewery LBK (both discussed elsewhere in this article).
The best wines are the pinot grigio, among whites, and montepulciano, among reds.
English Newsom Cellars
One of the finest winery buildings in the Lubbock area is now owned and occupied by English Newsom Cellars, a joint venture between businessman Tommy English and veteran grape grower Steve Newsom. The winery had a chequered past before this team took it over. Now they are getting down to making some wine as English Newsom Cellars that befits the quality of the state of the art equipment provided at the cellar. The winery sources grapes from its own vineyards at the winery and in Hockley County, giving it “estate grown” status on all of its wines.
Early results are promising with albariño, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and tempranillo all impressive.
Llano Estacado Winery
Llano Estacado is the oldest winery in the Texas High Plains, having been founded in 1976 by Clinton “Doc” McPherson and Robert Reed, Texas Tech chemistry professors who had a notion that the best species of wine grapes, vitis vinifera (the species used to make the best wines in the world), would grow and thrive in the High Plains. So different was the attitude to wine at that time that Lubbock County was ‘dry’ (i.e. no alcohol sales). They also built it out of thick breezeblocks, figuring that some non-drinking locals might be inclined to come and shoot it up.
Now, Texas law is favorable to wineries and Llano Estacado has grown to be the largest seller of Texas wine with retail representation across the state, and in several other states. The tasting room, which used to be a small reception room at the front of the winery, was replaced in 2015 with a brand new Napa-quality facility next door which draws thousands of visitors each week.
Different wines are rotated through the tasting room but look for albariño, chardonnay, and 1836 White Blend (53% viognier, 38% marsanne, and 9% roussanne) among the whites, and tempranillo and sangiovese among the reds.
Kim McPherson, owner of McPherson Cellars, is the son of Doc McPherson, one of the founders of the Texas wine industry, and has a degree in enology and viticulture from the premiere wine training school in the United States, the University of California, Davis. He founded McPherson Cellars in 2008, converting a historic 1930s era Coca-Cola bottling plant in downtown Lubbock.
A tasting of McPherson Cellars wines reveals most clearly a thoroughgoing consistency of quality throughout the product line. They are now sold not just in Texas but in many states on the East Coast as well.
How To Get There
Below is current airline service to Lubbock, Preston Smith Airport. This is always subject to change.
American Airlines: Dallas/Fort Worth
American Eagle: Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix–Sky Harbor
Southwest Airlines: Austin, Dallas–Love, Denver, Houston–Hobby (resumes April 14, 2020), Las Vegas
United Express: Denver, Houston–Intercontinental
Maybe Lubbock should be on your radar for 2020, when likely there will be even more things to do.