Foodie Travel

Unexpected Awesomeness: The Rio Grande Valley

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If you had told me six months ago that I was about to fall in love with a then-unknown-to-me Texas-Mexico border town, I’d have laughed at you–and asked for my tarot-card reading money back.  (In this scenario, I’m assuming you are giving me this information via psychic reading.  What?  That’s a fair thing to assume.)

However, after only four weekends spent in the Rio Grande Valley, I’m smitten.  Actually, I was smitten by the end of the first weekend–and returned joyfully the remaining three times.  To work.  On a Saturday.

Of course, during my time in the McAllen/Edinburg/Mission, Texas area, I contemplated whether or not I would visit the Rio Grande Valley had I not been sent there for work.  Is it a destination or simply a great place to have to work every weekend?

I’ve officially determined that if the Rio Grande Valley isn’t technically a destination (yet), it really should be.  Here’s why:

The Weather

IMG_2680During the (first?) ‘polar vortex’, I was in South Texas.  I got a bit of a sunburn, and I had to turn the AC on in my rental car. I wore sunglasses and took seventy five photos of palm trees.  Sure, it gets cold in the Rio Grande Valley.  It was in the upper 40s during the great Dallas ice storm in mid-December.  But three weekends out of four, all spanning the months of December and January, I was hot.  It was glorious.

Of course, I’ve not been there in the summer (yet).  I’ve been told it is miserable.  But that’s ok–just go in the winter.  There’s nowhere warmer north of the Rio Grande.  Barely north, that is.

The People

Every destination I’ve ever loved I’ve loved because of the people (New Orleans, I’m looking at you).  And every single person I met in the RGV (sorry, I just have to start using that acronym) was beyond pleasant.  From the woman at the deli counter who helped travel-crazed me select a late night takeout dinner to the people I worked with who scribbled out hand-written directions to their favorite tamale place for me (because I’m from the northeast and need to know what good tamales are), I’ve never been greeted so warmly.  I’ve never been somewhere that has made me want to hug people this often.  And in the Rio Grande Valley, you’ll get hugged.  Oh yes, you will.

The Food

IMG_3160Speaking of the deli counter lady and the tamale place–the Rio Grande Valley is now in my top ten list of dining destinations.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Top ten, people.  It’s right up there with the New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and–this is a biggie–New Orleans.  There’s something for every taste and budget, including but not limited to…

Lone Star BBQ: This is not Lone Star Steakhouse, the perfectly awful chain restaurant.  This is Lone Star BBQ, a homey little place on super-commercialized 10th street, that serves the best darn pork ribs I’ve ever had.  Oh and the hush puppies?  Hush!

Delia’s Tamales: I’ve written about Delia’s at length.  I returned again this past Saturday.  I’ve tried the pork in green chile sauce, the bean, cheese, and jalapeno, and the spicy chicken and cheese.  The latter was my personal favorite.  I’ve been told they are terribly fattening and made with lard.  I do not care.

Feldman’s:  Feldmans is a liquor store.  With a deli counter.  Last Friday night, I left with a bottle of cheap cabernet and a container of lump crab salad the likes of which I’ve never experienced.  In my world, crab salad from a deli counter is ‘krab IMG_3197salad’–that terrible, mayo-rich slop made from fake pressed ‘krab’ product.  This was giant lumps of crab lightly dressed and perfectly seasoned .  And afore mentioned kind deli-counter woman helped me figure out what to have as my cold (to be eaten later) dinner.  I also left with a few dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and some tzatziki to use as a dipping sauce.

Salt and House Wine: These are two different restaurants, but I’m listing them together because they are owned by the same couple–and are equally amazing.  A woman I worked with suggested going to one or the other–and named the owners (Larry and Jessica) by name.  So I had to try both.  To be fair, I’m on a budget when I travel for work–and I’m trying not to gain fifteen pounds by visiting the Rio Grande Valley every weekend (this is totally possible), so I ‘only’ had appetizers at both restaurants.  Those two appetizers–a yellowtail crudo at Salt and chorizo-studded arancini at House Wine–were two of the best things I’ve ever eaten anywhere.  And I eat a lot everywhere.  Oh, and don’t even get me started on the service.  I’ve never felt more welcome or taken care of while dining alone at a bar in a busy restaurant.

Add to all of the above the sweet breads offered up every morning for breakfast, and I am beginning to understand why my pants are suddenly so tight.  (Please note: sweet breads, I’ve learned, are pastries.  Two words–sweet breads.  They are not sweetbreads, which are the thymus gland of a cow.  You can understand my confusion the first time I was offered sweet breads for breakfast.)

Things to Do

IMG_2317This was the one category that had me scratching my head, wondering if the Rio Grande Valley really is a great destination.  There simply aren’t a lot of attractions, per se.  But that’s exactly the reason why it is a great destination–you can relax, sleep in, and then get up and have three great meals in a row.  You know, without feeling the need to run from must-do activity to must-see attraction?  It’s like Vegas but without the gambling or the overpriced shows.  (So really, it is nothing like Vegas…)

However, in my limited time I managed to find one must-visit destination–the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park.  I plan to write a whole post about this park in the future, but for now, trust me.  You can spend a day there (I only had an hour and a half before sunset).  Please await glowing review of the park.  Thanks.

In addition, I also went window- and actual-shopping.  The window shopping in downtown McAllen is picturesque to say the least.  Main Street is lined with shops selling plastic flowers, beads, and the ever-gorgeous quinceanera dresses.  Oh, the dresses.  I.  Love.  The.  Dresses.  I love them.  I wish I was fifteen again.  And, you know, not nearly 100% Pennsylvania Dutch (and way too fat to fit into any of them, even when I was fifteen).

My actual-shopping trip did not result in any actual-purchases, though I may return for a pair of on-sale (but still too expensive for me) Ariat boots I loved.  (I mean come on, they were ON SALE.  And they had them in my size.  It was like a sign, man.)

Lodging

IMG_3117I’ve only stayed in one hotel in the Rio Grande Valley, and it is the only hotel I will ever stay in–The Casa de Palmas in McAllen.  It is a Marriott property and is absolutely lovely.  Get a courtyard-facing room and enjoy an afternoon on a huge balcony overlooking the pool and fountain area (an added bonus–the sound of the fountain will help lull you to sleep at night.  Your comfy, down-covered bed will help, too).  Or, if you are anything like me, sit out there with your laptop and get some work done on the free wifi.

Accessibility

McAllen ‘International’ Airport (international in quotes because two flights per week to Mexico barely qualifies as international) is a mile and a half from downtown McAllen.  I fly out every Sunday morning at 6:10am; I’ve been leaving the hotel at 4:30am (painful, given the comfort of the beds) for a 5:40 boarding time, and that’s WAY too early.  The only place I’ve found to be as easily accessible as the Rio Grande Valley is Vegas.  And Vegas is expensive.  Which brings me to my next accessibility point–to be accessible means that something is within reach.  And the prices in the RGV–for food as well as lodging–are beyond reasonable.  Remember those ribs I loved at Lone Star?  With two sides and bread, that ran me $10.80.  The lump crab salad–more than I could eat in one sitting–less than $9.  A room at Casa de Palmas starts at $80 per night.

So there you have it–way too many words (and photos) on why the Rio Grande Valley is one of my new favorite destinations.  It’s warm, it’s inviting, and the food is phenomenal.  I’ve never seen it mentioned in any guide book or on any top-10 destinations list–and that’s a shame.  Because right now, it is my #1 favorite place to be.

Would you consider a vacation in the Rio Grande Valley?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below. 

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