Before my plane took to the air for my flight to Dallas I took to social media. I was after the essential experience; I wanted to know where I could find an iconic view of the city, a market awash in local colour, and a watering hole where tall tales flowed from native storytellers like beer from broken taps. By the time I arrived in Texas my Facebook page had blown up with recommendations both mundane and remarkable. It seemed like everyone who had ever lived in, heard of, or passed through Dallas and Fort Worth had an idea for me. One furtive follower suggested I spend some time with the Velcro Pygmies, known to frequent Dallas in the springtime. My request for more information about these mysterious pygmies went unanswered. I had tips, tricks, lists and an itinerary, but the experience was going to be realised in the way I interpreted this information.
ON A LACK OF TUMBLEWEEDS.
Much to my chagrin my first few moments in Dallas were not spent dodging cattle on dusty streets populated by tumbleweeds and maverick cowboys itching for a hitching post. Dallas was not the reel of scenes lifted from Lonesome Dove I expected it to be. Instead, the city was sleek, slick, and stylish. My on-the-fly sleuthing had failed to uncover a ramshackle saloon, but I knew I could find one if I looked hard enough. I was intent on kicking in a set of double doors with my brand-new cowboy boots and announcing myself as the new sheriff in town. I hailed a taxicab and asked the driver what he knew about the Wild West and the Velcro Pygmies; he raised an eyebrow as he looked at my reflection in the rearview mirror. “I think you should speak with the Old Monk,” he said.
I settled into prime real estate at the Old Monk’s bar. It was 4:30pm and the joint was already filled with the city’s well-dressed, well-manicured, and well-mannered. I tossed my camera on the bar and hollered for something local. Riley the barman slid a frosty Deep Ellum IPA down the bar and into my hand. He nodded, I nodded. He didn’t call me pardner or ask if I was from around these parts, but I didn’t hold that against him. As I took to imbibing Riley scribbled notes on a pad of paper. He suggested I try the Capitol Pub, The Double Wide, and The Gin Mill. I asked for directions, so he drew me a map. I had trouble reading the map, so he offered to show me around.
Before we could set out for the Capitol, a patron at the other end of the bar asked if she could offer her two cents worth. She bore a striking resemblance to Kate Capshaw, and her husband claimed he looked like Garth Brooks. Who was I to disagree? By the time I stepped back into the sun my itinerary had quadrupled in size, and I’d had more drinks poured for me than any visiting foreigner since Dirk Nowitzki. The next few hours saw me pulling pints of craft ale from the taps at the Capitol, waxing poetic with literary rebels at Heroes Lounge, and working through the Tex-Mex masterpieces at the Blue Goose Cantina. An evening stroll south along Greenville Avenue led me through a quaint residential neighbourhood and into Good Records, a vinyl playground where I was sure to discover the Velcro Pygmies. Alas, the sonically informed employees had never heard of them, but offered to turn me on to Smile Smile, Calhoun, and The Rocket Summer. I popped on a set of headphones, settled into a bean bag, lost myself in local music, wondering where I was going to end up next.
Next was clear across town, all the way to the Belmont Hotel on the outskirts of Oak Cliff. One tweeter mentioned the panoramic views of the downtown skyline, while another extolled the virtues of SMOKE, the modern smokehouse next door. Everyone else told me to be careful in this part of town.
I took a martini to the patio and asked after Oak Cliff’s tough reputation, when it seemed more hipster than hard-ass on the surface. “We like it that way,” a fellow patio lantern told me. “If it didn’t have a bad reputation, there’d be no space out here to watch the sun go down.” Trusting that logic, I put myself at the mercy of the smoke pit in chef Tim Byres’ kitchen. Even if Oak Cliff’s streets were piled high with burning coals, I would walk across them for a taste of whole hog and blue cheese slaw.
SOME KIND OF WELCOME.
Rain and Texas go together like barbecue and peanut butter, which is to say not at all. Yet Dallas is a remarkably green place, and the sprawling Farmer’s Market, just south of the Main Street District, is a showcase for what a little bit of wet weather can do. My original plan was to collect fresh ingredients and prepare a feast, but I doubted my twitter followers would be able to help me craft a dish out of Mole, prickly pears, and hominy kernels. My culinary repertoire is rather limited, and I have no idea how to use a molcajete. Instead I learned a little bit about Texas honey, nothing about Texas tea, and met a man who mates melons for a living.
I tucked into a long line at the Pecan Lodge, a market institution famous for southern barbecue. I waited an hour before ordering the Hot Mess; shredded brisket and sweet potato, with a side of mac n’ cheese. I joined a fitness class in progress down at the other end of the shed, just so I didn’t feel guilty about my mass consumption. I did have trouble focusing on the instructor, considering the class took place between the spicy pickle cart and the barrel-aged olive oil stand, while the sweaty couple in front of me discussed the ingredients destined to end up in their pork rind casserole. I was starting to fall in love with Dallas.
A gust of wind blew me clear past the upmarket boutiques, malls, and bistros of downtown and into the historic West End, where I found tourists posing for macabre photos on the “x” that marks the place where JFK was shot. Kids played on the grassy knoll while conspiracy theorists shared secrets outside the County Administration Building. I toured the Sixth Floor Museum and witnessed the place where Lee Harvey Oswald changed American history forever (a man outside hawking conspiracy propaganda tried to convince me otherwise).
I wondered aloud why the Dallas Arts District does not receive more national attention, and was told by a trio of acutely attuned Nasher Sculpture Center valets that southerners know how to keep secrets better than the rest of the country. Feeling culturally gratified, I decided to take a break from history and play on the freeway.
Klyde Warren Park is a multi-purpose space built over one of the city’s busiest roads, buffered on one side by an armada of food trucks, and an open air library on the other. During one brief stretch I played a game of Frisbee golf, chased a gourmet slider with excessively colourful cupcakes, lost a game of chess to an 11-year-old prodigy (and a game of checkers to his nine-year-old sister), and was drafted into a soccer match. As I lay on the grass entirely overstimulated, I watched heavy gray clouds roll overhead. I switched off my phone, hushing the incessant twitter chirps, and decided that if my trip ended now I would go home happy.
PACHYDERMS AND COWBOY HATS.
By the time I arrived at the Deep Ellum Brewery it was 2pm and happy hour was nearly over. I self-guided through the beer list and asked the barman if the honey in the Oak Aged Doppelbock came from the Farmer’s Market. He didn’t know, but he pretended to care.
Zack Fickey, resident Event Planning Ninja, climbed the elevated platform and stood among the towering brew tanks as the fauxhemians and skinny-jeaned ne’er-do-wells gathered. Zack lauded Deep Ellum’s uniqueness, praised its history, and called for everyone who loved the browbeaten neighbourhood to support local artists, and to drink good beer. I raised a glass with the rest of the crowd, and decided to vote for Zack if he ever ran for president. My tour ended when I bumped into Oscar, a Fort Worth native showing some out-of-towners a good time in Dallas’ most unique cultural enclave. Oscar introduced me to his friends, and they invited me to Fort Worth. I hesitated. I felt like there was so much more to see and do in Dallas. “We’re going to hunt down the Velcro Pygmies tonight,” Oscar said. “Have you ever heard of them?”
Oscar told me that Pygmies are nocturnal. We had time to kill before we went hunting, so we pulled on our boots and went mudslinging in the Fort Worth Stockyards. We helped a cowboy haul his saddle to the rodeo grounds, had our boots shined outside the Pink Cadillac, got lost in a children’s maze made of old fences, and bought tickets to a Randy Travis concert going down at Billy Bob’s, home to slot machines, bad attitudes, and the world’s largest belt buckle. We ordered pints of blood and honey at chef Tim Love’s White Elephant Saloon, and speculated on why a grown man would fill his bar with hundreds of porcelain pachyderms. A local musician named Ryan Riley sang a tune while Oscar and I ordered boom boom mushroom burgers from the Love Shack next door. Oscar and I talked at length of the differences between Dallas and Fort Worth. In Fort Worth, people still wear jeans and cowboy boots, men order whiskey on the rocks, and steak is not a dirty word. If Texas had been defined along musical lines, Dallas would be a saxophone, and Fort Worth would be a banjo. “I would have also accepted cowbell,” Oscar said. Twitter sent us for margaritas at Chimy’s (mine had a can of Red Bull sticking out of it), steak at Cattleman’s, barbecue at Railhead, and happy hour in the West 7th Cultural District, where we raised local Rahr Beers at the Durty Crow. We didn’t find a chuckwagon or have time for a campfire cookout, but given another couple of days I’m sure we could have.
It was late when our party arrived at Sherlock’s Pub & Grill in Arlington. I was growing ever anxious; we had talked little of the Pygmies, and I was beginning to doubt their existence. Oscar told me to close my eyes and allow my ears to guide me. The cacophonic sounds of 80s glam rock drew us to the stage, and I struggled to make sense of the kaleidoscopic light show, the smoke, and the endless tendrils of big curly hair that whipped from one side to the other. Velcro Pygmies frontman Cameron Flener teased the crowd into a frenzy and screamed Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics into the grenade-shaped microphone while the dance floor writhed below him. We had finally found the Pygmies. There was nothing left to do but dance.
I didn’t get a chance to ask the Pygmies if they like donuts. If I did, I would have invited them to breakfast at Hypnotic in Lakewood, a hip East Dallas food factory famous for their chicken biscuits and liberal use of bacon. For breakfast I had Kaye’s biscuit, with pepper jack, whipped cream cheese and fresh jalapenos, and the Evil Elvis and Canadian Health Care donuts. Owners James and Amy St. Peter sent me off with a snack for later, which I promptly ate while wandering around White Rock Lake. The surrounding park, adjacent to the Dallas Botanical Gardens, is a quiet oasis divided from the skyscraper infinity of downtown. I cast a few lines over the water with a fisherman named Miguel, and wondered if there was anything else I could possibly catch. My new friends and my amateur online tour guides had helped me see and experience more of Dallas in a 48-hour span than I ever thought possible. The pages of my notebook were stained with salsa, coffee, donut frosting, steak sauce, and spilled margaritas, personal Rorschach inkblots that represented individual memories from a whirlwind weekend. I flipped to a new page, filled my pen with fresh ink, and scribbled where next? along the first line. •
Photography by Flash Parker
Qantas operates daily services to Dallas from Sydney on A380 aircraft. Qantas has a codeshare partnership with American Airlines and Alaskan Airlines for connecting flights within the US and Canada. qantas.com
Delta flies to Los Angeles with easy connections to Dallas. delta.com
Where to Drink and Dine
Old Monk: oldmonkdallas.com
Capitol Pub: capitolpubdallas.com
Smoke Restaurant Dallas: smokerestaurant.com
Deep Ellum Brewery: deepellumbrewing.com
White Elephant Saloon: whiteelephantsaloon.com
Hypnotic Donuts: hypnoticdonuts.com
Billy Bob’s Texas: billybobstexas.com