HURST, TEXAS — This column was inspired by queso flameado.
No ordinary queso flameado, but the kind one can savor at Miguelitos Mexican Restaurant and Lounge, a Tex-Mex spot in the town of Hurst in northeast Tarrant County.
A disc of white, puffy cheese comes out of the kitchen. Alongside your table, a server deftly sprinkles this tempting medallion with tequila, then sets it afire. He next expertly cuts the cheese into four sections, which he rolls into cylinders with two forks, then tucks them into warm, fresh tortillas.
This toothy treat, enjoyed at an award-winning, family-style eatery — founded by Michael and Gabby Nevares on West Bedford-Euless Road — reminded me that, in the vast, seemingly undifferentiated sprawl of Dallas-Fort Worth, one can still find authentic gems such as Miguelitos.
Extra credit: They serve a tangy-sweet top-shelf margarita that stays true to its agave origins.
My husband Kip Keller and I have returned to Miguelitos several times during the past year, as we tended to family business in the nearby DFW bedroom communities, which, to an outsider, can be as confusing as Amazonia, so numerous and physically similar are the municipalities. If you listen carefully to the everyday chatter in DFW, however, each of these towns and cities comes with a distinct personality. And its own claims to authenticity.
Our most recent visit to the area, for instance, took us to Southlake, an upscale DFW 'burb that has been in the news lately because of a popular podcast that has followed the ouster of a Black high school principal on the pretext that, decades ago, he wrote something about critical race theory, which was not taught at his high school.
We were in Southlake for a somber but uplifting memorial for a family member.
Before the ceremony, we lunched en masse at another authentic-feeling spot, Feedstore BBQ and More, a Southlake barbecue joint preserved in a wooden structure that serves a far wider range of smoked meats than one generally finds in Central Texas. It also offers an excellent, plate-filling take on chicken fried steak.
Keep your eye out for such authentic Texas spots, and report back to "Think, Texas" at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is real Texas?
Look, I have nothing against chain restaurants, cookie-cutter shopping malls, or residential tracts the size of some European countries. One could argue that these phenomena are more authentically Texan than the revered places that come with heaps of old-fashioned character.
After all, Texas has been a predominately suburban and urban state my entire life, no matter our collective search for historical authenticity in small towns and rural areas.
Often, authentic Texas can be found right in our own backyards.
For instance, when I was growing up in the Houston area, the historic railroad town of Spring on Spring Creek north of Houston was known instead as a new and shiny suburb, which surrounded the old town. I visited several times during the mid-1970s because Spring Minimax was a counterpart to the Minimax mom-and-pop grocery store that my family ran in the Westbury neighborhood in southwest Houston.
Yet it was not until the day after Christmas 2021, on the advice of a niece, that I discovered Old Town Spring. This district of renovated wooden buildings set right next to the railroad tracks is home to singular shops, bars and eateries, including a hemp store, doll hospital, and a place to purchase homemade birdhouses. These are not precisely the kinds of businesses that would have thrived in historical Spring — and they sometimes appear more quaint than need be — but I felt in touch with history here.
(I would have visited the district's small history museum, had it been open.)
I took my sprightly mother, Elizabeth Barnes, 93, who now lives with my sister and her husband in The Woodlands, to explore the district on a balmy Sunday after a major holiday. Yet still, we dodged other tourists on the crowded sidewalks.
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We chose a bar-restaurant called Prohibition Texas for lunch. We sat on the deck, the better to watch the people promenading past us.
I told the server that my mother had lived through the final years of the real Prohibition (1920-1933), which ended almost 90 years ago. She toasted the passage of time with a sip of very good bourbon.
Across the street on another deck, a troubadour began singing "Amarillo by Morning."
A perfect Texas song for a perfectly authentic Texas day.
Our Texas homes
Wherever I have lived, I've sought out the older parts of town, the ones that come with stories and atmosphere.
Sixty-two of my 67 years have been spent in Texas. I was born in 1954 in Kilgore and later moved to another East Texas town, Jacksonville.
My five years in exile from Texas can be divided among Louisiana, Michigan and New York.
Living in various parts of Houston, my historical urge drew me to the former streetcar district of Bellaire, the old Village shopping cluster just outside West University, and, as an adult, to the even more ancient neighborhoods of Montrose, Fifth Ward and the Heights.
Growing up, I visited relatives who had lived — or still lived — in Dallas, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Laredo, Baytown and Huntsville.
Once I left home, my parents decamped to Mexia, a 1920s oil boom town east of Waco. Among other things, visits to this town's historic downtown inspired my first professional writings about Texas history, since Mexia is one of about 50 towns in the state with an extant pre-1930 live theater, my area of study in the mid-1980s. Its Spanish Colonial revival structure has been revamped as a civic center.
In Austin, I've always resided in "prewar Austin," meaning the area within five miles of the Capitol that was built before World War II.
My former residences can be found in a semi-rural cluster north of East 51st Street and the Mueller development, on East 13th Street in Central East Austin, and on Garden Street in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood.
I also lived in West Campus, in a 1920s bungalow long since razed for condos, and twice in Bouldin, once in a decorated shed (really) on West Annie Street, and for the past 25 years, in a nicer house just a block away on West Monroe Street.
Our corner of Bouldin was laid out in the 1870s and called the "Swisher Addition" after the family whose plantation occupied the land on both sides of South Congress Avenue. They also controlled the crossing over the Colorado River. For the past few years, a newcomer to town has been meticulously renovating the old Swisher home, located in the part of Travis Heights known as Fairview, first developed in 1880s.
Texas history road trip rolls on: Brownwood is bigger than you think
Kip's family has lived in many more Texas places than have the Barneses, including very small historic towns, mostly within the gravitational pull of DFW. I am slowly exploring them all.
For instance, I'm discovering the wonders of Keller hometowns such as Kaufman, Seagoville, Terrell, Forney and Combine, as well as Fort Worth suburbs where they lived, such as Richland Hills, North Richland Hills, Hurst, Keller, Euless, Denton and Arlington. Despite common demographic designations, the last two might or might not count as suburbs, given their sizes and roles in the region.
Further east or south, his family, which had emigrated from Kentucky and Tennessee, lived in Grand Saline, Carthage, Marshall, Beaumont, Duncanville, Milano, Atlanta, Tyler and Bryan.
Our 22 nieces and nephews have expanded our shared hometowns to include, in Texas, San Marcos, Lubbock, Wichita Falls and Lamesa.
Yet some of those 22 young adults and their spouses have scattered far more widely than our generation, settling out of state in Seattle, Washington; Denver, Colorado; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Portland, Oregon.
How wonderful to visit the historic districts in all these places!
Allow me to add one more very important hometown: Surfside Beach.
Since the early 1960s, we've spent a total of almost two years in beach houses on this island village, once called Old Velasco, southwest of Galveston, a city dripping with history.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Find slivers of authentic Texas in towns, cities and suburbs