Houston: Beyond The Astrodome

Civic boosters once proclaimed the Houston Astrodome the Eighth Wonder of the World. Beginning Aug. 17, that's where Republicans and their camp followers will come to roost. But even enthusiastic conventioneers may want to slip out for a while. The city offers a rich gumbo of attractions--not all of them likely to make the guidebooks.

Far more wondrous than the Astrodome is the Beer Can House. This magical dwelling was clad in cascading veils of beer cans by upholsterer John Milkovisch, whose widow still lives there. In a breeze, it sings like a wind chime (222 Malone Dr.).

Right around the corner is President Bush's favorite barbecue joint, Otto's (5502 Memorial Dr., 713 864-2573). Look over the minimuseum of Bushiana, but skip the middling barbecue and try, instead, nearby Roznovsky's, where you can have big, juicy burgers and icy longnecks in a setting out of rural Texas (5719 Feagan, 864-1492).

Work it off with a jog down the road at Memorial Park, where Bush hits the track when he's in town. To avoid heatstroke, do as the natives do: Run at dawn or dusk.

GOODE GRUB. Hungry again? Take a crash course in regional fare at the eateries created by Jim Goode, the pop genius of Texas cuisine. You can't go wrong at Goode's neon-lit taco joint (4902 Kirby, 520-9153), or his barbecue place (5109 Kirby, 522-2530). Best of all may be the mesquite-grilled shrimp or catfish with red and green salsas at Goode Company Seafood (2621 Westpark, 523-7154).

Houstonians are passionate about their Mexican food, so get serious at Irma's, an obscure warehouse-district spot where the Tex-Mex plate lunches have genuine soul, the proprietress is your new best friend, and the place is crammed with just about every trinket she ever owned (22 N. Chenevert, 222-0767). But if you're bent on a margarita, let it be the stellar "Top Shelf" version at Pico's, one of the few places that still uses a cocktail shaker (4527 Lomitas, 942-9955).

Let others battle for reservations at upscale shrines such as Tony's and Cafe Annie. You can get a taste of the modern regional sensibility at such lower-stress spots as Sierra, where chef Robert McGrath works in a southwestern mode (4704 Montrose, 942-7757), or at Cite Grill, where French-born Herve Glin gives southwestern ideas his own idiosyncratic spin (5860 Westheimer, 783-1566). At Churrasco's, the innovative South American menu gives Houstonians the most bang for their restaurant buck (2055 Westheimer, 527-8300).

SOUL FOOD. Should the hurly-burly of the convention pall, seek refuge in the cool oasis of the Menil Collection, a private museum housing the ancient, tribal, and modern works assembled by art patron Dominique de Menil (1515 Sul Ross, 525-9400). Also on the park-like grounds: the Rothko Chapel, with powerful canvases by the late abstract expressionist Mark Rothko.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, check out Leonardo da Vinci's celebratory anatomical drawings, on loan from Queen Elizabeth II, and "The Age of the Marvelous," which includes a fantastical re-creation of a "Wonder Room" from a Renaissance castle (1001 Bissonnet, 639-7300). Bursting with natural and ethnographic oddities, it evokes the strangeness and variety of the universe as effectively as a political convention does.

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