Lone Star Rising

Arlington becomes a destination—but what’s in this Texas-size burb beyond the big game?

On Feb. 6, the national spotlight will shine on Arlington, Texas, as it hosts Super Bowl XLV. More than 700,000 football fans will descend upon my hometown, a city of 380,000, filling its hotels and drinking my beer. The NFL only places its grand bacchanal in great cities, so surely Arlington is a dynamic place, with a lively arts and nightlife scene.

The city’s fame, such as it is, comes from the tourist attractions clustered along Interstate 30: the original Six Flags Over Texas, Six Flags Hurricane Harbor (formerly Wet ’n Wild), Rangers Ballpark, the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame and, of course, the bulging enormity of the new Cowboys Stadium, a $1.3 billion monument to Texas’ favorite pastime. (And less famously, Arlington is the headquarters for American Mensa.) Otherwise, it has the distinction of being a suburb that’s halfway between two better cities: Dallas and Fort Worth.

The coliseum neighbors Lincoln Square, a shopping plaza ostensibly intended to resemble a walkable Disney Main Street, but, like everything else in Arlington, it’s fitted for cars rather than humans. It has a newer twin, Arlington Highlands, to the south. But skip these excrescences and their corporate chain restaurants and drive to the more interesting section of town.

The east side of town is marked by a high Latino and Asian population (having received a large number of Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War), which makes for vibrant neighborhoods and some of the city’s best dining. Every other business is a pho shop (try Pho 21 Noodle House, 2230 S. Collins St.) or Chinese barbecue; step into one and see hanging roasted ducks, pigs’ faces and vats of pork uteri. Anything you eat at any of these places will be flavorful and unique. The Mexican restaurants reward random samplings; my favorite is Danielita’s Mexican Kitchen (1100 E. Pioneer Parkway). Cho Saigon New Market, the Asian grocery (2206 S. Collins St.), is one of my favorite places to shop and see weird fish.

In the area around the University of Texas at Arlington you can find several bastions of individuality. There’s Potager Café (315 S. Mesquite St.), owned by the dangerous seditionist Cynthia Chippendale, an all-organic, all-local restaurant that serves gourmet seasonal cuisine. It’s flourished in its first two years, which hints that not all hope is lost for my city. Across the street is the newly opened Health and Harmony House (208 S. Mesquite St.), a coffee and tea shop that also has yoga lessons, a weekly open mic and occasional local bands. In Arlington, this is as daring and important as the French Revolution.

Abram Street contains almost all of the town’s nightlife. J.R. Bentley’s (JRBentleys.com), a pleasant faux-English pub is always full of college students. J. Gilligan’s (JGilligans.com) is a tacky, loud beer bar with awful music, so it’ll probably be full of football fans on Super Bowl weekend. Caves Lounge, down among the hooker dens of Division Street, is Arlington’s best bar, where you can see the kind of young people who express themselves via their hats. A little bit south is Bobby V’s Sports Gallery Café (BobbyVSports.com); owned by former Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, it is one of the best sports bars in the history of the world. Despite being dwarfed by so many better places, my city has had some real successes, including the 1,100-seat, newly renovated Arlington Music Hall, which hosts a range of events, including Johnnie High’s Country Music Revue and Symphony Arlington. The city’s crowning achievement is Levitt Pavilion, an outdoor concert venue that showcases commercially safe music for families. You can bring a picnic and even beer, and it is not altogether the most horrible thing in the world.

And that’s it. Arlington’s accomplishments are modest, considering its size. It’s true that I’d rather live here than in the Swat Valley of Pakistan … or in Oklahoma City. But Arlington is ultimately an anonymous city, allergic to community; its allergy is such that Arlington is still the largest city in the world without a public transit system. The only reason we landed the Super Bowl is because we’re willing to tax ourselves to give $325 million to a billionaire to build a stadium here. Visit Arlington for an object lesson in what a city can fail to be, and then drive to the nearby cultural centers in Fort Worth, Dallas, Denton or Austin, and never ever look back … unless you’re a fan of rodeo. In that case you should return Feb. 19 for the Professional Bull Riders’ Iron Cowboy Invitational, which is also at Cowboys Stadium.

Main Attractions

Baseball: You can follow the Los Angeles Angels to Arlington and watch them play the American League champion Texas Rangers on April 18-20 (Texas.Rangers.MLB.com).

Amusement: Six Flags Over Texas, which opened in 1961, has more than 50 rides ($55 and up, children $35, SixFlags.com), and Six Flags Hurricane Harbor offers a day full of fun in the summer ( $28, children $22).

Bowling: The International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame offers interactive exhibits and bowling artifacts, but you cannot actually bowl there (BowlingMuseum.com, 621 Six Flags Dr., $7.50-$9.50, 817-385-8215).

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