Making the Most of McAllen

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South Texas is the destination for tourists who want to visit Mexico but have been scared off by recent press. In McAllen, visitors can experience cuisine and shopping that Mexicans often make a trip across the border to enjoy.

Rural South Texas in some ways resembles the American Mid-West, the place to have a flat tire where people are nice enough to stop and help you fix it. Something to think about in Texas where land is plentiful, the automobile is king and as American sociologist Lewis Mumford says: “Our national flower is the concrete overleaf.”

This could be Small Town America with all its values, such as patriotism. You see that in McAllen, where, next to the Convention Center, the Veterans War Memorial of Texas honors those who gave their lives to protect this country’s freedom. The memorial extends over five acres with detailed displays of the two World Wars and the Korean and Vietnam Wars (which, as an example of Texas honesty and respect for those who fell are, called “wars” here and not the politically correct “conflicts”).

Individual cities in the neighborhood have their own walls of remembrance in this memorial that show the huge loss of the young that the communities suffered.

The Women of History Statues show women saluting proudly — as they should: In World War II, seven WAVEs, eight female Marines and 162 WACs died in the line of duty.

The memorial has 160 granite panels. A graphic depiction of Gen. James Frances Hollingsworth shows his rise through the ranks from 2nd Lieutenant in WWII to Task Force Commander in the 2nd Armored Division. He also served two tours in Vietnam. He was “the only General officer in the history of the U.S. Military to receive the second highest award for valor and courage, the Distinguished Service Cross.”

Hollingsworth, born in Sanger, Texas, was awarded the DSC three times and received six Purple Hearts. The Warrior Statue, nearby, seeks to honor all 3,340 Medal of Honor recipients of the U.S. Armed forces.

The city of McAllen offers the future as well as the past. It caters to bird watchers who come to the middle of one of the world’s busiest bird migration flyovers, and to shoppers who come because they’ve always wanted to visit Mexico but have been scared by press and U.S. Government warnings — and have heard that on the American side of the Rio Grande they can enjoy a form of Mexican culture.

The city of McAllen embraces the arts with typical Texas bravado. Its Art Council is currently “accepting applications for a city poet laureate,” and visitors are proudly shown around its art schools and “Tipsy Canvas” fun art classes.

Some come because this is a place where Tex-Mex cooking can be upscale enough to please even the most fastidious palate, although the cuisine may be an acquired taste.

“We love this food and when our kids grew up the first thing they want when they come back is to go to [El] Pato’s,” says a local. “It’s authentic.”

We are sitting with some McAllen friends in El Pato’s for breakfast. A poster on the wall celebrates a 1982 bullfight in Reynosa, just across the river.

Nancy Millar has spent six years promoting Harlingen, the city to the east, and 16 years nurturing McAllen.

“Tourism has a huge economic impact here,” she says, “We love our winter Texans; they bring $800 million into the Valley every year — and Mexican nationals boost the Valley’s economy by more than $1 billion annually.”

That last figure needs explanation. Visa once said that McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley was the Number One Shopping Destination of the country of Mexico!

“Our retail is Mexican driven,” says Millar. “There’s even a Spanish word for let’s go shopping in McAllen! It’s McAlleando. Some come by bus, some fly their own planes. The Mexican shoppers are mostly upper-middle class. They feel there’s prestige ‘Buying in America.’ Mexican people say they shop here because it’s safer, customer service is better, prices are more reasonable and the food has higher quality and more variety.”

We understand all that when we dine at the Republic of the Rio Grande Cantina. The food is upscale. The ambiance is more sedate, but the art is still very Mexican.

If you like Mexican food their restaurants are fun. Whatever suits the owner ends up on the walls. Millar tells us there are 600 restaurants in town and she seems to know all their owners. We check out Frida’s the second night. The murals are again the individual choices of the owner.

The décor is interesting enough, but the lady behind the mask raises our eyebrows and some questions for the owner, Sergio Luna. The artist is another Sergio, one Sergio Bustamante who studied architecture at the University of Guadalajara in the 1960s, moved to Amsterdam in 1972 and established a studio in Tlaquepaque, Mexico in 1975. The Mexican government is impressed enough by his work to give items as official gifts to state governments and visiting dignitaries.

The Sergio Bustamante artwork (bottom left) in Frida’s has been valued at $13,000. How did our host get it, we ask? “I saw it in a bar in Reynosa, Mexico,” he says, “and gave the bartender $200 for it!” He places a magnificent plate of appetizers before us.

Incidentally, one restaurant visitors hear about all the time in Texas is Whataburger. It has 700 locations (almost all are in Texas) and thousands of devotees.

“It’s famous for its 100% pure American beef and five-inch toasted buns — and its chocolate milk shakes,” says our guide, adding, “I have a friend who flies to El Paso from Las Vegas just to get a Whataburger and he owns a restaurant on Fremont Street!

We make a note for next time! There are plenty of restaurant choices nearby. In Weslaco, for example, there’s TexMex at the Blue Onion and Italian at Milano’s. The colors on the walls are vibrant in both restaurants.

Milano’s is particularly interesting. It was pouring rain when we arrived, soaking wet, at the end of our South Texas adventure. We find that the founder, Emidio Minalo, came to America in 1903. Photographs of the family that followed him are up on the wall. Family members were working as always that night and, as usual, making arriving guests feel special as Italian hosts surely do.

We forget the rain and think only of the warmth of Texas

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.