I Know a Place

48 hours in McAllen by Gaby Parra

McAllen, TX is my hometown. It’s not a place you can fully understand unless you’ve visited. News stories only show one side of McAllen, and after leaving to attend college in San Marcos five years ago, I wondered if the stories were true. Had McAllen changed?

“Come home,” a former coworker said. “See what it’s like for yourself.”

I’d visited my family a few times since leaving, but my insights as a “McAllen local” were long gone. San Antonio and Austin had become my go-to spots for going out.

I was given a curious offer: “Let us show you around McAllen for a weekend.” I interned at McAllen’s Chamber of Commerce as a teen. When they began searching for someone to revisit McAllen, my name had come up. “Come see what I see in McAllen, and help us share your experience so other people outside of McAllen can understand who we’ve become, too.”

Whatever nerves I felt about coming back after so long evaporated in the breezy warmth outside McAllen International Airport. Everything felt good. It felt like home.

My friend introduced me to our event guide, Genesis, who laid out the weekend’s theme- crossing over between the McAllen I knew and the new, undiscovered parts of the city that few outsiders know about.

As Genesis shared our plans for dinner and a night out downtown, something jolted to my attention: I didn’t have anything to wear! My fashion sense had lapsed on the college scene and I had forgotten that stepping out in McAllen means dressing the part. The style there is to find what you’re confident in and amplify it. Everyone has fun, nobody stares. It’s something I hadn’t realized I missed.

We made a run for clothes at local boutiques, then stopped by my teenaged-self’s old territory, La Plaza Mall. I was shocked to see that the mall has been completely upgraded. A part of me missed places from my memories, but overall, I was stunned by the mall’s gorgeous transformation. Not only was the interior beautiful, but I found so many designer brands, and even valet parking. McAllen suddenly felt like a much bigger city. Could it still feel like “home”?

I took a deep breath and remembered home isn’t just a place; it’s people. Mine were waiting for me at my room at the DoubleTree. First, my mother. We’d hadn’t seen each other since the spring. Like my brother and me, she was raised in McAllen. Seeing her felt like home.

And home also meant food! Taquerias, street food, and full-service Mexican restaurants with eye-wateringly good food are the norm in McAllen. Growing up there cursed me to be eternally underwhelmed by northern takes on our food.

I had invited Cielo, a high school friend who returned to McAllen from NYC, to share my night out. How better to start it than with some real McAllen food? Genesis drove us to dinner. When we passed a food park full of taco trucks, I was ready to stop, but we kept going and swerved to a progressive downtown bistro.

Our meal at SALT New American Table gave me satisfying familiar ingredients transformed into something new, brave and wonderful. I was happy to learn SALT is part of a breakaway movement of eclectic cuisine that’s growing alongside the city’s traditional food scene.

Chef Larry Delgado shared stories about the local farms and fisheries that sourced our dinner, which featured delicious free-range quail, organic habanero honey, and Texas Gulf shrimp. I wasn’t expecting an evening of daring and sustainable cuisine. That was their point.

We walked down a street or two before a thrum of overlapping basslines announced our arrival on 17th street. Spectacle matters in McAllen and the nightlife scene there has always meant a world where you can flow through clubs with wildly different theming and atmosphere. It was thrilling to find this old, fun vibe taking shape in new venues. First, we hit up Love Buzz, a club that layers a vaporwave aesthetic onto a pop-art cantina. My friends and I posed with neon-lit payphones. Next we went to Brujeria, which warps Mexican folkmagic iconography with an otherworldly EDM vibe. Suerte’s lotería-themed art and theatric lighting makes its Selena icon room feel like a proper pilgrimage.

After so much excitement, we found a perfect place to just chill awhile at Roof 324, an airy club with a slightly more subdued vibe. I saw more than a few familiar faces there, and one very familiar face- my cousin’s. Warmed by rooftop open-flame heaters and tequila, we danced above McAllen, then joined the crowds filtering home as the night turned into tomorrow.

My eyes blinked shut within moments of sinking into my pillow at the Doubletree. While our night out shined bright in my memory, the next morning was a blur. A wake-up call summoned me to a warm breakfast as I was presented with leggings and another familiar face- that of my brother, Javi. Our swerve that morning? Yoga.

Genesis mentioned that it’s much easier to travel when you can keep up with self-care and exercise. I had never thought about including self-care in a vacation, but our instructor’s program of exertion, meditation, and massage provided just the peaceful moment I needed to find my bearings.

Stepping out of the yoga studio, the sunlight felt nourishing on my shoulders. Genesis took us out for a proper brunch of quiche and pastry at Sweet Temptations. McAllen by daylight moves at a relaxed, leisurely pace.

As the day continued, I saw other aspects of McAllen that defy what most outsiders would believe. Where else could you have a full salon day in a renovated 30’s-era bus station, all the while being tortured by the scent of roasted corn and tamales? Such was my fate at The Dry Room, which overlooked a park hosting McAllen’s Tamale Fest. Couples and children roamed, danced, and played in the setting sun.

McAllen is an open-air kind of town; we’re proud to have some of the safest streets in Texas. Surprised? Most are, though they shouldn’t be. Texas can be proud to have a safe and prosperous border from McAllen to El Paso.

The Dry Room styled me for a formal night out with my friend Sophia at the McAllen Performing Arts Center. It was another stunning addition to my home that came to be while I was away. My friend Cielo mentioned it’s a regular stop for touring shows from Broadway. I wasn’t prepared for how moving live theater would be. That night’s performance of The Sound of Music left me in tears, though I knew every word of the songs by heart from the film.

Just as I expected another swerve, Genesis indulged my desire for a meal at a real McAllen taqueria. Rodeo Taco is an experience that’s unapologetically McAllen. You’re served waves of sizzling indulgence under yellow neon light, imported bottles are kept a touch above freezing, the portions are absurd, and the salsas are simply rojo (hot) and verde (hotter).

Maybe it was the yoga, or even the old-school keyboardist at Rodeo Taco who layered his sound over reggaetón videos, but I found the energy to persuade Cielo to have another night in downtown McAllen with me. I couldn’t get enough of the clubs that somehow felt familiar, but also exotic, fresh, and unique.

Of course, I knew my trip would come to an end too soon. Before my flight out, I made time for a quick paddleboat swan ride next to my brother Javi at McAllen Convention Center Park. The McAllen sunrise is something that’s always been there, but paddling on the water next to Javi, I felt like the sun showed up just for me to discover it and see it in a new light.

McAllen is the same way.

As much as I’ve grown, so has my McAllen, in ways both fresh and familiar. I’ve never been prouder. I’ve never felt so ready to come home, again.

For getaway packages, go to visitmcallen.com 

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