Photo by Dustyn Zenner

The Inner Loop’s new dining district welcomes its first bar next week. Verde Garden, the a Tex-Mex restaurant and beer garden from Heights Bier Garten owners the Kirby Group, will open April 25 at 1011 La Rue St.

Part of the Harlow District, the name given to the former Nino’s and Vincent’s property on West Dallas, Verde Garden will occupy the former Grappino di Nino space. In total, Verde Garden offers almost 9,000-square-feet of interior space and a more than 10,000-square-foot patio. It's the Kirby Group's second opening this year, joining Bayou Heights Bier Garten, a bar, restaurant, and bakery that opened in January.

"We are excited to open the first concept in the new Harlow District," Kirby Group co-founder Andy Aweida said in a statement. "We know Houstonians love Tex-Mex and beer gardens so we wanted to open a new concept with that in mind. Verde Garden is a great space to come enjoy made-to-order fresh or frozen margaritas while enjoying a meal or shareables."

Kirby Group beverage director Joel Ramirez’s cocktail menu starts with 12 frozen margaritas, 20 house cocktails, and 60 classics. Like other Kirby Group concepts, the house cocktails are divided into sections such as “Spirit Forward,” “Sour & Tart”, “Fruity & Sweet,” “Boozy Brunch,” “Refreshing & Spicy,” and “Refreshing & Balanced.” The classics menu includes favorites like the Mexican martini and paloma.

Patrons will find an extensive spirits selection that includes more than 250 agave-based sips and 750 selections from around the world such as vodka, bourbon, scotch, rum, and gin. A beer bar offers craft beer, wine, and draft highballs.

Kirby Group culinary director Teddy Lopez’s menu features dishes such as ceviches, enchiladas, and tacos. Specific dishes include red chili tinga enchiladas, green tomatillo and poblano mole enchiladas, chips and queso, and a torta Milanesa with a choice of crispy beef or chicken topped with avocado, lime crema, and refried beans. Vegetarian items are also available.

Verde Garden will be the Harlow District’s first concept, but it won’t be alone for long. In the months to come, the development will include: Boca, a coffee shop; Sala Social House, a cocktail lounge; and Katami, a sushi-forward restaurant from Kata Robata chef Manabu Horiuchi in the former Vincent’s space. More tenants, including a occupant for the former Nino’s space, are expected to be announced soon.

Verde Garden chips and salsa

Photo by Dustyn Zenner

It wouldn't be Tex-Mex without chips and salsa.

Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Armandos' family-friendly, Tex-Mex sister restaurant serves up highly anticipated opening date in Bellaire

900 tortillas per hour

The wait is almost over for Bellaire residents who have been craving fajitas, burrito bowls, and margaritas. Palacios Murphy hospitality group will open Mandito's Tex-Mex on Thursday, April 13 (5101 Bellaire Blvd.).

Part of the restaurant group behind Armandos, the 45-year-old, River Oaks Tex-Mex institution, and Italian restaurant Lulu’s, Mandito’s is a more family-friendly establishment than its upscale sibling. Joining an original location in Round Top, the restaurant takes its name from the childhood nickname of co-owner Armando Palacios — “Mandito” is “little Armando.”

While Armandos is known for its fine dining aspects such as white tablecloths and its signature Thursday night dance parties, Mandito's will be a more family friendly establishment with a more casual atmosphere. It will still offer a high level of service and utilize technology such as a digital waitlist that allows customers to put themselves in line for a table via smartphone.

The menu centers around burritos, enchiladas, flautas, and fajitas as well as the signature burrito bowl, a clever reimagining of a taco salad with ground beef, steak, or chicken topped with lettuce, corn, cheese, avocado, beans, and more. Mandito's will also offer plant-based options such as the Tex-Mex Kale Salad, kale and mushroom tacos, and crispy tacos made with vegan Beyond Beef.

Pair them with a range of margaritas and house original cocktails. Mezcal expert Courtenay Greenleaf Torren consulted on the restaurant’s agave spirit offerings that includes raicilla, bacanora, mezcal, tequila, and sotol. Mandito’s “Make it a Margarita” offering allows diners to utilize any of those spirits in a margarita that comes with a choice of five different salts. In addition, a rotating frozen margarita will spotlight seasonal ingredients.

Inside, a BE&SCO Press and Oven greets diners. It will supply the restaurant with up to 900 tortillas per hour. Other design details include handmade straw light fixtures and custom prints by artist Sarah Shoemake. The dining room includes a 16-seat bar and a 42-seat, climate-controlled patio.

“We are thrilled to have the pleasure of introducing Mandito’s Tex-Mex to Bellaire and equally delighted to be able to reach new guests in the surrounding neighborhoods and greater Houston area.” Palacious Murphy COO Alex Curley said in a statement. “Our growth is focused on creating unforgettable guest experiences through genuine hospitality, amazing spaces, quality Tex-Mex cuisine, and an incredible beverage program. Mandito’s Tex-Mex in Bellaire provides us the perfect opportunity to do that, and our team can’t wait to open the doors and welcome the community.”

Mandito’s opens daily for lunch and dinner at 11 am.

Mandito's burrito bowl

Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Mandito's is known for its burrito bowl.

Photo by Shannon O'Hara

The ultimate Tex-Mex draft: We pick our favorite dishes from Houston's most essential restaurants

What's Eric Eating Episode 271

On this week's episode of "What's Eric Eating," CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler takes a break from his usual format by inviting five Houston food experts to join him in a draft of their favorite Tex-Mex dishes. The goal is to put together the ultimate selection of dishes in the following categories — fajitas, enchiladas, tacos, chips and salsa, queso, and a wildcard that's any dish served at a Tex-Mex restaurant that doesn't fit one of those categories.

The draft's rules define a Tex-Mex restaurant as a place that doesn't charge for chips and salsa and serves queso, which excludes interior Mexican restaurants like Hugo's and fast casual restaurants like Torchy's. In addition, participants may only select one dish per restaurant. Joining Sandler are the following participants: David Cordua, chef-owner of The Lymbar; Bryan Caswell, former chef-owner of El Real Tex-Mex Cafe; Mary Clarkson, owner of Avondale Food & Wine; Matt Harris, a self-described Food Vigilante; and Michael Fulmer, a hospitality industry veteran and a co-founder of the Houston BBQ Festival.

The first round goes in the following order:

  • David Cordua selects El Tiempo's chicken fajitas
  • Mary Clarkson selects Molina's Jose's dip
  • Bryan Caswell selects Superica's puffy taco
  • Eric Sandler selects Candente's birria tacos
  • Matt Harris selects Lupe Tortilla's tacos al carbon
  • Michael Fulmer selects The Original Ninfa's chips and salsa

Candente fajitas platter
Photo by Shannon O'Hara

One of the participants selects Candente's fajitas.

Listen to the full episode to hear all of the results. After they completed six rounds, Cordua offers his thoughts on Tex-Mex's importance to Houstonians.

"I can tell by everyone's answers how much Tex-Mex is our comfort food. It's our therapy. We need it, and we live on it," he says.

"If you take a trip for over a week, first thing you want is Tex-Mex," Caswell adds. "That's the first place you go. Maybe on the way home from the airport."

Following the draft, Gringo's Mexican Kitchen founder and CEO Russell Ybarra joins Sandler to offers an opinion about who won the draft (spoiler alert: not Sandler). He then discusses a few of the challenges of operating a successful Tex-Mex restaurant. For example, the restaurant's free chips, salsa, and ice cream account for 6-percent of Gringo's food costs.

Sandler asks Ybarra about how Gringo's stands out in a crowded field of Tex-Mex options.

"We have a philosophy that if we want to push a Mercedes out the front door that we cannot bring in Chevrolet parts in the back door," he says. "We have a focus on quality ingredients. You solve the majority of your challenges by using quality ingredients."


Subscribe to "What's Eric Eating" on Apple podcasts, Google Play, or Spotify. Listen to it Saturday at 2 pm on ESPN 97.5.

Photos courtesy of Roll-Em-Up Taquitos

California taquito restaurant rolls out first Houston-area location

Totally taquitos

A new restaurant concept from California has landed in Texas, staking a bold claim: Called Roll-Em-Up Taquitos, it calls itself the first place dedicated to taquitos, and who are we to disagree.

Pearland will be the first Houston-area locale, at 15818 Hwy 288. In mid-September, Roll-Em-Up opened their first Texas location in Garland, at 5949 Broadway Blvd., serving taquitos with a variety of fillings, along with key sides including corn on the cob, queso, and guacamole.

There are five taquito options, including shredded beef, shredded chicken, potato, cheese, and avocado. Taquitos can be topped with cheese, spicy house sauce, guac sauce, queso sauce, and their "lit" sauce.

Other menu items include bacon beans, rice, bomb AF chips, churro doughnuts drizzled with caramel, and street corn with butter, mayo, and cotija cheese, with an optional dusting of Hot Cheetos and Tajin or coated in queso. You can get the corn on the cob or cut into a cup.

Roll-Em-Up Taquitos was founded by father-and-son Ron and Ryan Usrey, who debuted the concept in Chino Hills in 2019. The taquitos are hand-rolled and pan-fried to order in cast iron skillets, and the restaurants also boast a colorful interior with a bright and cheerful mural that runs the length of the back wall.

There are tables for inhouse dining, but takeout is also a huge deal, with party packs of 25 or 50 taquitos, for $50 to $100, accompanied by shredded cheese, guac sauce, sour cream, mild sauce, and LIT sauce.

taquitosTaquitos topped with queso and guacamole. Roll Em Up Taquitos

Restaurant operators David Weaver and Blake Terry, who have worked with many brands including Wingstop, The Catch, Burger House, Subway, Smashburger, and Rusty Taco, are bringing the concept to Texas.

"Having great food is no longer enough in today's fast casual space and this is what made us thrilled about Roll-Em-Up," Weaver says in a statement. "The food, ambiance, and operations of Roll-Em-Up are outstanding, not to mention the reggae music playing in the background. It's a vibrant, fun, and delicious place to be and we had to be a part."

They'll build and operate a percentage of stores, and also recruit and train future franchise partners in the region.

In addition to Pearland and Garland, there's already a location coming to Hurst, at 1842 Precinct Line Rd., opening in fall 2022, with Amarillo in the works, as well.

Iconic Tex-Mex restaurant famed for funny signs cooks up Texas expansion

Sign of success

El Arroyo — the iconic Tex-Mex restaurant in West Austin that’s famous for the witty, sassy, ever-changing messages on its black-and-white outdoor marquee sign — is branching out.

The restaurant plans to have five more restaurants in Texas open or under construction within the next three years. For now, El Arroyo’s sole location is at 1624 W. Fifth St.

El Arroyo’s first location outside Austin will be at the popular Gruene historic district in New Braunfels. Next year, a two-story building under the landmark Gruene water tower will be remodeled for El Arroyo. The building is on the site of tubing company Rockin’ R River Rides, co-owned by the head honchos at El Arroyo.

Ellis Winstanley, co-owner of El Arroyo with wife Paige, says Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and West Texas are among the places being considered for new locations. And he doesn’t rule out a second location in the Austin area. Each of the new restaurants will seat about 180 to 220 customers.

Winstanley says each restaurant will serve the same menu as the West Austin location. And the décor and vibe of the new spots will parallel that of the original restaurant, which opened in 1975.

“It’s not going to all of a sudden become a fancy place with a high price point or something like that,” Winstanley says.

So, what about the black-lettered sign that’s synonymous with El Arroyo?

Every new location will feature a version of the Austin sign, serving up the brand’s “same personality and voice,” Winstanley says. How the Austin sign will be replicated at other restaurants is still being worked out. Whatever all-caps message appears on the Austin board at the time will likely be repeated at the other locations, although the lettering and the sign itself won’t be identical, he says.

“It’s not going to look exactly the same, no matter what you do,” Winstanley says.

All of restaurants will be owned by the same group that controls the West Austin location, he says. El Arroyo might consider a franchise model in the future, though.

Expansion has been on the table at El Arroyo for seven or eight years, Winstanleysays. But a couple of things held back the Winstanleys, who bought the restaurant in 2012, and their investment partners.

“One, we didn’t feel like we had a clear handle on what we really wanted the brand to become at that point. It’s been an evolution,” Winstanley says. “And then secondly, the real estate market was nuts.”

You might say the growth of the El Arroyo brand has been nuts.

Aside from operating what’s transforming into a restaurant chain, El Arroyo sells an array of branded products — almost all of them starring clever messages from the restaurant’s sign. These include books, coffee mugs, party cups, coasters, cocktail napkins, candles, ballcaps, T-shirts, calendars, magnets, car fresheners, yard signs, and YETI coolers.

Also on tap are El Arroyo’s first two packaged foods — salsa (set to roll out later this year) and margarita mix (coming out sometime after the salsa).

The progression of the El Arroyo brand has been steady and methodical, according to Winstanley.

“The wheels start to come off as people take a big slug of equity, and their goal is to produce as high of a return as possible. So they just start going as fast as they can,” he says. “Sometimes it works out, and a lot of times the brand really loses its identity.”

“We have the opposite incentive,” Winstanley adds. “We have different lines of businesses that need to stay in sync to be successful. And the brand has a very clear voice. It’s not trying to figure out who it is.”

Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Masterminds behind River Oaks see-and-be-seen spot bringing family-friendly Tex-Mex to Bellaire

900 tortillas per hour

One of Houston's top names in Tex-Mex is bringing a family-friendly restaurant to Bellaire. Palacios Murphy hospitality group will open Mandito's in early 2023 at 5101 Bellaire Blvd.

Best known for River Oaks favorite Armandos, Palacios Murphy is owned by Cinda and Armando Palacios. The couple also own Lulu's, an Italian restaurant that opened last year in the same shopping center as Armandos. Mandito's original location is part of Palacios Murphy's operations in Round Top. Just as Lulu's is named for Armando's nickname for Cinda, Mandito's stems from a nickname Armando had as a child — "little Armando."

While Armandos is known for its fine dining aspects such as white table cloths and its signature Thursday night dance parties, Mandito's will be a more family friendly establishment with a more casual atmosphere.

"Families and large groups will feel right at home at Mandito’s which will feature a full-on dining experience for kids with a custom kid’s menu and of course the visible tortilla machine for additional entertainment," Cinda Palacios explains in an email. "Mandito’s will have a more accessible menu…the white tablecloths will stay at Armandos."

That "visible tortilla machine" will be a BE&SCO Press and Oven that's capable of producing 900 tortillas per hour, according to the restaurant. It will certainly stay busy supplying tortillas for dishes such as burritos, enchiladas, flautas, and fajitas. The restaurant is also known for its signature burrito bowl, a clever reimagining of a taco salad with ground beef, steak, or chicken topped with lettuce, corn, cheese, avocado, beans, and more. Mandito's will also offer plant-based options.

Cocktails will be centered around different margaritas along with house originals. Food and drinks will be available for either dine-in or to-go at both lunch and dinner.

All that eating and drinking will take place in a space designed by New York-based architect Rocco DiLeo. It will also feature a 42-seat, climate-controlled patio.

"The opportunity to bring Mandito’s to Bellaire and surrounding communities proved to be one that aligned with our goal to elevate the Tex-Mex experience,” chief operating officer Alex Curley said in a statement. “We are incredibly grateful to have amassed a team of top tier talent from around the country with the goal of placing guests first and building on the legacy of our flagship restaurant, Armandos."

Speaking of Armandos, the legendary Tex-Mex restaurant will celebrate its 45th anniversary in 2023. Asked about the decision to bring Mandito's to Bellaire rather than Armandos, Cinda Palacios notes that the couple is protective of its flagship.

"There is an indescribable magic that surrounds the Armandos experience from late-night dancing on Thursdays to Sunday family dinners filled with regulars." she writes. "Palacios Murphy wants to maintain the integrity of that magic rather than try to recreate it in another space at this time."

The signature chicken burrito bowl.

Mandito's chicken burrito bowl
Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
The signature chicken burrito bowl.
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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf reveals riveting story of his fall from grace and recovery at Menninger Annual Luncheon

a new leaf

Photo by Daniel Ortiz

Susie Peake, Ryan Leaf, Poppi Massey, and Armando Colombo.

In a sports town like Houston — where victory is celebrated and champions revered — how is being a champion defined? Is it how many rings a player earns? Is it who gets named MVP? Who hoists the most trophies?

Or, is it the one who perseveres against overwhelming odds? Perhaps the one who confronts demons and slays them — not publicly, but privately — day after day. The one who goes from rock bottom to a place of security and finally, peace.

This is a story about how to fail.

It’s the story of Ryan Leaf, who appeared in conversation with CultureMap's editor Steven Devadanam at the Menninger Clinic Annual Luncheon in a nod to Mental Health Awareness Month. The luncheon, chaired by Susie Peake and Poppi Massey, raised more than $375,000 to help establish a new Center for Addiction Medicine and Recovery at the Menninger Clinic.

The golden boy with a secret

From his earliest days in Great Falls, Montana — what he called a “cowboy town,” Leaf was a gifted athlete gushing with potential star power. “I was placed on a pedestal pretty early,” he said of his junior high and high school sports days. But young Leaf eschewed the quiet cowboy mentality that permeated the area.

“My heroes weren't what the very conservative Montana establishment wanted,” he explained to Devadanam. “My heroes were the Fab Five from Michigan [the iconic college basketball champions] — wearing your shorts down to your knees, the black socks, I had my head shaved.”

That bad boy, urban hoops vibe didn’t jibe with Montana’s cowboy culture, and locals let Leaf know. “They wanted a great athlete and instead they got me,” he said pointedly. His way to get back, he recalled, was to play with rage, win, become a pro athlete, “and rub it in their faces,” he recalled. Since they didn’t approve of his aggressive play and image, “that meant I was a bad person,” said Leaf, “ because of the way they treated me.”

Leaf recalled feeling superior to everyone around him. He didn’t drink at parties, instead lugging around a six pack of 7-Up, to let the drinkers know he was better than them and would never end up like them. He refused to even date anyone who attended his same school.

Admittedly, Leaf towed the fine line “between elite athlete and as*hole,” he said, garnering a big laugh from the audience, before being firmly entrenched in the latter category. But that cocky swagger — a defense mechanism — belied the quiet young man who just wanted to make his father, a Viet Nam war veteran, business owner, and sports lover, proud.

When Devadanam noted his surprise that Leaf wasn't the big man on campus in high school, Leaf explained the dichotomy of his personas. The young introvert Leaf was “an extreme extrovert” on the football field and basketball court. “I tell people all the time that I was a drug addict long before I ever took a drug, in how I behaved,” he noted.

“I was an egomaniac with a self-esteem problem,” he recounted. “And that stemmed from being shamed” — mostly by his mother. Mrs. Leaf, he noted, was worried about her son’s public image and how he was perceived, the victim of an alcoholic father herself. And she saw her father’s traits in her son. “I never felt I could be who I truly was,” Leaf recalled of her treatment.

That meant Leaf poured himself into sports and little else, learning no life coping skills. “I think my development was arrested probably when I was around 13 years old,” he said of the coddling and pedestal he was placed upon as a “golden arm” athlete. While keeping his innate sense of shame a secret, he won on every level in sports, which kept the demons at bay.

“We always do whatever we can — whether that’s a negative and toxic way of doing things — if you’re successful. But what happens if you fail at the biggest possible level?”

A Montana kid makes history

Aggressively recruited by the biggest football schools in the nation, Leaf joined the Washington State Cougars and led them to their first Pac-10 championship in school history. His strong showing in the 1998 Rose Bowl made him the first Heisman Trophy finalist in Montana's history.

Soon, pro sports and football chatter turned to whom would be selected No. 1 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft: Leaf, or future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, the Tennessee standout and football prince. The pair — Manning in khakis and frat ready and Leaf with a rock star image — made the perfect foil for each other.

Manning, many said, was cerebral, while Leaf brought intensity, a cannon arm, and a linebacker physique in a quarterback's body. The prototype of today's ideal QB, Leaf was selected right behind Manning, who famously joined the Indianapolis Colts. The two would be forever intertwined. Friendly Manning at No. 1 to the Colts; swag-dripping Leaf at No. 2 to the San Diego Chargers.

From NFL dream...to a nightmare

Leaf would be the first Montanan ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft and at the time, signed the biggest rookie bonus in NFL history: an $11.5 million add-on to his four-year, $31.25 million contract. Leaf was immediately named the starting quarterback and the Chargers' future leader. He won his first two games.

And then he imploded.

Looking back, the fall could be traced to a viral moment in which Leaf had a heated exchange with San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jay Posner, screaming at the writer to “knock it off!” Leaf had to be led away by team captain Junior Seau and was forced to issue an apology to Posner — which he demonstrably crumpled and trashed after reading.

His fiery outburst became fodder for national sports talk radio, with sound bytes playing daily on syndicated programs like The Jim Rome Show.

When Devadanam asked Leaf how a 22-year-old football pro handled his worst day at the office becoming a national discussion and mockery, Leaf dryly responded, “badly.”

Indeed. He struggled with work ethic, injuries, and what was deemed bad behavior. His reputation became that of the top draft bust in the entire history of the NFL. And when his career with the league ended in 2001, his troubles didn’t.

He went back to Washington State University and finished his degree, and he bounced around in a bunch of jobs: a volunteer quarterback coach, a business development manager, a writer.

His downward spiral took him into drugs, with both probation and prison sentences. There was a domestic violence charge. A suicide attempt.

The lonely fall from grace

It was a crushing fall. In a lot of ways, it was also inevitable.

The candid conversation shed light on the important work done by mental health facilities like Menninger, as well as the need for more openness about mental health issues. Leaf told the audience that growing up in Montana, he had no role models for being able to show how insecure he felt, or ways to express when something was wrong.

He found himself absolutely unable to cope with the pressure of big-time football and handling the ins and outs of adulthood.

“I thought [being a pro football player] was what it was supposed to be,” he said. “I expected to be there. What I didn’t fully understand was what came with it. I was this redneck kid from Montana who all he wanted to do was play ball and be liked. And instead of saying that, I was kind of characterized as versus Peyton — kind of the black hat. And I didn’t correct anybody. I’ve never been able to correct anybody. I didn't like confrontation unless I was the one who was trying to intimidate. So, I thought, okay, this is what people want. So, in the darkest of moments, whether it was a reporter who was telling a negative story about me or a fan yelling at me, I had no way to deal with that in a healthy, positive way. So, my way was to battle.”

Of course, battling – both literal and metaphorical – led to other issues. By the time he wound up with the Seattle Seahawks, he said he was tired of being beat up, physically and emotionally.

“I was starting to develop the real mental health issues I didn’t know I had,” he said. “I was sad all the time, I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt really lazy; I gained a bunch of weight. So, instead of walking into my head coach’s office and telling him all those things, I just quit the thing I’ve wanted to do since I was four years old. And I thought I could just disappear.”

Numbing the pain, fighting the pain

Leaf quickly learned, to his surprise, that wasn’t the case. Because, despite his success, the money he’d earned and what he calls “the power” of having that money, he couldn’t make his feelings or what people said about him go away.

“What I didn’t fully understand when I walked away, was that I could have a normal life. When you’re drafted alongside arguably the greatest to play the game — Peyton Manning — my name doesn’t just go away,” he said.” So, if my name wasn’t going to go away and I hadn’t found a way to deal with this in a proper way, there was no way I was going to get better.”

Leaf went downhill both gradually and suddenly, it seemed. Having been prescribed Vicodin in the past for his physical injuries, he began using it to dull emotional pain. He faced drug charges in both Texas, where he’d coached football, and in Montana, serving 32 months in prison. At the time of his sentencing, he recalls feeling so down on himself that he didn’t understand why the judge didn’t give him a harsher sentence.

Prison, it turned out, would be a turning point. After rebuffing several attempts by a warden to speak with groups of visiting students as part of intervention programs, he finally relented. Sharing his story helped him begin to step outside himself. But there was still a long way to go.

“I was released. I go home and the next morning, my hometown newspaper, there was a cartoon there: Ryan Leaf just got out, lock up your medicine cabinet,” he said. “In that moment, I thought, ok, this is what it was going to be like. Forever. There’s no hope. And I got that reprieve when I was accepted into a treatment program.”

Getting into a program wasn’t easy. The NFL Players Association, whom he first contacted for help, flat out told him that assisting him would be “throwing good money after bad,” a crushing thing to hear. But, a nonprofit called the Player Care Foundation was in its infancy, and Leaf applied for a grant to fund treatment. It was accepted. He recalls Andrew Joe, the organization’s founder, calling him with the news.

“If he doesn’t do that, I don’t get the treatment I need, I doubt it one hundred percent I am here telling that story,” he said. “That’s where it all started. And it’s about what the Menninger Clinic does; it’s what treatment facilities do to give individuals hope.”

A new Leaf

Treatment allowed Leaf to begin rebuilding his life and his approach to his feelings of doubt and insecurity. Over the last decade, he’s taken on speaking gigs around the country and works with the Disney Corporation, something he couldn’t have imagined a decade ago.

“I just needed someone to believe in me,” he said. “My therapist and I have worked on an affirmation that I say every day in the mirror: what other people think of me is none of my business. It sounds simple, but my brain believed any of the outside noise.”

He noted that it was easier for him to believe the negative things that people said than it was to embrace their compliments. He worked to train his brain, however, so that today, when he states that affirmation, he believes it.

“I’m okay with who I am,” he said. “I’m this flawed human being like everybody else who is just trying to be better every day. This is a story about how to fail.”

Esquire toasts Heights watering hole as only Texas spot on 2023's Best Bars in America list

Esquire's favorite Texas bar

One of the Houston’s hottest new bars is basking in the national spotlight. Esquire magazine named EZ’s Liquor Lounge to its list of The Best Bars in America, 2023.

Notably, EZ’s, which is part of the Agricole Hospitality group that also includes Coltivare and Eight Row Flint, is the only Texas establishment that Esquire's editors included among the 31 bars on the list. After in Chicago, Tell Me Bar in New Orleans, and Jellyrolls at Disney World in Orlando, Florida are also among the honorees.

Agricole opened EZ's Liquor Lounge last year. It takes its inspiration from classic neighborhood bars that used to be staples in the Heights, such as Alice's Tall Texan and the Shiloh Club. Unlike those establishments, EZ's also serves carefully crafted cocktails and a tidy menu of food that someone would actually want to eat.

“You’d think a great dive bar couldn’t be built; it could only be arrived at through decades of benign neglect. You’d think that, at least, until you visited EZ’s Liquor Lounge,” writer Beth Ann Fennelly declares. She praises the decor that includes vintage neon signs and recommends patrons try the Hillbilly Highball cocktail, which is made with peanut butter bourbon and Mexican Coke.

In a separate introductory essay, the magazine notes that all of the bars on this year's list offered a fresh perspective or distinct environment. “This is our 18th edition of the list, and in all my years of bar crawls, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much spirited originality — as many bars that make you say, ‘So strange, yet so awesome,’” Esquire editor Kevin Sintumuang writes.

EZ’s operating partner Matt Tanner tells CultureMap that he’s thrilled with the recognition. He spent more than a year sourcing the vintage signs and other decor that give EZ’s its retro, dive bar-inspired atmosphere.

“We put together a place that we wanted to hang out and thought would be a good neighborhood bar,” Tanner tells CultureMap. “Turns out a lot of people enjoy it. It’s just a really great feeling to see people in there smiling, having a great time. Having Esquire come in and think it’s one of the best places in America, it’s just a really cool feeling.”

5 tips to build stunning sand sculptures from 2023 Texas SandFest winners

Fun at the beach

As summer fast approaches, sandy vacations to coastal destinations are on the horizon for many travelers. For those with kids in tow, sandcastle-making might top the list of beach trip must-dos.

But “playing” in the sand isn’t just an activity for children, as proven by the 22 professional sand sculptors from around the world who recently competed in the 26th annual Texas SandFest, held in Port Aransas in April. The internationally recognized event, started by Port A locals in 1997, is the largest native-sand sculptor competition in the nation; nearly 70,000 people attended this year.

Competition entries featured everything from mermaids to the Grim Reaper, all intricately carved, brushed, and chiseled from sand, ocean water, and perhaps a little diluted spray glue that sculptors say helps maintain detail. The competitors work on their masterpieces during the event, allowing spectators to witness their progress from start to finish.

“I do around five international sand sculpting competitions per year. It’s always a great challenge to compete a high level,” says Benoit Dutherage, a competitive sculptor from France who also creates snow sculptures in the French Alps during the winter.

Dutherage took first place in the Duo Masters category, along with his sand sculpting partner Sue McGrew, for their work called “Wish You Were Here.” Comprised of two loving faces (one mystically cut in half), the sculpture was a tribute to Pink Floyd.

“We like to reflect human emotions in our sculptures,” he says. “It is never easy to pick an idea among the thousands of ideas we have.”

Florida resident Thomas Koet, whose sculpture called “The Prospector” won first place in the People’s Choice category, intended to create something with horses and a cowboy as an homage to Mustang Island, where the competition took place. High tides just before the event thwarted his plans.

“The high tide washed away so much of the sand, I had only enough left for a mule or a foal,” he says. “So I decided to make an old prospector with a mule.”

Thinking out of the box when it comes to carving sand is just one of several suggestions Koet has for recreational sand sculptors. (“Who says it has to be a castle?” he says.) He and other winners from the 2023 Texas SandFest say they are always happy to see novices get creative.

Here are five of the pros' top tips for producing a beachfront masterpiece.

1. Think beyond the standard sandcastle
“Design and sculpt outside of your comfort zone,” says Abe Waterman, a sculptor from Prince Edward Island, Canada, who took first place in the Solo Masters division with his sculpture, “Sleeps with Angels.” The mega sculpture featured four angels at four corners holding a blanket carrying a sleeping woman. “While this may not lead to the best sculpture results, one will improve faster by doing this.”

Waterman noted that there are different types of sand depending on location. Some are better suited for detailed work while others work well for verticality. “But something can always be sculpted regardless of the sand quality, the design just may need to be altered,” he says.

Koet recommends picking something that will fit your attention span. “You can make anything you want,” he says. “You can make a cat, a shark, a monster truck, your high school mascot, a sneaker, or a shark eating an ice cream cone.”

2. Use the right tools
Forgo the cheap tourist shop plastic bucket and shovel set. “You definitely need proper tools to get a good result: A solid shovel, a few trowels – not too big – and a wall painting brush to clean your sculpture,” says Dutherage. “You’ll also need buckets.”

Think big painter’s buckets, he says, used to make what’s essentially “sand mud” consisting of lots of water and sand. Which leads to the next tip ...

3. Create a form mold
Consider this the secret to head-turning sand sculptures. Whether it’s a 10-foot-tall wooden box with sides that come off, or a plastic bucket with the bottom cut out, a “form mold” is an open-top vessel used to hold packed sand and water to create a carve-able structure.

“It’s a very useful thing to have in order to get a solid block, and to go high,” says Dutherage. “If you are a handyman, you can build your own forms. But a quick solution is to take a bucket, no matter what size, and cut out the bottom. Then put that bucket upside down on the sand. Add a few inches of sand, some water, mix with your trowel and compact that layer. Repeat until the bucket is full. Then gently pull the bucket up and surprise! You will get a nice block of sand ready for a sandcastle full of windows, arches, and gates.”

The compacted layers of sand and water almost act as cement, creating a sturdy base for carving. Dutherage says folks can easily repeat the form mold process to create multiple bases, either side by side or stacked.

4. Use plenty of water, for the sculpture and yourself
Benoit recommends adding even more water during the sculpting process.

“Bring a plant sprayer,” he says. “Sand needs to be wet to be sculptable.”

Even rain during sand sculpture building isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that rain will destroy a sand sculpture,” says Waterman. “While this is possible, most often it just textures the surface.”

Water is also essential for the sculptor, as staying hydrated is key during the process, Waterman adds.

Texas SandFest

Texas SandFest

"The Prospector" took first place in the 2023 Texas SandFest People's Choice category

5. Practice, Practice, Practice
“The biggest misconception is that I do anything different than anybody who does it only for the first time,” says Koet, who’s been sculpting sand for 25 years. “Sure, I bring more and bigger tools and I spend much more time shoveling the sand high and mixing it with water. But there is no magic other than years of practice.”

Waterman, who admits sand sculpting has taken over his life, competes in up to 10 contests a year and also creates sculptures for exhibits and corporate commissions.

“Tricks and tips will only get a person so far,” he says. “But ultimately practice and putting the time in will get them a whole lot further.”

Benoit agrees. “Making a sand sculpture requires a lot of work and the more you practice, the better you will get,” he says. “But first of all, you have to enjoy the fun of it.”