Starlight Theatre, Terlingua chili, and high society

Terlingua is a town where you can feel like a local if you’ve just returned from a guided canoeing trip, because you can hang out with your guides, who know everyone. We missed being on the river, alone with the stars and the riffles. But town had its social intensity, cluttered with strangers, including the one with a huge black SUV who thought I should not park in the parking spot next to him.

We began with dinner at the Starlight Theatre. It was an abandoned movie theater, a place where the locals hung out as the tourism business in the Big Bend area began to pick up, or so the history on the menu says. The menu also says that it began as the Chisos Movie Theater, constructed for mercury mining in the 1930s. It was abandoned in the late 1940s, ultimately causing the roof to be sold as scrap. In the 1960s it became an outdoor gathering place, music and theater venue, and dance hall. In 1967 they held the first Terlingua World Championship Chili Cook-Off here.

Only in 1991 did the Starlight Theatre get its roof back and become a restaurant, the kind where the guacamole is not as good as most and young men order the one pound burger. Philip and I ordered the chili. It had no beans, as Texans like it. It did not have any particular depth to the spices either, but its salty greasiness was good, somehow. Here is a typical recipe for that Texas chili. The spice comes from ancho chilis, which are not very hot, and Tabasco, which is from Louisiana, more Cajun than Mexican. I would skip the Tabasco in favor of dried, smoked jalapeños, or chipotles. I would also skip the meat in favor of black or pinto beans, and add a green pepper. I’ll post my recipe sometime.

The Starlight Theatre was packed, mostly with tourists like us, but there were some locals around the bar, enjoying the live country duo. Our guide, Patrick, showed up as we were finishing. He told us that Tony was with the other couple of tourists at another bar a mile or so down the road, la Kiva. We suddenly had that feeling of not being at the right place, not being with our group, that I can’t much remember since college. So we skeetered out to the other bar, though we had no need of more food or drink.

La Kiva was in the round, set down a few steps, a lovely building designed and built by Gilbert Felts in 1980. Tony was at the bar, but Kyle and Lindsey had left. The others did a round of shots – tequila and whiskey, called piss. We sat at a table, awkwardly meeting a group of guides, then went to the next room where there was an open mike.

Only it turned out that room was actually outside. The singing was not as good as on the river, until Raph took up his ukulele and began to improvise. The next night we would be back in Houston, with West Texas only in our memories.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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One Response to Starlight Theatre, Terlingua chili, and high society

  1. amy chien says:

    Looks like a lot of fun! I will have to convince the husband to go some time! Thanks for telling us about it!

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