44 Reasons to Love Waco

By Introduction by Emily Ober; By Avery Ballmann, Susan Bean Aycock, Robert Darden, Gretchen Eichenberg, Breanne Johnson, Michelle Geoffroy Johnson, Anna Mitchael, Skylla Mumana, Emily Ober, Brittany Ross and Kevin Tankersley

In no particular order

If there’s one thing to love about Waco, it’s the people. These friendly, creative, bright people that bring community to Waco.

It never ceases to fail that, when put on the spot and asked what my favorite anything is, I draw a blank. It’s like I’ve suddenly forgotten the things that matter to me. The very same thing happened when it was time to list out all the reasons why I love Waco. I sat at my desk and my mind was blank. I kept thinking that I don’t know anyone beyond my little bubble. But as I thought more about it, I realized that since working at the WACOAN, my bubble has grown. And so I started writing. About all the fun events I discovered through editing our weekly Waco Weekend, the new dishes I got to sample and share on our social media, and most importantly, the people I’ve met that have impacted my life.

Every year we try to highlight as many reasons to love Waco as we can, but even as we pack in 44 reasons this year, it always feels like it’s never enough. By the time I gathered all the submissions sent in by contributors and staff, we had a long list of people, places, dishes and events to choose from. And boy was it quite the endeavor.

Then came the task of photographing all of these reasons why we love the city of Waco. Thankfully we have three amazing photographers and staff who document past events that we couldn’t exactly schedule. This issue reflects their creative genius and hard work.

Whether you want to try a new place to take the kids for dinner or need a good book recommendation or want to change up your weekend routine with something out of your ordinary, we hope that the 2024 reasons to love Waco will urge you to let your bubble grow.

1 Gail LaBrush at Shipley Do-Nuts: If you’ve been to Shipley Do-Nuts in the Crossroads West Shopping Center anytime since 1995, chances are likely that you’ve been greeted by Gail LaBrush, who just started her 30th year working at the shop. At a proud 82 years of age, she starts her shift at 7:30 a.m., but for about 14 years, she would get to work at 3 or 3:30 in the morning. Gail was born in Milwaukee and has been in Waco since 1974. “On July 15, it will be 50 years that I’ve been here,” she said. Before joining Shipley, she and her husband, Al, ran Hewitt Automotive. Al died in 2010. Gail has two daughters and three grandchildren, all who live in the Waco area. She said she loves her customers, her co-workers and her bosses. She doesn’t mind getting to work early and greeting those customers with a big smile. “It’s Jesus in me that you’re seeing. It’s not me. I cannot take credit for it. It’s Jesus in me that people are seeing,” she said. — Kevin Tankersley

2 Shipley Do-Nuts letter donuts: Donuts are a fan fav in my home, and Shipley’s is our go-to. It’s such a fun birthday surprise to wake up to donuts saying, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” and getting to pick out which letters you’ll eat first. My daughter’s birthday is coming up, and we’ve already been discussing which flavor and color of sprinkles she’ll be getting. — Brittany Ross

3 Plays at the Waco Civic Theatre: One of my favorite ways to spend my evening is at Waco Civic Theatre. It offers well-produced, captivating plays. During the season I try to catch a few shows, and I’m never disappointed. They have a vibrant and talented cast of actors who bring the plays to life. One of my favorites was “Silent Sky,” and Jamie Coblentz’s performance has stuck with me since. — Emily Ober

4 Bonnie’s Greenhouse: In 2020, my husband had a video go viral of him sneaking in houseplants to our already huge houseplant collection. Many people asked us where we get our favorites from and most of them came from Bonnie’s Greenhouse. They have an incredible selection and we love going as a family to pick new ones. — Breanne Johnson

5 Kai Jackson at Fabled Bookshop & Cafe: Kai Jackson works hard to make dreams come true. As the communications manager at Fabled, she’s behind the many events the bookshop offers, and she has helped create some of my best memories from the past year. From midnight book releases to author talks to even a midnight ball, Kai has gone above and beyond, and she is always checking in on guests. Her work never seems to end. Shoutout to the entire staff at Fabled who are always welcoming and kind: Y’all have made this little bookshop feel like home. — Emily Ober

6 Staff Picks at Fabled: Maybe it’s dramatic, but I’ve started to think of the handwritten Staff Picks at Fabled as flags of defiance in our algorithmically programmed world. It’s going to take drama and flag-waving and supporting things like handwritten Staff Picks to stand up to the beast. Because while there is a certain comfort in settling into socks that Amazon guessed I would like based on previous purchases, there are better things in the world than comfort. Surprise. Discovery. Growth. All of which happen when I peruse the Staff Picks only to find a title I might never have chosen otherwise, but then love and thrive with and read under the covers until the sun comes up. No algorithm is ever going to love you so good, and that’s not drama, it’s fact. — Anna Mitchael

7 Armstrong-Browning Library and Museum: I was introduced to the Armstrong-Browning Library and Museum on the Baylor campus by my son David, to get out of the house during the pandemic. It’s the largest collection of letters and mementoes by married poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, housed in a library whose creation was spearheaded by Dr. Andrew Armstrong, chairman of the English Department at Baylor from 1912-1952, and his wife, Mary Maxwell Armstrong. I’m not much of a poetry buff, but it’s a world-class, beautiful space to spend some reflective moments in. The stained glass windows around the outside of Leddy-Jones Research Hall and Hankamer Treasure Room illustrate lines from the poets’ works, and the light and peaceful atmosphere is incredible.
It’s as spiritual a place as any church. — Susan Bean Aycock

8 For Keeps Coffee: This is my place to hold a business conversation or just meet a friend. My go-to order is an oat milk latte — hot in cold weather and iced in the summer. They also have great pastries, including a pumpkin cream cheese muffin that’s to die for, and unique peppermint scones during the winter holidays. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret, as it’s often full of people working on their laptops, but it’s never really noisy even when full (which it is at peak times). The semi-enclosed booths are a real score when you can get one, but there’s also a bar-height counter to work solo, indoor tables, a couch seating area and even a few outdoor tables. It’s my favorite place to meet for an article interview. The location on Bosque near 34th is convenient to most everyone. In a town rife with hip coffee shops, this one really stands out. — Susan Bean Aycock

9 Mint chocolate chip ice cream from Splendid Oaks Chocolates & Ice Cream: Hands down, mint chocolate chip is always my favorite flavor. Splendid Oaks Woodway’s mint chocolate chip ice cream has to be one of my top contenders. It’s giving me Andes Mints vibes, and I am here for it. — Brittany Ross

10 Taking my dogs to the Waco Downtown Farmers Market: The only thing better than picking up the freshest produce and the best salsa around at the farmers market is doing so with my pups. My dogs go ham whenever the words “farmers market” are uttered, and I’m given the saddest puppy dog eyes when it’s too rainy or hot to take them along. My Australian shepherd, Livvie, loves the excitement of all the new people and smells, and my teacup Yorkie, Bruin, enjoys his rides in the red wagon when the market is too busy for him to navigate. It’s definitely a perfect Saturday morning when we go to the market. —Emily Ober

11 Eastside Revival Eatery: Waco’s friendliest restaurant continues to be the sunny, upbeat Eastside Revival Eatery. Despite their extensive (and tempting) menu, we find ourselves returning to the same two items. I go for their take on the classic BLT sandwich, the PTL, but with a fried egg. And Mary swears their Eve salad (sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin seeds, queso fresco and kale with chicken) is the best salad in Waco. Period. — Bob Darden

12 Oyster nachos from Fish City Grill: Oyster nachos might sound like the most bizarre combo, but trust me on this one. The chips are topped with a fried oyster, chipotle tartar sauce and fresh pico de gallo, and it’s one of the best dishes around town. — Emily Ober

13 Expressions Dance Studio: This past summer my daughter started her first dance class, and we have loved every minute. It’s a great way for her to meet new friends, get some energy out and have fun, while I meet some new friends myself and get to know them while watching our kiddos. We’re approaching our first recital, and I can’t wait to see them dance their little hearts out. — Brittany Ross

14 Bluebonnet Latte from Hotel 1928: Not too sweet, with a just-right hint of something — I’m not sure what. But the name got me, and I was in love instantly. — Michelle Geoffroy Johnson

15 Bertie’s on the Rooftop: Imagine seeing the entire city (well, most of it) while having a drink and enjoying great company. Bertie’s is adorable, charming, jazzy and comfortable — everything you want a rooftop lounge to be. It’s the perfect place for a cocktail with Waco itself as the backdrop. — Michelle Geoffroy Johnson

16 Patrick Pullen at H-E-B Wooded Acres: Running into the grocery store on a busy day can seem like a chore — and we’re not always in the mood for shopping, making small talk or dealing with the rising cost of food. But when you pass Patrick Pullen in the H-E-B Deli, all the hurry and stress fades away. “The thing I love about my job is being able to help someone,” Patrick said. Whether he’s helping someone with their deli order or just greeting passersby, Patrick always has a smile on his face and an uplifting word. “I was raised to put myself last,” Patrick said. “I was raised to put God first and put others in between, so I don’t have time to worry about other things except providing service. Showing other people the same love God is showing me — that motivates me even more.” It may seem like Patrick never has a bad day, but he said it’s a choice. “I choose not to worry about what I can’t control,” he said. “I literally put it in the Father’s hands.” Patrick’s wife of 23 years and his four children — ages 20, 18, 16 and 14 — are his pride and joy. His faith, he said, is what makes everything work. There’s no doubt Patrick is going to show up for you at the deli counter, every single time. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “Could be family, a friend, a stranger. It may be somebody that we’re not on the same page. I’m doing what I’m doing to glorify God. So I look at individuals as He would and say, ‘Let me encourage you. Let me at least pray for you.’” — Gretchen Eichenberg

17 Free Comic Book Day at Bankston’s Comics and Collectibles: Since 2015, I have made it a tradition to visit Bankston’s on the first Saturday in May for Free Comic Book Day. They make it a huge event, with several bounce houses for kids, a DJ and costumes everywhere. It’s always a great Saturday spent with friends. — Emily Ober

18 A Taste of Laos: We’ve tried a pretty wide variety of dishes at A Taste of Laos. On our first visit we had fish, and since then we’ve eaten ribs, pork belly and a few other things, all of them delicious. But the one constant is the chicken egg rolls. An order consists of six rolls, still hot and crispy from the fryer, and two small containers of sweet and sour sauce. Paired with an entrée, it’s a perfect meal for the two of us. And if you put the address for A Taste of Laos into your phone, the maps app is going to take you to a truck stop. You’re in the right place. A Taste of Laos shares a building right off the I-35 access road with a gas station. Don’t be offput by the location. You’re going to get an excellent meal. — Kevin Tankersley

19 Mill-King Market & Creamery: Our family loves taking drives out to Mill-King in McGregor to purchase milk and shop the market. I love that Waco has so many opportunities to get fresh ingredients. Not to mention, a lot of my favorite coffee shops in town use their milk to make their drinks even tastier. — Breanne Johnson

20 Cameron Park Zoo aquarium: There’s something so incredibly calming about the aquarium at Cameron Park Zoo. When I visit, one of my favorite things to do is just sit by the aquarium and watch the fish in the giant tank. The massive corals that provide the home to these marine animals are a peaceful backdrop for the colorful fish swimming about. But my favorite tank is the one on the other side, where three lionfish reside in their Greek-themed environment. I love spotting their companions, including the scorpionfish that hides among the rocks. — Emily Ober

21 Union Grove’s indoor turfed area: Union Grove seems to have it all. I love grabbing lunch and letting the kids run around the indoor turf area. There’s tons of seating and lots of great food and drink options. Something for everyone! — Brittany Ross

22 Garlic naan and samosas from Saffron: If you’re on the lookout for good Indian food, check out Saffron. I discovered this gem with a group of friends, and the garlic naan and chicken samosas became an instant favorite. The rich flavors and spices of the samosas in the flaky dough is so good, it could be your whole meal, or just an appetizer before indulging in one of the other savory, spicy dishes. — Emily Ober

23 Grocery: We’re always on the lookout for great vintage/thrift/second-hand stores, and one of the newest in Waco to fall into that category is Grocery, at 729 Washington Avenue. The store has a minimalist look to it. It’s not overcrowded, with every shelf crammed full of stuff. There are a few racks with vintage clothes at the front of the space, furniture in the back and accessories throughout. Lots of cool art adorns the walls. Grocery has become one of our favorite downtown destinations. — Kevin Tankersley

24 Brian Boyd and Butterbean: Brian Boyd is a retired State Farm Agent, now nature and wildlife photographer. Brian posts his stunning nature photography on his social media and his current muse is Butterbean, a painted bunting. Last year, every day the bunting would come and find Boyd’s car and come up to it and let himself be photographed. His followers, myself included, would follow along on the daily adventures of locating the sweet beautiful bird until it migrated south for the winter. Much to everyone’s delight, Butterbean, as Boyd affectionately calls the red, green, yellow and blue bird, came back early May in the same spot and flew right up to Boyd to be photographed again this year. An even sweeter surprise was several weeks into May Butterbean has a new friend: a perfectly darling female bunting making her nest. You will surely bet many of Wacoans are following this love story! — Michelle Geoffroy Johnson

25 Whisky tasting at Balcones Distillery: Balcones has a wide assortment of uniquely flavored whiskies that they craft with care. When it’s impossible to choose one, I like to get a flight and do a tasting so
I can appreciate all the work that’s gone into the whisky. — Emily Ober

26 Waco Independent Film Festival: I attended my first-ever film festival in 2016 at the Austin Film Festival, and I fell in love. Then a year later the Deep in the Heart Film Festival (now the Waco Independent Film Festival) premiered in Waco. I spent three days seated in front of a screen, absorbing incredible films by indie filmmakers who made up for lack of budget with creativity and perseverance. I still consider “Into the Who Knows!” as one of my favorite films, and I’ll never forget director Micah Barber taking the stage after the screening with the little Felix plushie featured in the film. 2024 will mark the eighth year of indie films, and it keeps getting better. — Emily Ober

27 Lake Waco Dam: With the start of each new year I like to start new traditions. I try to make them doable so we I keep it up, year after year. On New Years Day 2023, Abby and I started a new ritual: Walk the Lake Waco Dam Bridge on New Year’s Day, with the hope of trying to walk it every Sunday. The every-Sunday part didn’t happen, but we have stuck to the New Year’s Day tradition. The Dam Bridge is about five miles, from the parking lot to the end and back. It has been eye-opening to see the changes in the lake from year to year. And it gives us a time to reflect on the past year and think about what’s in store for the new one. We will be there on January 1, 2025. Maybe we’ll see you! — Kevin Tankersley

28 S.O.S. Cotton Candy: S.O.S. Cotton Candy is such a delightful little shop. The iridescent pink tiles, rows of cotton candy tubs and the counter to watch them make it right there is such a fun little treat. My personal favorite is marshmallow on the inside and pink vanilla on the outside. Yum! — Brittany Ross

29 Mornings at Street Dog Cafe: As I have always loved Revival Eastside Eatery, their sister cafe, Street Dog, wasn’t a hard sell for me to try. In fact, when a friend mentioned meeting there for coffee, I was disappointed I hadn’t known sooner that it was open. The space is everything you would want from a place located just outside the hustle and bustle of downtown. One beat slower, with bistro tables sized for plates of baked oatmeal with friends or a morning of solo reading or work, it’s the start to the day that dreams are made of. — Anna Mitchael

30 Another Season Consignments: They carry high-end women’s clothing (plus small sections of men’s clothes and home decor) that’s ever-rotating and always in-season. I was able to buy a wardrobe of decent clothes on a tight budget after two years of Covid yoga pants, and I still get my “nice” clothes there, which for me is anything that’s not a T-shirt and jeans. My holiday outfit this year was a cheetah-print sweater duster with cashmere cuffs I snagged for $18 over a black silk sweater that was $15. I’ve bought $12 Calvin Klein jeans and lots of Chico’s and Loft blouses for an average of $15 each. I appreciate how well-organized their selection is — by color and size and some by label. When I was furnishing my house, I even bought a wood entertainment center that I painted and distressed and now use as a kitchen pantry. — Susan Bean Aycock

31 Live music at Backyard Bar Stage and Grill: I went to my first concert at the Backyard a few weeks back, and I loved it. Since then I’ve been going to shows as often as I can. Its outdoor concert stage, upstairs outdoor seating and family-friendly courtyard make this a perfect spot to grab a cool drink and watch a great show. — Skylla Mumana

32 Dr. Mona Choucair: We were thrilled last summer when we learned that our daughter, Sophie Tankersley, would be living in South Russell Hall during her first year at Baylor University. And one of the reasons
for our excitement was because of Dr. Mona Choucair, who is the faculty-in-residence at South Russell. Baylor has about 15 faculty members who live in apartments in the dorms and residential communities across campus. I met Mona a dozen or so years ago when we — along with Dr. Jacquelyn Duke, who teaches biology — were asked to speak one summer at the orientation of new faculty members at Baylor. Mona teaches in both the English department and the School of Education, and her dedication to and love for her students comes across in so many ways, which is why we knew Sophie was going to be in good hands in her new Baylor home. — Kevin Tankersley

33 Waco Mammoth National Monument gift shop: Of course, after visiting the site, I took two out-of-town girlfriends there this spring, and after an awesome tour with a knowledgeable guide, we hit the gift shop for a good half hour. We three longtime friends since junior high (all named Susan!) always buy matching T-shirts on our annual outings, and this year we all got Mammoth Site shirts. There are several designs, though we had to settle for different colors. Dallas and Houston Susans bought their respective new nephews little stuffed mammoths, along with several cool geodes and rocks. They also have interesting books for both adults and kids. The other two Susans didn’t even know that Waco is the site of the only known preserved nursery herd of mammoth females and young in the world. I proudly wear my T-shirt to advertise it. — Susan Bean Aycock

34 Baylor basketball games: As someone who grew up playing basketball, I’ve always had a deep love for the sport, so coming to a Big 12 school was very exciting for me. I really enjoy watching both our men’s and women’s teams play in the new Foster Pavilion. — Skylla Mumana

35 Sunny Sip Lemonade from Pop’s Lemonade & Tea Company: The perfect summer treat. Once summer rolls around
I get into a big citrus kick, and this lemonade with a splash of orange and cream definitely hits the spot. You really can’t go wrong with any of the lemonades on their menu, with flavors ranging from a classic strawberry lemonade to more exotic options, like blackberry cinnamon or raspberry rosemary. The icing on the cake is their sendoff, “See Ya Later Lemonader.” — Brittany Ross

36 Milky Way from Cha Community: When I get this vibrant orange drink in my hands, I can’t help but inhale it in 10 minutes. A Milky Way is my go-to drink when I’m looking for something other than coffee because it is a Thai Milk tea. Its creamy, slightly spiced flavor is the perfect drink if you’re looking to dip your toes into tea and boba beverages. Since Cha Community is very customizable when it comes to drinks, the way I prefer to order this tea is 75% sweetness with no boba. — Avery Ballmann

37 Fundraising dinners around town: Fish fries, BBQ dinners, tamales plates, spaghetti dinners and sausage links. Nearly every Saturday of the year some charitable organization fries up a mess of perch, hand rolls hundreds of tamales, smokes tons of barbecue and ladles plates of spaghetti in VFW halls, SPJST halls, Catholic and Lutheran churches and kid sports leagues … and every single one of them is great food at a great price for a great cause. — Bob Darden

38 Homestead Fair: My family and I went this past year, and we made soap, pinch pots and caramel apples, and we even rode a horse. The food was delicious, and the activities were great for all ages. We will be going back, year after year. — Brittany Ross

39 Waco Libraries and librarians: I love libraries. They’re the “People’s University.” In colleges and universities they’re the only division that everybody trusts — they’re like Switzerland in the United Nations. Waco is blessed with a host of wonderful, helpful, resourceful librarians, and there is no way to name/list them all. But just as representative examples of the whole, let me give shout-outs to research librarians Sean Sutcliffe at Waco-McLennan County Library’s downtown location and Ethel Walton at Baylor’s Moody Memorial Library. — Bob Darden

40 Baylor Sing: My senior year at Baylor was the first time I had ever seen Sing. My friends were performing in it, so I was able to snag a ticket at the last minute. It was such an electric production — multiple student groups from Baylor, battling it out through song and dance to come out on top. — Skylla Mumana

41 Waco Community Choir: Boy can these people SING! Waco Community Choir has the most beautiful voices I have ever heard, and they are so active in our community. Whether they are performing at a local event or at my church, they are always so joyful. I sort of have become a groupie for the choir, even though they probably don’t know who I am. I genuinely enjoy their singing so much that I perk up whenever I see that they will be performing. You truly can’t be sad or mad when you’re in their presence. — Avery Ballmann

42 HOT Dog Park: On a sunny Saturday morning it is fun to take my dog, Maggie, and her friend, Argy, to the dog park off of MLK Boulevard, a little past Lakeshore Drive. What I love about the park is the vastness of the area, with the slight movement to the landscape. Benches here and there provide a place for me to sit and enjoy while Maggie explores. I love seeing all the breeds of dogs, and it is great to see how they all get along. — Michelle Geoffroy Johnson

43 Eylan Price, server at the Red Herring: My husband and I don’t get many date nights out but when we do we go to the Red Herring at Hotel Herringbone and cross our fingers that we will have Eylan! He is incredibly personable, friendly and attentive making our night even more enjoyable. — Breanne Johnson

44 James Chavez, server at the Red Herring: “You’ll never work a day in your life if you like what you do.” That’s the motto James Chavez, server at the Red Herring, lives by, and if he’s ever taken your order, you know he means it. Chavez relishes in sharing his insights on the restaurant’s menu and just about anything going on in the area.
“I really enjoy the hospitality and talking with people,” he said. “This job has allowed me not only to give service, but also to enjoy genuine interactions with our guests.” The University High School graduate is currently studying robotics and industrial controls at Texas State Technical College, and he’s got big goals. “My dream job would be to work at Nintendo of America or with Cinemark within their projection systems.” And he’s got the work-school-life thing all figured out. “I was really fortunate to obtain this job and also go to school at the same time,” he said. “I like what I do at work, and I like learning, so I hope to be able to continue both.” When the Red Herring had its grand opening in March, Chavez was hired as a host and busser, but quickly worked his way up to server, and he credits his team for recognizing his potential. “I look up to my management and mentors here,” he said. “They noticed my hard work and talent, and that feels great.” On your next visit ask to be seated in James’ section. You’ll leave feeling like the future is in good hands.
— Gretchen Eichenberg