44 Reasons to Love Waco

By Cecy Ayala, Gretchen Eichenberg, Heather Garcia, Michelle Johnson, Robert Johnson, Rachel Love, Anna Mitchael, Brittany Ross and Kathleen Seaman

Pictured: Photos by Cecy Ayala, Amy Traweek, Hope Valasco, Robert Johnson, Brittany Ross and Kathleen Seaman
And provided by Baylor Athletics

We all have our reasons for why we call Waco home. Maybe a job opportunity brought you here, or you came to get an education and have never left (guilty!). It could be you were just itching to knock down a wall and make your own shiplap discovery in the great state of Texas, or perhaps you’ve always called this little city home.

I don’t know what drew you here, but I do know that the longer you’re here, the stronger the pull. It might start with a favorite dish at a local restaurant. Then you find a park or a walking trail that you claim as your own. Before you know it, you’ve made friends with a local shop owner and someone in your circle is starting an important nonprofit that you can’t wait to support. And one day you realize these are your people, this is your place.

Every year we collect from our contributors their reasons to love Waco. I always enjoy reading what people send in, the new things they’ve discovered and the old things they’ve learned to appreciate. This year we present to you, in no particular order, 44 reasons to love Waco. May this list remind you why you love our city and inspire you to explore new places you’ve never been before. To view lists from previous years, visit lovewaco.com.

1. Donut Holes at Nightlight Donuts & Coffee

Do yourself a favor and get a bag of donut holes from Nightlight. They’re really more like delicious, light, flaky donut clusters than holes. — Kathleen Seaman

2. Jack Smith

Jack Smith contributed 231 “Random Thoughts While Driving in Waco” columns to this magazine. I know this because Jack included the number of the column each month when naming the file of the Microsoft Word documents.

Speaking of talent, I don’t possess any. I realized this a while ago. I can do a few things pretty well, but nothing that would deserve that designation. What I learned though was the closest thing I had to talent was recognizing talent in others.

I served a brief tenure with the Rotary Club of Waco (attendance problems led to my dismissal), and this fella named Jack Smith would get up to the microphone at the beginning of each meeting and serve up the week’s news, filled with levity. I don’t think he ever heard crickets up there. Always laughter. I thought at the time, “I wonder if this guy can write?”

Well, it turns out not only could he write, but that was his occupation with his business, WordSmith Advertising. He also was a political adviser.

My favorite tagline of his, which he wrote for Uncle Dan’s: “Barbecue as tender as a mother’s love.” Just fantastic.

So I asked him to contribute to the Wacoan, which he did for 19.25 years. He wrote some real winners during that time. We actually had a reader who gauged the success of each issue by the strength of Jack’s column. This reader would contact me each month after picking up the magazine and give me a report, “Jack had some of the worst puns in his column I’ve ever read.” And so that’s how it’d go. If Jack killed, as they say in the entertainment business, the magazine as a whole was a success. Otherwise? A complete, utter failure.

I personally took Jack’s photo inside his vehicle for the column, one which ran for a good number of years until we changed things up with a redesign
of the magazine.

Jack was a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and former military helicopter pilot, having served in the Vietnam War. I once wrote him asking if it was true that flying a helicopter, and managing the foot pedals, was like trying to keep balance on a couple of greasy basketballs. He never responded, probably for good reason.

We used to have a Christmas party at our house for members of our staff and contributors to the magazine. It was a fun deal. Jack and his wife, Vicki, made it to just about every one of those. At the first party, I greeted both of them at the door and asked what they’d like to drink. Jack said he’d like a Coke. Vicki said orange juice. I poured the drinks for them, and we had a good time catching up on our families and other topics. Knowing Jack’s affinity for all things UT, especially its football program, I pulled out a special glass at each of those parties, just for him. It was a commemorative glass from either the Longhorns’ 1963 or 1969 national championship seasons, both of which they went undefeated. That brought a smile to his face each time.

Jack brought smiles and laughter to a lot of people over the years, and we’ll miss him dearly. — Robert Johnson

3. Zeke at Cameron Park Zoo

Who can resist a baby giraffe? Zeke, born in January of this year, is just the cutest. The giraffes have always been one of my favorite exhibits at the zoo, but now it’s the first place I head to when we get there. — Brittany Ross

4.Lalo’s Coffee and Pastries

Lalo’s offers all the typical coffee drinks but adds variety to the menu with Horchata, available with or without a shot of espresso; Abuelita, a sort of Mexican hot chocolate; Abuelita Frappuccino; and other beverages not easily found elsewhere in town. In the pastry case, you’ll find cupcakes, small cakes and Mexican sweets like pan dulce. Lalo’s is located at 1500 Colcord Avenue. — Abby & Kevin Tankersley

5. Scott Drew

Humble. Driven. Proud. God-centered. This is how people describe Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew, and it’s evident when you watch the interviews with him. Even if his team didn’t bring home that trophy for Waco, people would still say the same thing about him. Wow! What an example for Waco, Baylor and the young men he led to be the national champions. — Michelle Johnson

6. Pit Viper at One Day Bar

I’m not sure if the creator of this fantastic craft cocktail would appreciate this description, but the Pit Viper is like a super-concentrated, top-shelf margarita. That’s a compliment in my book! Reposado Tequila shaken with fresh pineapple and lime juices, green chili liqueur, Cointreau and simple syrup creates a refreshing, not-too-sweet and potent cocktail that is served over a large ice cube. Take it out on the patio and it’s the perfect after 5 o’clock drink. One Day has a long list of craft cocktails and coffee drinks with something to suit every taste — and it’s open just about all day, every day. The decor is urban chic and super swaggy with red leather booth seating and great lighting. One Day is located at 618 Columbus Avenue. — Gretchen Eichenberg

7. Woodway Park

This park on Lake Waco is a beautiful place for playing disc golf, fishing, having picnics or just hanging out. We enjoy exploring the trails. It’s definitely one of the most peaceful places to visit in Waco. — Cecy Ayala

8. Doris Miller Memorial

This important installation, honoring African American WWII hero and Waco native Doris Miller, is worth visiting any time of day. However, I recommend timing your arrival right about when the sun is dipping behind the trees. As the sky darkens, you’ll notice the lights illuminating the ship from below. Make your way along the paved path around the memorial and you’ll hear the trickling of the water feature. It’s such a beautiful, serene scene that you might forget for a moment you’re standing just across the Brazos River from downtown and a mere mile from the bustling I-35 traffic. — Heather Garcia

9. Chicken Fried Steak at Guess Family Barbecue

Maybe it’s the fact that you can only get it on Thursdays that makes this chicken fried steak completely irresistible. But I mean, who needs chicken fried steak more than once a week, right? Actually, catching it once a month would probably suffice, but when the craving hits, you feel like you have to run (don’t walk) and get it — because it goes fast. A tender piece of cube steak is peppered and doused in a buttermilk batter, deep fried — and covered in a cream gravy that’s made with bacon fat to give it flavor. With a side of fries, this is a special chicken fried steak experience and beats out some of the places I once considered unbeatable. — Gretchen Eichenberg

10. Thomas Ellis, Owner of Waco Axe Co.

We went to Waco Axe Co. on a whim for a family fun day last fall and had a blast. Thomas helped show us the ropes on throwing techniques. He made it fun for everyone and even showed us how to do some trick shots. Not to brag, but I did pretty decent for a first-time thrower. — Brittany Ross

11. Yaki

You know you’ve found a good spot when you’re planning the next time you can visit before you’ve even finished your lunch. Yaki (short for Texas Teriyaki) is basic, but not plain, and that’s the draw. They layer slaw, meat or veggies, rice and a sauce of your choice into a takeout dish of deliciousness. The only hard decision you have to make is which picnic table you will sit at. So y’all, go get yourself some yaki. — Anna Mitchael

12. Flips Gymnastics

Last fall we enrolled our 5-year-old in a class at Flips Gymnastics. We had taken our girls to a few of the monthly free play times that were offered pre-pandemic and knew the staff was friendly and had heard good recommendations. Abigail loves her teachers — Mrs. Stephanie and Mr. Dale (the owners) and Miss Reise — and has really grown in her confidence to try new things and push herself physically in ways she didn’t before. Even the youngest kids get to practice on all the apparatuses, whether it’s balance beams, bars, rings or trampolines. And the staff has been very intentional this year with sanitizing, masks and social distancing, which we really appreciate. — Heather Garcia

13. Bluebonnet fields at Whitehall Park

Growing up in the great state of Texas, I’ve taken bluebonnet pictures a time or two. White Hall Park is my favorite photo op spot because it’s never crowded, there’s always a good amount of bluebonnets, and it seems a little safer than stopping on the side of Highway 6 for “that good patch of bluebonnets.” — Brittany Ross

14. Cracker Roll at Wako Roll

For the person who wants to like sushi but doesn’t want to eat raw fish, the Cracker Roll is perfect. It’s a combo of all my favorites: tempura shrimp, cream cheese and avocado, plus some spicy crunchies on top. — Kathleen Seaman

15. Xristo’s Cafe

I’m very picky about my gyros, and Xristo’s beef & lamb gyro is unmatched. Xristo’s is family-owned, and I’ve come to love all the familiar faces there. — Rachel Love

16. Splash Pad at Chapel Park

This is a go-to spot for us when the weather starts warming up. My daughter loves running from one sprinkler to another while they switch on and off. It’s a great way to cool down and burn off some energy. — Brittany Ross

17. Paul Sadosky, Owner of Valvoline Express Care

You’ve probably driven by the 1948 Plymouth, parked on North Valley Mills Drive, a thousand times. While it’s a real eye-catcher, the best part about taking your car to Valvoline Express Care is the great service you’ll get from owner-operator Paul Sadosky and his team of professionals. He runs a steady business but always has time to get me in for a speedy oil change and can also handle light mechanic work. Paul shoots straight, and I have every confidence that my Tahoe is in good hands when it’s with him. I love that his staff recognizes me when I drive up (hopefully that’s a good thing!). Paul’s my go-to whether I’m getting my car ready for a road trip or just getting an inspection. — Gretchen Eichenberg

18. Iced Dirty Horchata at KurbSide Coffee in Union Hall

I’ll be first to admit I like a lot of cream in my coffee. As my grandmother would say, enough to make it a “pretty color.” The creamier, the better. This drink is the perfect combination of espresso, cinnamon and cream (or rice milk). You can order it hot or iced, but my personal preference is iced, especially getting into the hotter season. — Brittany Ross

19. Waffle Chic

I love breakfast, and Waffle Chic has been one of my favorite places to eat since Shamica Evans first started her business. I crave these waffles even at night! The Bacon, Egg, Avocado Chic is my go-to, but seasonal flavors like Pumpkin Spice Cream Cheese are tasty too. On days when you can’t decide, she even has a “split decision” option so you can get the best of both worlds. — Cecy Ayala

20. Magnolia’s Whiffle Ballfield

The cutest little ballpark in town is downtown. Yep, at the Magnolia Silos. Take your entire family and play — seriously! Enjoy yourself like you are a kid again. Equipped with plastic bats, whiffle balls and a scoreboard, this is free entertainment. The choice is yours if you want to spend money. I have walked by this charming ballfield (that connects the old market to the new) from the development stages until now, and it is darling, from the concession stand and mini food trucks to the stands behind home plate. I dare you not to participate, even if you are only people watching. — Michelle Johnson

21. Chicken Flautas from Huaco Eatery

I’m a big fan of Mexican cuisine. In fact, it’s probably my favorite. I recently met some friends at Union Hall for dinner and decided to order from Huaco Eatery. Usually I’m more of an enchilada or quesadilla kind of girl, but the woman working the counter told me the chicken flautas were their bestseller, so I figured, why not? The verdict: Wow! So good. They were stuffed with the perfect amount of marinated shredded chicken, topped with pickled onions, pico do gallo, guacamole and sour cream drizzle. To make them even better, they were served with a side of queso for dipping. — Brittany Ross

22. Brian Boyd

Brian Boyd’s nature photography is, well, beautiful! He captures creatures that dwell in Waco that we don’t often see up close. He started years ago by documenting the bald eagles at Lake Waco. Now you can scroll through his photos (@brianboydphoto on Instagram) to see in addition to the eagles, woodpeckers, hawks, dragonflies and more. My recent favorite is a shot of three great horned owlets in their nest. So darn cute. Thank you, Brian, for sharing your photos of these majestic animals; they make for perfect conversation starters. — Michelle Johnson

23. Joel & Sandy Delaney, co-owners of Underground Performance Gym

I was playing tennis one day last summer when this whippersnapper ripped a backhand to the other side of the court. I darted in that direction and yelled out, “I pulled my ass!”

I didn’t think much of it. I thought to myself, “Robert, you’re a specimen of mediocrity. You’ll be just fine.”

It never got better. Turns out I have a hamstring tear, and the only cure is surgery by a hip specialist.

A friend of mine, a physician and great tennis player, suggested I contact Joel, a former body builder competitor. “This guy has worked wonders for me with my back and shoulder issues,” he said. “He might be able to help you avoid surgery.”

So I contacted Joel, and he worked me into his schedule and commenced torturing me. I think I’ve cried a couple of times, but he didn’t notice (I hope). Anyway, whatever voodoo, hocus pocus, cruel and unusual tactics he’s taken have helped. And as much as I complain to him about the medieval madness, I think we might be friends — don’t tell him I said that. He’s way stronger than me.

Joel and his wife, Sandy, are great folks, running a small business together, helping people get stronger and healthier. — Robert Johnson

24. Hawk’s Hot Chicken

This chicken is seriously delicious. The restaurant is on I-35, close to Baylor. If you like gravy, the Chicken Salt Gravy & Cheese Smothered Fries are amazing. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water. — Cecy Ayala

25. Courtney Rogers, founder of Swim Kids Waco

When our oldest was 3 years old, we enrolled her in swimming lessons with Swim Kids Waco. She did not like getting her face in the water, so the first few days were a bit of a struggle. But Courtney, the founder of Swim Kids Waco and the teacher for that session, was unwavering in her confidence that things would turn around soon. Thankfully her confidence transferred to me because we stuck it out and got to be the proud parents cheering on our girl at the end of the session while she jumped in the water, reached for toys at the bottom of the pool and floated like an pro. — Heather Garcia

26. Meals on Wheels Waco: Steady Through the Storm

Neither a raging global pandemic nor a historic winter storm could keep Meals on Wheels volunteers from reaching hungry homebound seniors with food and a friendly smile. “Our volunteers helped us make necessary changes to keep seniors healthy and fed,” said Debbie King, executive director of MOW. “We carried meals to the volunteers’ cars, and a majority of them continued serving while wearing masks and social distancing. Our clients could at least see a friendly face and a warm smile and know they weren’t alone.” And when the devastating winter storm hit in February, MOW volunteers answered the call once again, delivering more than 1,500 shelf-stable meals to 300 clients — and checked on them throughout the week to make sure they were OK. To join the team and become a MOW volunteer, visit mowwaco.org. — Gretchen Eichenberg

27. Caitlin Delgado of CMDesigns Weddings

Caitlin is a wedding coordinator and a dream to work with. Planning my wedding has been so fun because of all the help she has provided, from stationery to rentals. She takes all the stress away from planning and knowing what is next. She is easy to talk to, and I feel like she really listens to my ideas for decorations and little details. — Cecy Ayala

28. Magnolia Press

Here’s the scenario. There are a million and two people downtown, and about a million and one of them are in line at the Silos Baking Co. All you want is something sweet, and friend, you are in luck. Because if you wander down to Magnolia Press you will find a chocolate cake so delicious it could cheer up a rain cloud. And if the downtown crowds get you grumpier than a rain cloud, never fear, there’s coffee too. — Anna Mitchael

29. Brisket Hash at Guess Family Barbecue

As they all say, breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and you can’t go wrong with this one. Crispy breakfast potatoes and onions covered in freshly smoked brisket and topped with an egg — so dang good. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, just wait till you smell it. — Brittany Ross

30. Thrift Stores

Our teenager Sophie has recently discovered a love for thrifting. Most days at least part of her outfit consists of a thrift store find. She’s a big fan of the numerous Goodwill stores around town, and, when she has the time, she and her friends will visit the Goodwill Outlet store at 1000 East Waco Drive.
There, they’ll dig through large blue plastic bins that are filled with clothes. The items aren’t separated by size or style or anything else. They’re just bins full of random clothing. She’s also a fan of The Clothesline, Mission Waco’s thrift store at 1817 Franklin Avenue, which often has sales such as $5 for a bag of clothes or $1 dresses. — Abby & Kevin Tankersley

31. Blackberry Pineapple Margarita at Buzzard Billy’s

Every time I go to Buzzard Billy’s I have to treat myself to this margarita. It comes with a large slice of pineapple as the garnish and muddled blackberries in the bottom. It’s so refreshing and a perfect sidekick for my go-to meal, Fettuccine Alfredeaux with blackened chicken. — Rachel Love

32. William Cameron Park Benches

For starters, a million thanks to the Camerons for leaving Waco with the most magnificent piece of land. Only recently have I begun to really, no really, appreciate all the glorious beauty of the park. As a Baylor student I always went to Miss Nelly’s Pretty Place (Favorite Spot #1). Last year I wrote about the Sculpture Zoo along the river (Favorite Spot #2). This year I noticed something else — the stately concrete benches throughout the park with William Cameron Park Dedicated 1910 etched on the back. I’ve seldom had the time to drive past Jacob’s Ladder, in and out of every winding turn of that awe-inspiring drive, all the way up to Lovers Leap, but lately I have. When I get to Lovers Leap and sit on that bench, staring out, I don’t have to think about anything for those few minutes. And with peace and grace, or maybe a heavy heart, I know I can return the next day and the bench will still be there. — Michelle Johnson

33. Spring Roll Bar at Clay Pot

I love the freshly rolled spring rolls at Clay Pot. They’re larger than most of the other spring rolls around town. They’re packed with the usual stuff — meat, rice noodles, lettuce, cilantro — but they also have slices of cucumber and apple and a wonton stick, which gives them a really nice crunch. And I could practically drink the peanut sauce. You can choose from chicken, shrimp or tofu, but my favorite is the grilled pork. They’re my go-to for a quick, cheap, healthy lunch. — Kathleen Seaman

34. Waco Social

Kim Stevens started a company, before the pandemic, called Waco Social. It offers event planning, with an emphasis on nonprofit fundraising. The first major event that Waco Social held was a book launch party at the Phoenix Ballroom for Candace Cameron Bure, the actress from “Full House” and “Fuller House.” My younger daughter and I went, and the event was done so well, with a book signing, activity stations and a book reading with Candace. That was January 2020. Shortly after, the pandemic hit — but that didn’t stop Kim. As many other businesses had to do during this past year, Kim figured out a way to adapt to a new normal. With no parties to plan, Waco Social instead offered gift basket deliveries to help support local boutiques. In March, I was happy to see Waco Social returning to normal with the Light Up the Dark 5K at Cameron Park Zoo, benefiting Unbound Waco. I admire Kim’s perseverance of sticking to a mission and helping our nonprofits along the way! — Michelle Johnson

35. Cali Fries at Spiciness Mexican Grill

It’s the perfect Saturday morning — after a late night — indulgence to get you up and moving again. The Spiciness Cali Fries is a bed of fries topped with a very flavorful carne guisada, smothered in queso and served with guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and jalapeños. It’s big enough to share, but you won’t want to! Also, visit them for some really great breakfast tacos — my favorite is the sausage, egg, potato and cheese with a little green hot sauce. Spiciness is located at 1725 North Valley Mills Drive. — Gretchen Eichenberg

36. Austin Boxer Rescue

Did you know that, despite its name, Austin Boxer Rescue’s kennel is right here in Waco? It’s a foster network serving all of Texas that specializes in boxer dogs, and they bought the former Happy Endings Dog Rescue on Hewitt Drive. A few years back, I really wanted a boxer, and what I discovered, thanks to ABR, was that even if I wanted a specific dog breed, I still didn’t have to go to a breeder! There are amazing breed-specific rescues all over with lots of great pups waiting for their forever home. #AdoptDontShop — Kathleen Seaman

37. Family meals at Revival Eastside Eatery

Revival started its to-go family meals during the shutdown as a new way to generate income, but they’ve been so popular the restaurant has been able to continue offering them. It’s a tray of food that feeds four people for $30. The daily option is posted to Revival’s Facebook page the day before. You place your order and then pick it up the next day. It’s always some sort of comfort food — like meatloaf, pasta, pork tenderloin, fajitas, grilled chicken and veggies — but it’s from Revival, so you know it’s going to be made with quality, locally sourced ingredients. They’re the dishes you wish you had the time, energy or skill to make at home. — Kathleen Seaman

38. Black bean and cheese tamales from Rancho Martinez Tamales

These are melt-in-your-mouth tamales. It’s no wonder they are the bestselling flavor! Just the right amount of spice and flavor make these a must-buy item every time I make my way to the Waco Downtown Farmers Market. — Brittany Ross

39. Poage Park

A Woodway favorite in our house. We love spending the morning at Poage Park, specifically in the little kid section toward the front. The slides and swings are perfect for my very adventurous, soon-to-be 2-year-old. My personal favorite spot is the mommy-and-me swing. We both have fun every time we go. — Brittany Ross

40. Common Grounds Woodway

As do most teenagers, Sophie discovered a newfound freedom when she got her driver’s license last year. A frequent after-school stop with friends is Common Grounds Woodway, where she has developed a taste for coffee, but not the plain ol’ regular stuff we brew at home every morning. From the CG (that’s what the cool kids call it) menu, she likes the White Fang, which consists of ginger chai, vanilla and caramel; the Milky Way, made with latte, dark chocolate and caramel; and the Caramel Coffee Crunch, created from latte, caramel and CG’s Secret Sauce. — Abby & Kevin Tankersley

41. Family meals at Portofino’s

Is anyone else tired of the never-ending question “What’s for dinner?” If I never had to plan another meal for the rest of my days, I’d be perfectly happy. However, that is not my reality, so onward I trudge. One of the bright spots of 2020 was discovering the family meals offered for pick-up at Portofino’s. The Chicken Parmigiana with spaghetti and rolls was our favorite. One easy choice, no dirty dishes to clean; it’s a win-win situation. — Heather Garcia

42. Special orders at Fabled Bookshop

Even if Fabled doesn’t have the book you want in store, the staff will special order it for you. I’ve stopped going to Amazon for physical books, and now I get them from Fabled. — Kathleen Seaman

43. Pepperoni pizza at Poppa Rollo’s

You simply can’t go wrong with a pepperoni pizza from this Waco classic. If you like minimal toppings on your pizza, this one isn’t for you. It’s loaded with tons of pepperonis. To step it up a notch, ask for a side of ranch. Pure, greasy deliciousness. — Brittany Ross

44. Vanguard College Preparatory School: Education that never missed a beat

When it was time to return to my job as a journalism teacher last August, like many educators, I didn’t know what to expect. With COVID cases still pretty high and future surges expected, you could even say I was scared. But my school, Vanguard College Prep, decided on a mid-August start date and stuck with it. I knew the administration team had spent the summer planning and preparing for our return, as they were determined to provide the in-person education that is essential to our standards. But I never dreamed it would all work so seamlessly: Open with in-person-only education. No pause in classes from August to present and never had to quarantine a grade level. Creative outdoor classrooms and custom schedules for students to be outside more. Desks more
than 6 feet apart, with air purifiers in each classroom. Ran all sports and extracurricular activities to completion. Provided on-site ACT and SAT testing. Recognized student achievements and focused on teaching resilience throughout the school year. Education and involvement never stopped or even wavered. Kids had as normal of a middle and high school experience as anyone — even the teachers — could hope. — Gretchen Eichenberg