In our My Top 5 series, we turn to the Houstonians who create and shape Houston’s character and ask them to share their own favorite things that make H-Town home. This week, we’re delighted to feature artist Matt Manalo, who also founded alternative art space, Alief Art House.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“I’ve lived here for 19 years; my family and I moved here [from Manila, Philippines],” says artist Matt Manalo, founder of Alief Art House and Filipinx Artists of Houston. “I was already in college when I left, pursuing computer engineering and then when I came here, I felt like it wasn’t a thing I wanted to pursue anymore. At that time, people were really hiring nurses at a fast rate and so I thought that was something I would be doing for the rest of my life, and it turned out it wasn’t [laughs]. I quickly realized that I can’t really imagine spending the rest of my life working at a hospital and that’s when I did some self-searching…I’ve always been interested in art growing up and that’s when I realized that art is something I wanted to do full-time for the rest of my life.”
With two decades as a Houstonian, Matt considers what he loves about the city and a couple things quickly spring to mind.
“Number one, Houston actually has a really great arts scene,” he says. “What I always say about the Houston arts scene is that we’re trying to create our own movement here—we’re not really trying to be like New York or LA or anything like that. We have pretty unique artists and work and movements going on here that I’m really proud of. What keeps me in Houston is really the people, and…food [laughs].
“We have an amazing food scene and we’re pretty spoiled out here, I think. You can go for Texas barbecue, then go get some pho on a rainy day, then you can even go get Ethiopian food, which is pretty amazing.”
My Top 5 Things to Do in Houston: Matt Manalo
- The Menil Collection – Hands-down, a really great museum and something that really puts Houston on the map; world-class, the architecture is really beautiful, and then the work you can see in there. You get to see really cool work for free, compared to other arts institutions where you have to pay. I usually like going to the Surrealism and the Cy Twombly galleries, and one of the things I like about the Menil is whenever I get to interact with Filipino security guards and when they find out I’m an artist, it’s always an interesting conversation [laughs].
- Asiatown – There’s several spots my family and I love going to. We like going to this all-you-can-eat shabu place called Shabu Zone at Hong Kong City Mall—I think I’ve already been there twice this month alone. It’s just so good. It’s an all-you-can-eat, but then you get to pick your own broth and then whatever seafood or vegetables. Then there’s unlimited kimchi, unlimited meat, wagyu cuts and stuff like that. And then usually after that, we go for a walk around Asiatown. Out of all the Asian grocery stores there, it’s Welcome Food Center we go to a lot, just because they also have ready-made food there—particularly the buns, which the kids love—and snacks. Another place we go to a lot is called Juice Box; it’s been there forever and I’m glad it’s still standing strong. We usually get tofu with tapioca balls, brown sugar syrup on it and stuff like that. And the kids like getting shaved ice with fruit and condensed milk.
- Memorial Park – My wife and I usually run there at the track and it’s nice seeing the whole Memorial Park Conservancy and the things they’re doing there, too. The Eastern Glades is really beautiful, serene and peaceful.
- The Tipping Point – Before they closed down the Heights location, I used to hang at the Tipping Point a lot [Ed. The Downtown location remains open]. Those breakfast tacos were the bomb. Shoutout to my buddy [and Tipping Point owner] Boudreaux who’s been holding it down. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s doing Boo’s Burgers, which is also great. It’s currently pop-up. One of the reasons why I support the Tipping Point is they also serve Rasa Libre Coffee, which is a coffee company based in Alief run by my friend Sergio Garcia. So, it’s like hitting two birds with one stone—supporting a friend who’s supporting a friend—trying to make that sustainability circle [laughs].
- Houston Center for Contemporary Craft – I think they have a really good residency program, and then the whole idea of how they’re more forward-thinking in terms of sustainability because they really promote the resident artists to use materials from the craft garden.
About Matt Manalo
Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, Matt Manalo’s artistic practice is rooted in environmentally-conscious process, incorporating raw materials and found objects to tackle ideas surrounding his own immigrant identity, displacement, and how “home” is defined. Most recently, his work was exhibited at Asia Society Texas’ Artists on Site: Series 3, and he has an upcoming solo show at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in early 2023.
Matt is founder of Filipinx Artists of Houston, and the alternative art space, Alief Art House on the grounds of Alief SPARK Park and Nature Center, which serves as a hub for creativity that highlights the cultural richness of the multiple communities within a unique Houston neighborhood. Recently, it has expanded to include the Alief Art Garden, whose main goal is to grow plants that can withstand the Houston climate while serving multiple purposes, such as providing colors, pigments and fibers from nature as well as community-based produce.