"We try to stay with the more traditional sound, but we don't have blinders on when it comes to [booking] different styles," manager Karin Barnes says. Performers such as Don Walser, Gary P. Nunn, Alvin Crow and the Derailers are favorites. Blanco's avoids the Top 40 cover band material so prevalent in other joints. And what would any country club be without a place to kick up those Tony Lamas? "We definitely got a dance floor," Barnes says in drastic understatement. "A big ol' dance floor." (B.R.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Blanco's

BEST LATIN VENUE
Elvia's, 2727 Fondren, (713)266-9631

How do you win consecutive Houston Press Best Latin Venue awards? Well, you could try doing some of the things that Elvia's does, like create an upscale atmosphere that's unpretentious. Then book some of the area's top salsa bands five nights a week. Charge a small enough cover to keep it affordable, but not so low that just anyone will walk in for the hell of it. Do the standard gimmicks, like Ladies Night, that draw a crowd. Maybe offer free dance lessons on Wednesday nights (and make Tuesday nights flamenco nights and where else in Houston are you going to hear flamenco on a regular basis?). Do all of the above, and serve up some Mexican food that rivals the area's best, and you just might be able to compete with Elvia's. While many clubs have tried to compete for the upscale salsa crowd, no one has been able to supplant Elvia's position as the place to go for Latin music. Maybe it's that romantic atmosphere, or maybe it's the food, or maybe it's that the owner (named Elvia) is really cool, or maybe...

Forget trying to figure out why Elvia's is so hip. Get out there and dance or romance, eat or tune out, and it'll be right in front of you. (P.J.M.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Elvia's

BEST FOLK VENUE
McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, (713)528-5999

Now in its tenth year, McGonigel's Mucky Duck is a pub in the fine Irish tradition. No, it's not some trendy marketing scheme with a fabricated Celtic-themed facade. It's a real pub with its own quirky personality, serving food, drink and live (predominantly acoustic) music six nights a week while functioning as a laid-back social center for a diverse clientele. Daytime regulars often grab lunch, toss darts or hang out on the backyard deck. Evening patrons dig the place for its eclectic menu of original music.

Founding owners Teresa and Rusty Andrews "started dabbling in live music" at the old Red Lion Restaurant, once a popular venue for local bands. When the couple opened the Mucky, while still booking home-towners, they also began to feature touring artists and established a wide-open Celtic jam tradition on Wednesdays. "It's often our biggest night of the week," says Rusty. "There's no cover charge, and it's a very social thing." He describes the audience as "everyone from the kids to grandma and grandpa." The Andrewses throw a massive St. Patrick's Day celebration each year, too.

The rest of the time they follow a common muse in hosting Texas singer-songwriter types and unique performers from around the globe. "My favorite line is `organically odd music,' " Rusty says of the booking policy. "Some of everything. Especially I love getting into the ethnic musics from around the world." He cites Madagascar, Spain, Italy, France, Wales, Scotland and, naturally, Ireland as native places of some of the most memorable bands he has featured.

Regardless of where they're from, artists and audience members alike value the intimate listening environment in the Mucky's main room. Like the general lack of pretentiousness and authentic hospitality that characterize the place, it's a sanctuary from the standard club scene. (R.W.)

CRITIC'S CHOICE: Mucky Duck

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