Best of Houston®

Best Of 2011

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Best Of :: People & Places

Best New Approach to Mass Transit

Few local government agencies were as dysfunctional as Metro for the last ten years or so. Run by a secretive, defensive management that disdained transparency and any criticism, the agency ran up big costs, got little done and put Houston's projected light-rail system at great risk by trying to cut legal corners. Not long after Mayor Annise Parker took office, things began to change, and the biggest change was putting in George Greanias as CEO. A former city councilman and shoulda-been mayor who lacked only TV-age charisma, Greanias is a numbers guy who demands things be run ethically, cheaply, smartly and openly. For people used to dealing with the old Metro, the 180-­degree turns can sometimes cause whiplash. And yes, he needs better habits when it comes to porn and Metro computers. But if that's the biggest scandal of his time there, we'll take that any day as compared to his profligate predecessors.

Best Act of Kindness

"Kindness" might be too frivolous a word to describe the heroic undoing of a terrible injustice. Anthony Graves spent 18 years on death row for the horrific slaughter of an entire family, his fate sealed in part by the word of another convicted killer who later recanted. In 2002, after he had already served eight years in prison, University of St. Thomas journalism students, under the direction of instructor Nicole Casarez, took a closer look into the case. What resulted was a Pandora's box of prosecutorial misconduct indicating that the Burleson County District Attorney's Office didn't care whether Graves was actually guilty. In 2006, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Graves's conviction and ordered a new trial. But a special prosecutor assigned to the case determined there was not a shred of evidence Graves committed the murders. He's now a free man, thanks in part to a bunch of dedicated students. Makes us kind of ashamed to think of how we spent our undergrad years.

Best Flack

If Cripe's name looks familiar, it might be because you've read her statements when she was with Continental Airlines, or her passionate involvement with a mayoral task force formed to fix the city's tarnished animal control department. More recently, embattled City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones tapped Cripe to help explain her side in an oft-confusing, largely idiotic investigation that hinged in part on whether Jones had used a city fax machine. Cripe either lacks (or is damn good at hiding) the hostility that a lot of flacks harbor toward the media; instead, she proved to be a reliable source of information and intelligent statements — even on deadline. We've never felt like we were getting the runaround with Cripe, whose dedication to her clients comes without ridiculous spin. To us media folk, it's remarkably refreshing.

Best 15 Minutes of Fame

This might be a bit of a cheat, because Nikki Araguz — who first came into our consciousness when her firefighting husband died in the line of duty and it was subsequently revealed she was born with a penis (or a penis-like birth defect, depending on what version she's telling at the time) — has managed to have multiple 15-minute bursts of fame. Just when it seemed the media frenzy surrounding the court battle over her late husband's inheritance was winding down, a filmmaker issued a press release saying Araguz was going to have her very own reality show, centered around her dating life. This was followed by Araguz being accused of stealing a woman's expensive watch. Every few months, for the past year, Araguz has managed to resurface, and while it hasn't always been under the best circumstances, we have the feeling she tremendously enjoys the attention. And it appears the rest of us enjoy giving it to her.

Best Place for a First Date

Ah, nature. Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping and Mother Earth is at her most fertile. And if you're on a first date at Mercer Arboretum & Botanic Gardens, so are you. Wander together hand-in-hand on meandering paths bright with flowers, and breathe deeply in the heady herb garden. Copses of tall trees offer secluded getaways, perfect for making small talk, or just making out. If you're into a sportier time, rent a kayak or canoe and take in the beauty on the water. Embrace the healing power of nature, and you might just get some sexual healing of your own.

22306 Aldine Westfield Rd., Humble, 77338
MAP
281-443-8731
Best Free Wi-Fi Spot
Black Hole Cafe
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

This little Montrose coffeehouse serves beer and wine, but what makes it a great place to do a little after-hours work or telecommuting is the spacious dining room — more so than its Heights cousin Antidote — and free wi-fi. You'll see plenty of students here pecking away on their laptops or updating their Facebook pages. Their laundry is probably spinning away in the washateria next door.

4504 Graustark St., Houston, 77006
MAP
713-528-0653
Best Junior Geniuses

There must be something in the water. When it was announced in March that Bellaire High School's Daniel Yun had scored a perfect 2400 on his SAT exam, there was jubilation and high fives all round. Then in May, Houston ISD announced that another Bellaire student, Amy W. Jiang, pulled a perfect ACT score of 36. Odds of either one of them hitting these marks were astronomically low: Fewer than 300 students out of 1.5 million kids across the country taking the SAT reached 2400, and only 588 of nearly 1.6 million students were perfect on the ACT. Go, Cardinals!

Best Place for a He to Be a She
Baba Yega Restaurant
Jeff Balke

Whether as a place to test the waters for the first time or as a favorite haunt for someone with a long history of cross-dressing/transgenderism, Baba Yega is the perfect place for a he to be a she (or vice versa). The cozy atmosphere, the diverse clientele and the caring staff all add up to a welcoming, supportive setting where everyone can openly be whoever they want to be in total comfort. Baba Yega is a casual restaurant, housed in a converted bungalow with several dining room options including an al fresco terrace, an indoor room full of nooks and crannies, and a covered garden. The restaurant's clientele is a happy, friendly mix of straight and LGBT couples, groups and families. The staff is equally varied and warm. There's a full bar, but the real draw is the food and laid-back atmosphere. A Montrose-area staple since the mid-1970s, Baba Yega cheerfully welcomes everyone.

2607 Grant, Houston, 77006
MAP
713-522-0042
Best Visitor

Though she blessed us with her presence under some of the most horrifying circumstances ever, we were happy to welcome Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords with open arms as she recovered from a gunshot wound to the head. On January 21, approximately two weeks after the Tucson shooting spree that left six people dead, Giffords was transferred to the TIRR Memorial Hermann Medical Center. There, with her U.S. Navy captain and NASA astronaut husband Mark Kelly at her side, Giffords underwent months of rehabilitation and progressed enough to witness the final flight of space shuttle Endeavour, commanded by Kelly, at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. On June 15, Giffords was discharged from the rehab center and into outpatient care; to date, she continues her phenomenal recovery at Kelly's League City home.

Best Thinker: Using Animals for Therapy
Red Dun Ranch

The horses we see in Houston at the rodeo every March aren't the only ones in town. There's plenty of whinnying and neighing going on over at Red Dun Ranch, in the name of therapy. Laurie Baldwin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and her colleagues at Red Dun Ranch help these noble creatures whisper to us. While they also have an office in Bellaire, the ranch near Pearland provides a tranquil place for people to heal their grief — even cope better with challenges such as ADD or autism. Those who have loved animals get that — just imagine a gentle animal big enough to absorb all your negativity, even if temporarily.

14034 Hooper Rd., Houston, 77047
MAP
713-433-9997
Best Cemetery

Though not the most aesthetically pleasing cemetery in the city, this final resting place for the indigent and unidentified is especially moving. It's especially sad to consider that, with roughly 13,000 people buried over the site's 18 acres, the cemetery is almost out of room. For many souls buried here, their stories will never be fully known. Others met all-too-tragic fates, like an unidentified victim of notorious serial killers Dean Corll, Elmer Wayne Henley and David Brooks. The graveyard is a reminder that even people forgotten or forsaken deserve a proper burial, as well as a reminder that Harris County has the decency and dignity to provide that.

5434 Oates Rd., Houston, 77013
MAP
Best Historic Preservation
Hotel Galvez & Spa

Now the only historic beachfront hotel left on the Gulf Coast, the Hotel Galvez & Spa has just completed an $11 million renovation in celebration of its 100th anniversary. Owners George Mitchell and his family have made several updates to the property, modernizing it while maintaining its turn-of-the-century charm. The hotel's grand multi-paned windows have been restored to their original beauty, and a 9,000-plus-square-foot spa and poolside cabanas have been added along with a newly landscaped lawn called Centennial Green, positioned just outside the hotel's magnificent Music Hall. Each of the guest rooms has been redecorated with plush furnishings and nature-inspired prints by artist Kayla Mitchell, the talented granddaughter of George Mitchell. The Hotel Galvez was originally built in 1911 as a powerful symbol of the city's physical and economic recovery after the Great Storm devastated the island a decade earlier. A century later, the hotel, like Galveston Island, is not only surviving but flourishing.

2024 Seawall Blvd., Galveston, 77550
MAP
409-765-7721
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Best New Approach to Mass Transit: Metro CEO George Greanias

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