The trickle of water emerges from a giant culvert and heads south in a straight line, carved years ago by machinery, bounded by a grass-covered levy to the east and power lines to the west. The water has a brownish hue, and at times a faint whiff of sewage speaks to origins other than rainwater. But the ditch that runs parallel to the power lines between Gramercy and North Braeswood, protected by a fluke combination of rights-of-way and a lack of urban encroachment, harbors an array of wildlife that would make a state park proud. In the early-morning mists, egrets, herons and other waterfowl wade in the shallow water and peck at invisible morsels. A family of bright green South American parrots that nest high in the transformer towers forages among the trees overlooking the ditch. Box turtles roam the steep, wildflower-covered banks or plop beneath the surface at any sign of intrusion. Beneath the wires, horses graze along the fence that separates them from the water. Block out the white noise of the highways, and the place might as well be a hundred miles away.
Fish are usually the featured performers in any aquarium, but at Sawadee, they take a backseat. Sure, there are a few exotic species swimming in the jumbo 500-gallon tank that greets customers near the door. But the real attractions are the stunning varieties of coral: spectacular tentacled colonies waving in the artificial current that simulates waves breaking overhead; brilliant green and blue neon clusters jutting like antlers from their rock bases; soft-bellied creatures that appear 90 percent mouth waiting for food fragments to drift by. Customers linger well after the bill is paid to gawk at the spectacle. Sawadee owner Yut Heckler has a thriving side business designing coral habitats. He learned the hard way it's much more difficult to maintain a coral habitat than your average fish tank. Coral are about the most sensitive creatures on the planet, and simply moving them from one end of the tank to the other can be fatal. But he has mastered the complexities enough to propagate his samples, and he uses coral from his showcase Sawadee tank as breeding stock for his new creations.
Slainte (pronounced "SLAWN-cha") is a Gaelic drinking toast, which translates roughly to "Cheers!" Stools are situated around a big black barrel of Jameson whiskey, a James Joyce quote is on the wall, and Lord of the Dance music fills the air. You can order a blarney burger, Irish lamb stew, corned beef and cabbage or chicken strips fried in Harp. You can sit around the cozy tables and down a pint of Guinness or a shot with your friends. It's a place where you can hear your friends when they talk. In the back of the bar, there's some sort of rock wall that we don't really understand. Maybe it has to do with the Blarney Stone. Maybe it's supposed to conjure the far and away rocks along the Irish shore. Or maybe you're supposed to feel like you're entering a cave with green and burgundy booths and old Celtic art on the wall. Upstairs is a darker, undecorated room, with leather couches and Barnes & Noble-type cushy chairs. There's an outside balcony that lets you look out at the street, make fun of the strange outfits people are wearing and watch the rickshaw driver pant up and down the street. Don't worry if you can't read the writing on the walls. You're not that smashed -- it's Gaelic.

When it comes to getting around in a car, Houston is a sprawling, featureless, illogically laid out mess. Which means you should never attempt to get anywhere without a Key Map in the car. For 42 years the Rau family has been producing annually updated, easy-to-use maps of Harris County -- maps that make it a breeze to find your way to Nottingham Way (not to be confused with Nottingham Street, Nottingham Circle, Nottingham Court, Nottingham Lane or Nottingham Drive). It's easy to get lost in Houston, but it's almost impossible to do it with a Key Map handy. Each year brings thousands of updates, whether it's new streets or schools or renamed office buildings or a just-opened park. It also has finally fixed one of the enduring peeves drivers had: trying to find a location that's at the very edge of a page. You may not need to buy a new edition of the map every year, but if you keep one in the car, there will no doubt come a time when you are very glad you do.
If he wasn't the best-known municipal lobbyist before he was elevated to the prestigious chairmanship in June, he will be now. For years affable, low-key Jim Edmonds has run with the big boys, ranging from developer Walter Mischer to financial guru Tom Masterson to previous port chair Ned Holmes, pouring the best whiskey, hosting good-'ol-boy birding trips (they shoot 'em rather than watch 'em), and in general lubricating the gears of Houston power politics. Although he has graduated from gofer to go-to player, Edmonds says he plans to keep on lobbying at City Hall, where clients Perry Homes and The Woodlands will likely be supplemented by new customers looking for an advocate with a big bat and the power to make the heavyweights return his phone calls.
Dan Hart is the indefatigable property tax activist who bugs Harris County Tax Appraisal District officials with the persistence of a salt marsh mosquito. Hart, a retired Kinkaid School coach, has embraced the role of tax watchdog as a second career, and has even started up a nonprofit organization, Taxpayers for Equal Appraisal, with its own Web page (www.hcadtea.org) to spread the message. Hart and wife Betty even travel to out-of-state tax appraiser conventions to keep track of the activities of local tax officials. In the last year Hart helped expose a trip at public expense by a former HCAD chairman to a realty convention that had far more to do with the man's private business than his HCAD position. Hart also filed open records requests to get documents revealing that an HCAD secretary routinely used the agency's membership cards at Sam's Club to get her own bargain purchases of wine and snacks. She was forced to repay the discount later. Hart can go a bit over the top, as when he launches into the TEA fight song to the tune of the Marine hymn: "From the kitchens of the home we love, to our family's future we guard, we will fight for fair appraisal in the CADs and in the courts." Well, you get the idea.
For a $175 annual subscription, this Austin-based political newsletter published by Bellaire High grad Harvey Kronberg churns up plenty of information. Features of the Quorum Report Web site (quorumreport.com) include bulletins in the form of the Daily Buzz plus an invaluable daily clip service of relevant Texas and national media stories. While the hard-copy version of the newsletter comes out twice a month, the Web site is updated daily. To be sure, Kronberg's slant often seems excessively fawning toward Governor George Bush and Republicans in general, but these days that's where most of the news comes from in Austin. Offbeat in the mold of Matt Drudge, the 48-year-old may be the only Internet political journalist who also operates a flag and flagpole business, a continuation of his family's operation in Houston. The Quorum Report has had its share of scoops, most notably one year ago when it popped the results of a Texas poll several days ahead of its release date and left officials at the University of Texas Office of Survey Research sputtering. Kronberg is not averse to jumping the gun on stories, and the Daily Buzz inevitably includes a smattering of corrections to previous "revelations." Kronberg's slogan: "It's better to be occasionally wrong than naive."

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