Best Of :: Shopping & Services
Full disclosure: We haven't exactly traipsed around town sampling the services of the city's presumably multitudinous banjo instructors (check the Yellow Pages -- that "multitudinous" bit was a joke), but we have shopped widely for one of the semi-archaic five-stringers to practice on. The level of music-store expertise on display was less than encouraging. We are, however, happy with the picker we found, and his instrumental pedigree is top-notch, so if you find yourself in such a niche market, hie thee to Mr. Anton Ullrich, Houston's self-advertised "Mr. Bluegrass." A Houston native and Kingston Trio-era convert to the instrument, Ullrich has been teaching bluegrass "banjer" since 1972 and has played with everyone from Mance Lipscombe to Merle Travis to Michael Martin Murphy. He spent years spinning a bluegrass show on KPFT, and has the reassuring habit of reminding students that hell, if banjo was so hard, he'd still be a banker. Oh, yeah, and he designed the limited-edition $7,000 "Texas" banjo marketed by the Deering Banjo Company's custom shop. Never mind that he long ago abandoned standard tablature for an idiosyncratic system that looks more like folk art than musical notation. The results so far have been promising. And at $29 for a weekly 45-minute lesson, including a monthly tape dub of bluegrass rarities from his vast collection of out-of-print vinyl, it's a bargain at twice the price.
From beyond the corrugated tin walls, copper light posts topped with bulbous white globes protrude, and wilted chandeliers lie on top of the impossibly piled pile of junk. Sandwiched between La Maison and Value Village in the Heights, this nameless junk shop is easy to miss, especially when it's closed. (Many have either mistaken the tin exterior for a mere sturdy fence or walked past it without a thought.) Partly because almost everything collected here constitutes scrap metal, and partly because it is located outdoors without even a roof, this pile of junk remains dustless and mold-free in spite of its overwhelming mass and disorganization. And by overwhelming, we mean completely crammed and piled high. Want to get a look at that phone booth? Like a jungle explorer, you have to whack and push and stumble your way there. Want to take down that "no shoes" sign in German picturing a black high heel with a red circle and slash across it? Ask to be lifted on someone's shoulders. Finding good junk always requires a hearty search.
Pennants and posters that say "plants" and "sale sale sale" in bold black letters are in The Plant Lady's front yard. Her plants are gorgeous, and cheap. She sells big trees for $10 and enormous peace lilies for $5 (we've seen wimpier, wilted ones for $30 elsewhere). Flowering plants that are starting to go out of season are usually $1; if you insist that you don't want it, sometimes she'll make it a quarter or just throw it in for free. She's a nice lady who doesn't want disappointed customers; she wants repeat business, and she's definitely got ours. She doesn't mind telling you what type of plant it is, just how much light it needs and which room of your house you should put it in. She guarantees all of her plants. When our peace lily died (which, truly, we think is the fault of our nongreen thumb-of-death, and the fact that our pet rabbit ate it), she replaced it for free. When we accidentally left a Chinese evergreen -- which should never see the sun -- sitting in a hot Houston car with the windows rolled up, we went back the next day and she sold us another one for $3. She kept the one we had pretty much killed and promised to nurse it back to health for us. God bless her.
The folks at Outreach Dentistry will banish forever those Marathon Man-like memories of the evil white-coated dentist who looms like a horrifying shadow over the landscape of your oral hygiene. When you push open the glass door of Outreach, you'll get a home-style welcome. The waiting room of this mom-and-pop business (he's the dentist; she runs the office) is cheerful. No sliding-glass partitions or cranked-up televisions are there to make you feel like you've been dropped into some futuristic world of impending pain. Instead, you can ask questions as you fill out your forms in a comfy little reception area, and you'll get smart answers about everything from your insurance to the procedure you're about to undergo. Once you've slid your nervously sweating limbs into the dentist's chair, you'll encounter a good doctor who will listen to all your fears, chide you a bit about flossing, then go about the business of cleaning, drilling and filling with tender hands and the sort of modern-day technology that will make even the most phobic of patients breathe easier. Going to the dentist will never be fun, but the good people at Outreach will make it virtually painless.
Lawrence Marshall must really love cars. Starting as a mechanic in 1949, Marshall worked his way up the auto food chain to the purchase of a small Chevy dealership in 1969, parlaying that one outlet into the semirural, multibrand megaplex that straddles little Hempstead like an automotive behemoth. In 1999 Marshall sold his dealerships to company spokesman and former Oiler Ray "We clobber big-city prices" Childress. But instead of retiring like your average Rotarian titan, Marshall moved his office to a shed across 290 and opened Lawrence Marshall Antique Cars, which has been steadily expanding ever since -- most recently with an enclosed "museum" building housing over 100 vintage cars and trucks, in addition to the hundreds more stored on the outdoor lot. The enterprise specializes in ready-to-drive pre-1970s models, either meticulously restored or miraculously preserved, and so Marshall spends a good amount of time traveling the country to buy his stock. The result is a smorgasbord of four-wheeled history, from 1912 Model Ts to the familiar litany of early '70s Mopars with their hemis and their 440 six-packs, and a good sampling of everything in between. Museum or not, everything's for sale, from a few thousand-dollar project cars on up to the $20,000 show-winners. General manager Ken Smith guesses it's probably the largest antique car showroom in the country by now, but it's also a browser's paradise. Five dollars' admission -- refunded if you make a purchase -- buys you the run of the place. And yes, they do test-drives. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
What smooth talkers they are at All-Star Audio Video. Any group of employees who can talk so many customers into believing that TVs -- inside cars! -- are required accessories deserves this award. And it's not as if Houston drivers weren't bad enough, turning without signaling or lining up seven cars deep behind a left-turning car when the right lane is utterly vacant. The added distraction of TVs in vehicles now makes these inhospitable roads just that more hostile. But don't blame All-Star. The 23-year-old company is, according to Steve "Pepper" Perez, who installs these thingies, just responding to demand. "There've been TVs in cars for a while," he says. "Then when multimedia hit, it's the easiest thing to take a trip and have a video for the kids. They don't wanna get out of the car. "Dad, drive around the block.' " Around the block? Chances are, Dad's "block" is a gated community. Perez says he has done installations on the vehicles of star baseball jocks like Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio and Andy Pettitte. He also says he and his two installers (one, Andy Bartinicki, joined the company a couple of years after owner Jim Lawless opened the first shop) have done jobs ranging in price from $2,500 to $25,000. About 80 percent of his customers, he says, are regulars. Though Perez talks excitedly and knows a helluva lot about vehicular TVs, he doesn't own one himself. "But I gotta get one," he says. "I need to."
For most of the past decade and a half, the forever-young Patti D has kept a hard-core group of regulars coming back for another round at the two locations where she pours the drinks and beers: T.K. Bitterman's (2010 West Alabama) and The Ginger Man (5607 1/2 Morningside). In addition to mixing a mean cocktail, Patti also plays great music, doesn't put up with crap from goofball customers and, despite the amount of time she has been in the bar business, remains easy on the eyes.
Webster's describes yoga as a system of exercises for attaining bodily or mental control and well-being. But to its most dedicated adherents, yoga is the key that unlocks the secrets of the universe. Passing through that door is best accomplished with the help of a guide. Finding one in Houston, where yoga is booming, is easy. The city boasts a number of respected master instructors, including George Purvis and John Friend. We direct novices to The Yoga Institute & Bookshop, where owner Rae Lynn Rath and manager Becky Jordan have a combined 54 years of yoga practice and study under their belts. Rath and Jordan are disciples of Friend, the founder of Anusara, one of the newest and fastest-growing schools of hatha yoga. Anusara means "flowing with grace," and it describes an approach that integrates the rigorous physical demands of yoga with emotional, mental and spiritual expression. Or as Friend puts it, "It is a willingness to be aware of all parts of ourselves: the light and the dark, the full rainbow of sensation, perception, emotion and thought." Confused? Then visit the Institute's bookshop, which offers a sizable collection of books and videos on Anusara and other yoga styles, as well as plenty of information on meditation, holistic medicine and other aura-sharpening practices.
A woman we know has followed this man to five different salons over six years. Together they traveled from long, mousy, dishwater-blond high school hair through short and red, short and dark brown, and really short and platinum (the experimental college years) to a much more Texas-professional highlighted bob. Incredibly, through each of these phases, people have made a point to say to her that most coveted of comments, "Your hair looks great!" -- and not in that fakey way, either. His cuts are meticulous, taking 45 minutes to an hour, as opposed to the slapdash quickies of some salons. And with color, he is a mad scientist, concocting just the right combination of "tonal values" that will make a blotchy face look radiant. He'll listen to what you want and do his damnedest to make you look just like the girl in the magazine, but he's also refreshingly honest: "I know you have ponytail envy, honey, but every inch you grow your hair out is adding years to your face." Let's just put it this way: When Kevin announced he was planning to move to Las Vegas, we nearly cried. Thankfully, the desert air didn't agree with him.
Okay, maybe you won't find that precise title, but this place is about as highbrow a used bookstore as you'll find in this city that doesn't market exclusively rare and collectible editions -- though there are plenty of those on the shelves. This is not a source for light reading; Jackie Collins fans might not make it past the ropes. Detering Book Gallery is the place to go when you're feeling Kafka, or a little Dante. History buffs and people with academic interests of all sorts likely will not walk away disappointed. It's a must for any book lover who's looking to load her personal library with titles that extend beyond last week's best-seller list. Detering is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Don't be put off by the sign outside that reads "wholesale" -- if you've got cash, they've got the merchandise. While they specialize in Middle Eastern ingredients, they also have many Western and Eastern European specialties. Here you'll find bulk bulgur at 59 cents per pound; all kinds of dried and canned beans and lentils; many different kinds of teas, coffees and spices; a half-dozen different kinds of feta cheese starting at $1.59 per pound; fresh dates as low as $1.99 per pound; and dozens of different kinds of olives starting at $1.50 per pound. Here, you'll also find various kitchen tools and implements as well as elaborate narghiles and hookahs, the glass and brass smoking pipes that are prevalent in the Middle East, along with many different kinds of tobacco.
Fans of the movie Chicken Run may wonder if the birds at Tai Hung are hatching fantastic escape schemes along with eggs. They're everywhere, these hapless birds -- clucking inside coops, strutting on the grass, fleeing wild-eyed children. The frowsy white hens and proud orange roosters spend most of their time in their pens pecking at feed. Ducks abound, relishing the occasional rain shower. Only the quails and spectacular pheasants, crammed into small cages, seem listless. Young chickens sell for $1.39 a pound. "You taste one and you can tell the difference from a supermarket," says Cathy Van Tai, Tai Hung's owner.