The Houston makers of this device tout it as "the ultimate tailgate barbecue pit." What you have is your basic steel drum-style cooker that you can use in your backyard or attach to the back of your car or truck and haul to the beach, park or ball game. Apparently you can cook while you drive. The mobile version of the contraption looks like a combination grill and unicycle. The Gator Pit has 420 square inches of cooking surface and 222 square inches of work surface. It's yours for a mere $399.99 plus shipping. You can order by phone or on-line at www.gatorpit.net.
Scott McCool is Houston's florist to the stars. He won't name the names of the socialites on his roster of 1,800 accounts, but he will tell us that his designers have spruced up events at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Alley Theatre and the River Oaks Country Club, with fabulous arrangements of roses from Ecuador, lilies from Chile and orchids from Singapore. You don't have to spend an arm and a leg on a wedding or a fund-raiser to do business with In Bloom, though. The minimum order is only $35. So treat yourself to some fancy flowers, just like the rich and famous.
Bank of America
Where else but on the gentrifying Washington Avenue can you find a slick Bank of America a stone's toss from junkyards, dive bars and diners? With 11 (yes, 11) drive-thru slots, this drive-up darling in the shadow of downtown fills up around lunchtime and quitting time. It's a fun place to people-watch from the comfort of your car, as drivers piloting everything from de rigueur SUVs to art cars to hot rods to jalopies rush through to deposit, withdraw and cash out. Soccer moms, blue-collar types, executives, teens, garden party luncheoners and sweaty runners from nearby Memorial Park wait in line for the next available teller, who can probably tell tales about the characters who spin through this colorful hodgepodge patch of Houston.
Buffalo Exchange
The problem with thrift stores is that they require too much work: To find that vintage western shirt, or that trendy fresh-from-the-mall sundress, you have to paw through racks of stained or ripped goods that honestly weren't all that desirable to begin with. But at Buffalo Exchange, the dregs have been weeded out, leaving behind only those that appeal to your urban sensibility: stuff like Levi's 501s, office-worthy blouses from DKNY, pink vinyl pants, Buddy Holly eyeglass frames, a shiny purple minidress trimmed in foofy orange marabou. Yeah, it's about twice as expensive as most thrift stores, but that means it's half as expensive as the mall. And you can trade in your old stuff for store credit. Assuming, of course, that your old stuff is good enough.
If you think leather is just for bulky bomber jackets and boring loafers, the North Beach girls will make you think again. Posing at the door of the Galleria store, these leathered-up ladies are more likely to be dressed in hot pink hot pants, turquoise halter tops, python-print miniskirts or hip-hugging, reality-straining, ohmigod, don't-look-now, fire-engine-red jeans. Theirs is the wardrobe of a high-priced Las Vegas call girl or Christina Aguilera, not a wife or a working woman out for a simple Saturday-afternoon shop, which makes us wonder how North Beach Leather is staying in business, but that's beside the point. It's the seedy, sexy rock-and-roll image that makes us stop to watch. By the way, if you're going to the Galleria just to see skin on skin, call first. The North Beach models are only an occasional spectacle.
Like a Glamour magazine list of fashion don'ts, Pick-n-Pull's proscriptions for maintaining junkyard etiquette, hanging directly in front of the place's South Shaver entrance, are equally as mind-numbing. Some deserve mentioning: 5. No open-toed shoes; 6. No alcohol; 7. No torches or power saws; and the doozy, 11. No cameras or weapons allowed. Makes the average upstanding citizen feel right at home, don't ya think? Yet risking life and limb and bourbon flask for a chance to cruise Pick-n-Pull's hewwwwge 11-acre lot is worth it. Jalopies of every domestic type lie in neat rows. Each heap is raised and appropriately categorized (vans on this side, Camaros on that), and none are stacked, which makes for easy pullin'. Area grease monkeys prefer this seven-year-old yard because it's never muddy and because bottles of Powerade and water are available for sale beneath the shelter, in addition to the obligatory sodas. Prices, like those ascribed to parts, are competitive. On a sunny Saturday, Pick-n-Pull is gearhead heaven. The musky aroma of a Coupe de Ville's leather interior, the soft crackle of footsteps on the gray stone lot, the majesty of a sailing dragonfly -- these lotus petals could lull even the oiliest shop rat into pastoral bliss. Nobody or nothing says you can't just hang out all day.
In Houston, real estate development is a business dominated by stereotypes: the good ol' boy, the profit-at-all-costs mentality, the belief that any structure more than 25 years old needs to be torn down and replaced with something shiny and new, not to mention exorbitantly expensive. Tamra Pierce and Mimi Scarpulla defy these testosterone-driven traditions at every step. The two women, who met a couple of years ago while working on a project in Midtown, define their company's values -- "creativity, good design, open communication, integrity, beauty and quality" -- in terms that suggest they have one boot planted firmly on the ground and the other propped up on a more ethereal level. They also have the distinction of being inner-city housing developers with no interest in throwing up a pod of town homes on every lot they own. Scarpulla is from Philadelphia, a city that protects its history by selling it intact, and where she helped save two dozen historic buildings now being used as apartments. Here, in Houston's First Ward, for example, Pierce Scarpulla is restoring a half-dozen 80- to 100-year-old bungalows, otherwise known in the business as tear-downs. The best part, though, is that at a time when the city's supply of affordable housing is rapidly disappearing, Pierce Scarpulla plans to rent the houses to low-income families.
Bill Jordan is too nice a guy to be in the pool business, a rare dolphin in a sea of sharks. Swimming pools, as their owners well know, are subject to a host of problems, and to deal with them requires an incongruent knowledge of chemistry, construction, engineering and mechanics. Without a complete grasp of the organism at hand, pool people can easily come up with a $500 solution to a $5 problem: Replace the whole thing. Jordan learned the business from the ground up, working for several pool companies before striking out on his own. He has been trained by equipment manufacturers to recognize the quirks of each company's pumps, robots, chlorinators or whatever's ailing. He'll also consult with prospective pool owners before they build, because a simple design adjustment up front often can save big bucks down the road. In a business with a low barrier to entry, Jordan has high standards; he's the kind of ethical operator as central to peace of mind as a good auto mechanic, or dentist, or plumber.
When asked how he could be leading bike rides well into his eighties, B.M. Shirar always replied, "I eat a banana every day." B.M. died nine years ago, but his bicycle shop -- the nation's oldest, according to B.M.'s grandson and the current proprietor, James Turner -- is still pedaling strong at 88. B.M. and his father opened Shirar's at Franklin and Main, in the Magnolia Brewery Building, with a horse-drawn wagonload of tools and spare parts brought over from Hempstead. Their first customers were a group of delivery boys. Today there's not much having to do with bikes that you can't get or find out about at Shirar's, which, come to think of it, is what you ought to be able to say about any bike shop worth its spokes. But there's something about a place that started selling bicycles before there were automobiles and whose founder was able to pass his love for bicycles down the line to a fourth generation. Maybe because it's always been family-owned, Shirar's understands and rewards loyalty: Shirar's gives first priority and $15 discounts on tune-up and overhaul services to bikes bought at the shop.
The Best Microbrewery prize easily goes to... the only microbrewery in Houston! That stated, Saint Arnold produces a revolving selection of beers and ales that really are, if you happen to be a serious devotee of the brewmaster's art, excellent. The brews are made according to German legal standards that U.S. breweries do not have to follow, but Saint Arnold does. The brewery is open to the quaffing public every Saturday at 1 p.m. for a two-hour tour of the squeaky-clean premises and a tasting of the brews being produced. Devotees of Wisconsinian culture can even finish off their tour and tasting by purchasing Saint Arnold's new line of beer-infused bratwurst (pronounced, in case you are not from Wisconsin, "BROT-wurst").

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