Most thrift stores are dusty-musty pits that you brave in hopes of making the Big Score; that is, finding that perfect, soulful piece of clothing at an insanely low price. By comparison, the Salvation Army on Washington makes a strenuous effort to be shopper-friendly. The big front windows let in natural light, and the place is neat as a pin. Someone has devoted surprising thought to displays: Up front, a family of mannequins models some of the latest acquisitions, and the western-wear section is bedecked with saddles and neon lights. The store even accepts credit cards. But can you still make the Big Score? Yes -- and in fact, you're probably more likely to unearth good stuff here than you would at a dusty-musty place. Mid-range designers' names often grace the racks, as do jeans and blouses you might have bought last year at the mall. But better still, the Washington Salvation Army offers more than its share of oddball vintage clothing: '60s polyester dresses in eye-popping colors; '70s urban cowboy shirts with glittery threads; even the occasional '80s ruffled prom shirt. You know these clothes led interesting former lives, and when you wear them, you feel more interesting yourself. Bonus: Manager Don Cairrel presides over the place as if he were hosting a party, joking with the clerks and offering new shoppers guidance through his wonderland. To the regulars, he quotes Shakespeare and Plato.
When Johnny Carraba wanted to pay tribute to a couple of family members, he bestowed upon them a true culinary honor in our book, the Johnny Rocco salad ($10). The name is a combination of Carrabas dad, Johnny, and good old Uncle Rocco. The salad is a combination of mixed field greens, ricotta salata (salted ricotta), grilled shrimp and scallops, topped with a vinaigrette of red wine and extra-virgin olive oil. The seafood is warm off the grill, and cooked just long enough to get the delectables done, but not so much that they lose any juice. Its not one of those dainty, airy salads for skinny ladies who lunch; this entre salad leaves little room for dessert. Its been a fixture at the restaurant since the day it opened in 1986, and remains one of the more popular items.
Her real name is Catherine Douglas, and she's a Florida-born actress and comedienne, making a living doing what she loves best. But when she slips on her corseted milkmaid dress, pushes her freckled cleavage up to her chin and puts on a choppy Scottish accent, this redheaded spitfire becomes Lucenden "Loosey" Crotch, Wench For Hire. Just what the hell is a "Wench For Hire"? Well, as Miss Douglas tells it, she is hired to perform her wenchlike duties at many functions, like beer taverns (The Ale House hires her whenever its birthday rolls around) or Renaissance festivals or comedy clubs, throughout the greater Houston area. An eight-year veteran at being a "lascivious lass," her job is to "come out and take care of people in an old British fashion." Some of those caring requirements include getting people to join in silly sing-alongs, regaling the crowd with randy jokes and challenging patrons to ribald parlor tricks, such as offering men to fish a small bell out of her bountiful bosom without using their hands. If you're ever organizing a party (even if you don't need someone to perform the duties of an 18th-century Scottish wench), having Loosey around wouldn't be a bad idea.
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.
Remember when bars used to cater expansive free buffets to entice people to walk through the door? Remember how you used to go there, order a Coke and eat like a wild pig? This is the same philosophy, only with less guilt. While your parsimonious partying may have contributed to the closing of more than one kickerdome, you can relax in comfort in The Sharper Image's massage chair without the stress of wondering if you're leading someone to Chapter 11. And who needs all that extra stress? You're there, after all, to release it, not accumulate it. The leather chairs with those heavenly rollers tend to move around the store like lost children. But when you find them, make sure to stay planted long enough to run through the entire massage program. And don't worry about those SI clerks hovering like used-car salesmen. They never hassle you to leave; they understand that a well-adjusted back will make it easier for you to reach around for your wallet.
Soundwaves - Montrose
To be the best, a music store has to carry a vast selection. For those whose tastes run all over the board, you can find everything from your favorite Jello Biafra or Henry Rollins spoken-word CD to Peter Allen's At His Best. You also will find everything in the middle -- jazz, hip-hop, industrial, rock, R&B, dance, rap, blues, imports, boxed sets and, of course, Elvis. Whoever orders the Latin music should get a raise; it's not limited to Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez. Soundwaves also boasts one of the largest, if not the largest, preowned CD selections in Houston, which you probably already know from the buxom yet "flat-busted" women from the television commercials. The store also has a peculiar section with skate and surf merchandise, but before heading over, you may want to surf to www.soundwaves.com and pick up the $1 off coupon.
Now that there are several stores catering to the large and growing Russophone community of Houston, it's possible to pick the best one. This little spot, located in an obscure strip center in southwest Houston, is a true general store in the American sense, selling foodstuffs, prepared to-go items, CDs, videotapes and even Russian-language editions of Playboy and Good Housekeeping. Those nostalgic for a taste of home cooking as it was prepared in Minsk, Pinsk or Minusinsk can acquire such hard-to-find items as unfiltered sunflower-seed oil, canned cod livers, Georgian sour plum sauce, salt-pickled mushrooms and jellied veal. Those non-Russophones who find themselves in need of a bit of shopping advice can turn to co-owner Aleksandr Kogan. He's a walking encyclopedia of a man who can discourse authoritatively on Russian and Soviet food, with forays into topics such as history, literature, electron microscopy and even the poisonous reptiles of Kyrgyzstan. For further research, one can browse a Russian-language lending library in a back room. An adjoining storefront houses a Russian folk-dance school, and the store sells tickets to Russian concerts, plays and even the odd Moscow cat circus when such undertakings find a Houston venue. And you thought synergy was an English word.
It kills us to let this secret out, but Houstonians with good taste already know it: Not only does Wherehouse Music have the most impressive collection of used, mostly pop CDs, arranged nicely and in a customer-friendly way (in alphabetical order and by artist) along a handful of 20-foot-long display rows, but the store also has the best artists. Makes you wonder if Wherehouse feels any shame paying up to $4 per used CD for what are obviously lost or, dare we say, stolen goods. What "person" in his right mind could have honestly let go of Imogen Heap's wondrous 1998 debut, I Megaphone? Yet there it sits, for the low, low price of $2.99, in the "H" section, right alongside Elton John's classic Captain Fantastic and Freedy Johnston's perfect This Perfect World. Either yokels are growing fonder of mainstream commercial radio pop, which explains their parting company with great music like the aforementioned, or something fishy's going on at Wherehouse. The latter is doubtful. Painfully so.
Pandan, also called screwpine leaves, is a popular ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisine. Its floral flavor and intense green hue usually enhance rice and pudding dishes. But at Goodness Cake House, pandan also makes a surprisingly good cake flavor, along with coffee, vanilla and chocolate. The choices may be few, but really, how much cake can you eat, anyway? Most popular with the cake shop's Cantonese clientele is a light, fluffy vanilla cake covered with a white cream (not hyper-sugary) frosting and layers of thinly sliced strawberries, kiwis and pineapple. Sometimes this type of cake can turn out sticky. But the bakers at the aptly named Goodness are careful not to let the fruit juice drip all over the cake, soaking into messy gloppiness. The cake itself possesses a satisfying carbohydrate, complex-sugar sweetness, not an easy, simple-sugar sweetness. And should you become bored with cake, Goodness also bakes chocolate cake rolls, coconut bread, cheese bread, pineapple bread, raisin bread and a variety of Asian pastries and buns.
Well, okay, $3,000 isn't cheap. But for, say, a drawing by James Surls or a painting by Vernon Fisher -- both of which would likely fetch at least $5,000 elsewhere -- it's a bargain, to be sure. Held every spring (the next one is May 4, 2001), the Glassell's annual fund-raising auction attracts serious collectors with an eye for contemporary works, which are solicited from a rotating list of about 150 local and regional artists. Also available -- and here's where those with less disposable income can participate -- are pieces by students in the school's Core Residency Program.

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