Best Of :: Shopping & Services
"The world was silent except for the shrill cry of insects, which was part of the night, and the sound of wooden mortar and pestle as Nwayieke pounded her foo-foo," writes Chinua Achebe in his 1959 novel Things Fall Apart. He is describing a scene as basic to traditional Nigerian life as the beat of the udu drum -- the pounding of yams into the glutinous mass known as foo-foo or fufu. African Variety Food Store offers big beautiful yams for those with time and energy to pound. For others, this purveyor of West African goods sells a powdered form of yam (as well as cassava and plantain) that can be whipped up in minutes into a delicious mound of fufu for dipping in soups. The smell of dried fish pervades the establishment, which is tucked amid Chinese businesses in a sprawling strip mall. In addition to the desiccated cod, shrimp and bony bonga fish, one can find cans of palm oil, melon seeds, and a variety of herbs and vegetables that provide the city's thriving African population with tastes of home.
Got a pampered pooch with persistent problems? We heard about Pete Stewart's Good Manners Dog Obedience School through a friend who owns three huskies. Figuring someone with a pack of dogs oughta know, we checked it out for ourselves. Like most "parents," we were a little apprehensive about dropping our little one off for two weeks, but our fears were unwarranted. We watched as Pete, armed with a collar, leash and a handful of treats, took his 47 years of experience training dogs and matched it up against the powerful will of three-month-old Molly. She was sitting, staying, heeling and lying down with nothing more than the gentle command of Pete's voice in just about two shakes of a dog's tail.
A scratchy tape of "The Wedding March" blasts from a boom box in a room in Kipperman's Pawn Shop, the walls of which are painted pink and gold with a mural of flowers splashed across one wall in hues of Mercurochrome and MD 20-20. Owner Ted Kipperman, dressed in red vestments, has pronounced another couple man and wife. The wedding service, for which Kipperman provides a free Polaroid memento, also comes free if the couple buys their wedding rings (or a gun) at the pawnshop. During the mid-'80s oil bust, people were pawning everything, but they just weren't buying. Kipperman, who likes to stay on top of the times, came up with the idea, in part because rings and guns are the most expensive items in a pawnshop. He obtained a minister's license, and he has married scores of couples since he started. A few years ago the idea man took convenience to the next level, converting a guard shack at the shop into a drive-thru wedding chapel. Couples can use their own cars, or they can rent a limo from one of Kipperman's fleet of three. Roll down the window, say "I do" and roll down the road, either admiring your shiny new ring or packing your new piece. Kipperman likes to give people choices.
Like connoisseurs of fine wine, vintage shoppers have their high standards. While those in search of the perfect merlot might sniff the cork, hold the glass up to the light and sip with discernment, vintage clothing shoppers must know: Are there any noticeable stains? Does the zipper work? Do polyester pants make my ass look huge? Fans of these queries, take heart: The Way We Wore is the store for you. Friendly owner Pam Nunnally will be glad to help you find just the right smoking jacket, or honestly tell you if those '70s-style heart-shaped purple sunglasses make your head look freakishly large. The store (an old house in Montrose) is well organized, the clothes are in good shape, and the tremendous selection of '40s swing dresses, ruffled tuxedo shirts and '70s disco gowns seems to go on and on. And if you're looking for an outfit for a special onetime affair, you can rent instead of buying. Yes indeed, if The Way We Wore were a bottle of wine, it would be a $300 bottle of some fine chardonnay. Except when you leave this store, you'll be drunk with happiness and looking really sharp.
A few weeks back we heard a woman walk into the bakery and say she was new to the neighborhood and needed to find a good place to order a cake for her mother's upcoming birthday celebration. If there were such a thing as the dessert jackpot, this woman had hit it. She asked a few of the people in line about the bakery's reputation. One person gestured to some of the letters on the wall -- letters from a former governor and president, as well as one from a former governor-turned-president. Another person told her to walk into the dining area (Acadian Bakers also serves lunch) and take a look at the pictures on the wall. There are photographs of cakes in all kinds of shapes and sizes and colors, a sign that the bakers of Acadian are up for any decorative challenge. More than mere bakers, they are cake designers. So what can you get ready-to-go should your sweet tooth cry out for immediate satisfaction? Go for a lemon bar, but only if you're a lemon lover. If chocolate's your thing, try the brownie chocolate mousse cake. Those are the favorites of the woman behind the counter, and she should know.
Here's an only-in-Houston experience that defies easy explanation. The owner dresses in authentic Nigerian garb, and the music pulses with the beat of big African drums. And the place sells African, Caribbean and Yucatecan cooking ingredients. If you're wondering what East Mexican and West African foods have in common, check out the shelves of this little market. You'll find all kinds of peanuts, plantains and fresh herbs common to the two cuisines, and things you've never seen before. Like giant dried fishes and little bags of dehydrated wild greens. Mex-African Foods also is a popular place to rent the latest African movies and buy African music on cassettes.
If they don't have the kind of cheese you want, and it's available in the United States, they'll find it and order some. That's one mighty big if, though, with a selection in the neighborhood of something like 500 different cheeses, with 588 ("weighed" and "not weighed") listed on their Web site. If you haven't found the section of Spec's dedicated to gourmet foods and the deli, you haven't truly experienced Spec's. Uwe Perschke is the buyer for specialty foods and cheese. His favorite is from his homeland, the German Tilsit. That's just one of the many imports Spec's carries, along with countless domestics. They've got hard cheeses, soft cheeses, semisoft, hard rinds, various different fat contents, dessert cheeses, goat cheeses, Brie -- the list goes on and on. The most expensive cheese in the refrigerated cases is the Roquefort, owing in part to the tariffs from France. The nutty but sweet Emmentaler, a cheese from Switzerland (with holes, natch), is the most popular, although sales of the creamy English Stilton have classified it as the "yuppie cheese." Even if you don't know much about cheese, Spec's employees can look up what cheese goes with a particular wine. Your secret's safe with them.
Lions and tigers and bears -- oh, my! You'll find these creatures plus monkeys and turtles and alligators at Animal Creations. All sorts of fuzzy friends await you in this plush menagerie. Like the jungle, Animal Creations is home to a varied and diverse population. Say you're looking for a snake in this Year of the Snake, well, you have many to choose from. There are soft ones with silly cartoon tongues and droopy eyes, long ones that can wrap around you, and little ones that bend and keep their shape. As if this place weren't cute enough already, it also carries a decent sampling of Sanrio products.
From an unassuming shopping strip off Bellaire Boulevard, Francisco Garza offers customers "cures" for their heartbreaks and health woes in the best healing tradition of Mexico. His yerbería is chock-full of the teas, herbs, soaps and votive candles that folks believe will win them love, luck and even cures for diabetes and other ailments. Shelves overflow with a rainbow of perfumes, which include the scarlet-hued chango macho (male monkey) which believers say brings luck with money; and the deep blue Yo puedo, tú no (I can, you can't). The shop has an array of soaps like Ven a mí (Come to me), whose box features a picture of a woman dreaming about a man. There are big jars of herbs like epazote, and nopal-cactus powder for diabetes. Visitors will find a full range of saint statues, and votive candles in a variety of colors, dedicated to the likes of St. Anthony and Pancho Villa. Garza, who founded the store 11 years ago, says that many of his customers choose his wares over seeing a doctor.
For more than 30 years the Wheeler Watch Clinic sat near the grubby corner of Wheeler and Main. Now it's nowhere to be found on Wheeler. Don't worry. It kept the name, but moved down the street more than a year ago. Now the modest little shop sits at Main and Anita and watches as Metro tears up the street in front of it. Wheeler Watch Clinic is a family affair; it's not unusual to see three generations of the Galvan family in the store at any given time: Grandpa and Grandma, the couple's sons, and wide-eyed toddlers who take shaky steps around the shop. The Galvans have built this business on honesty, and the prices prove it: They're so reasonable. Getting a battery changed costs $6.50 for most models. One customer reports that she had her watchband fixed there for a mere $2. "Two dollars!" she enthuses, "You can't buy anything for $2 anymore." Wheeler Watch Clinic also has a little pawn-shop area and is an authorized Pulsar dealer, but the selection of watches is not as good as the service.
Vitalis Onu recoils at flowing, overelaborate garments that prompt onlookers to query, "Who's that prince?" For Onu, the creator of the fashion line Citalis, the key is graceful simplicity. That principle is evident throughout the native Nigerian's vibrant showroom in an office building on Richmond near Hillcroft. The racks overflow with robes, caftans and woko suits made of silk, linen and other materials in a variety of shimmering colors. Each piece bears Citalis's stunningly elegant embroidery work. A lovely dark gray caftan comes with swirls of blue stitching down the front. A checkered silk robe features olive-green squares set against a pea-green background. Citalis offers men's and women's wares, custom-made and off-the-rack. Prices for blouses with matching skirts, and for men's outfits, range from $200 to $350. The store also offers velvet hats decorated with lace. While distinctively African, Onu's designs include crossover lines for American buyers. His wares can be found in stores like Festari for Men in the Galleria area. A tall, elegant man dressed in a gleaming black woko suit, Onu summarizes the exacting standard to which he holds himself: "If I can't wear my clothing, I can't sell it."
For selection, you just can't beat Planet Anime. This Rice Village store has more than 2,500 tapes for rent, and many for sale, though approximately 400 were destroyed by the flood. Looking for Cowboy Bebop, BubbleGum Crisis, Martian Successor Nadesico, Ranma 1/2 or Tenchi Muyo? Planet Anime has got them in subtitles, so you don't have to watch bastardized, dubbed American versions. The small store, which also does mail-order business, carries manga (comic books), T-shirts, wall scrolls, action figures, stuffed animals and other enticing imported goodies that won't let you get away without paying through the nose. Where else can you get an adult-sized costume of a furry animal from one particular anime series? (And where else could you spot a store clerk wearing one of these?) Perhaps the oddest touch is the TV behind the counter that often blares music videos by the Japanese versions of 'N Sync and Blink 182 with nonsensical English names like Bump of Chicken and Da Pump.