To a lot of people, perhaps, the scene was desultory: a mid-June game between two teams far below .500, the seventh inning of a 7-1 blowout, Milwaukee's Miller Park two-thirds empty. Houston Astro Alan Zinter waited in the on-deck circle. To the fans barely paying attention in the stands, Zinter was just another no-name pinch hitter strolling to the plate. For him, the moment could not have been more tense or exciting. "My knees just shook; I could feel my heart beating in my chest; I could hear my pulse in my ears," he says. But that short walk from the on-deck circle to the batter's box marked the end of a long, long journey for the 34-year-old catcher.

It marked his big-league debut after 13 years in the minors. Thirteen years of bad pay and endless bus trips, 13 years of watching his teammates get younger and younger as former hopefuls gave up the dream or got promoted past him. Big things had been expected of him. He was a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1989, but his big break never came. Somehow, Zinter never gave up.

"If you had asked me 13 years ago at Shea Stadium, 'You're not going to make the big leagues until 2002 -- can you do it?' I probably would've said no," says the El Paso native. "It was frustrating, watching TV and seeing people I had played with or against. I was never jealous -- it just fueled my fire to do more." Zinter says he stuck with it all these years simply because he loves the game. "I've always had heart and dedication," he says. "But I would critique things a lot -- I wanted to be a perfectionist."

But baseball, as he notes, is a game where the best batters fail 70 percent of the time; he had to learn to accept that and not dwell on the times he couldn't get a hit. "I realized I had to change my attitude and think positive thoughts," he says. "You have to not let the bad days be so bad and the good days be so good, but to stay on an even keel."

Each spring would bring the moment when he'd get the bad news that he was being shipped down to the minors. But this year the new Astros manager, Jimy Williams, left him believing his chance would come soon.

Sure enough, his chance came, on that otherwise forgettable mid-June night. Zinter grounded out against Brewer pitcher Ben Sheets. From then on he was a big-leaguer, his career statistics forever listed in the Baseball Encyclopedia no matter what the rest of his future held. Now, instead of long bus trips, he's taking charter flights to four-star hotels in Chicago and Montreal, playing in stadiums he's only dreamed about and basking in the casual locker-room luxuries that veterans take for granted.

"I'm not a prospect anymore. I think I appreciate it all even more now than I would have if I was 23," he says. "I'm enjoying every minute of it."

Gilbert Johnson, co-owner, The Chocolate Bar

Comeback Kids!

That's right, folks, chocolate's making a comeback. Did it ever go away? you may ask. Well, for most of us, no. But health-conscious types now have a new reason to indulge: Chocolate is good for you. A recent Penn State review says cocoa beans are loaded with flavonoids, which have strong antioxidant effects and can lower cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health. (Remember the scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper when the physician recommends a hot fudge sundae as holistic medicine? Not so crazy, huh?)

Whatever their reasons for going back to the dark stuff, local chocolate cravers should be grateful that Gilbert Johnson didn't like Florida. If he had, he might still be there today, and Houston would never have known the fantasyland that is The Chocolate Bar.

Johnson's love affair with chocolate began two decades ago in Kansas City, Missouri. Driven by his passion, he moved to Florida with a business partner to open his own store. After a brief detour through Austin (which, lucky for us, Johnson also disliked), he settled in Houston in the fall of '98 to retire and be an artist. But he was unfulfilled. He longed to return to business -- and to making chocolate.

"For me to be totally happy, I have to have my chocolate world," says Johnson. And does he ever. Since The Chocolate Bar opened two years ago, it has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: Houston demanded 2,000 pounds of milk chocolate last Christmas for the chocolate-covered popcorn alone.

Johnson agrees that chocolate is great for your heart, but he's not talking medicine. He sums up the success of his business with one word: comfort. "After 9/11, our business just went out the ceiling, because everybody was like, 'Oh, I just need a piece of chocolate.' "

"It's about fun and happiness," Johnson adds. "It brings back unbelievably happy thoughts." As customers poke around the shop, marveling at the chocolate ballet slippers (which one clever visitor said were "too too"), the chocolate golf sets, the solid chocolate baby bottles, the violins, the dental kits (!), the dipped potato chips and the outrageous homemade ice cream concoctions, "You can see 'em having these flashbacks," Johnson says. "And regression therapy. I call chocolate a very soothing regression therapy."

It's enough to make you feel like a kid in a candy store. But as Johnson puts it -- and when you visit, you'll know exactly what he means -- "This is not candy. This is chocolate."

Chef Mark Johnston and general manager Soufiane Elaamili, Charley's 517

Comeback Kids!

"Back in the '80s, people used to tell me I had the best restaurant downtown," says Clive Berkman, owner of Charley's 517. "I would laugh and mutter under my breath, 'I have the only restaurant downtown.' "

Charley's 517, which opened in 1971, was originally an old-school dinner house, with waiters in tuxedos and a stuffy private-club atmosphere. But a succession of great chefs elevated the food there to something quite unique. French nouvelle cuisine blossomed there under chef Amy Ferguson in the mid-'80s. And in 1988, the New American cuisine debuted there under London-born chef Bruce Auden, who now owns the highly acclaimed Biga in San Antonio. Arturo Boada, now chef and owner at Solero, followed Auden, bringing a Spanish flair to the classical kitchen long before the Nuevo Latino era. More great European and classically trained chefs succeeded these culinary pioneers. But when a fire closed Charley's 517 in 1994, Berkman decided to try something different.

"Our customers had changed," he recalls. "The old, stuffy, high-end restaurant market was going away and being replaced by this new baby-boomer high end, which was quite different. So we downscaled the restaurant. No more tuxedos on the waiters. And we went to sort of a steak-house menu." The name of the restaurant was changed to Clive's, and Berkman became the head chef. The formula worked for a couple of years, but then in 1998 the city began tearing up the streets. "We started experiencing what Main Street is experiencing right now," says Berkman. The construction was finally finished in 2001, just as Tropical Storm Allison arrived, devastating the arts district. Soon after 9/11 came the Enron scandal. Funding was cut in the arts, and business dried up at Clive's. "Enron, Arthur Andersen, Dynegy and Reliant made up 60 percent of our corporate business," says Berkman. "All of a sudden it was just gone."

About three years ago, Clive Berkman found Jesus. And since July of last year, he has been a minister at Second Baptist Church. For a guy who was raised Jewish, and who had long fought the Baptists over liquor licenses, his transformation was a bit of a surprise. "Now my life has taken on a whole new meaning," Berkman says. The Lord also moved Berkman to remove his toque. "I never was that good at it; I was just all I could afford," he admits. Last year a classically trained Irish chef named Mark Johnston took over in the kitchen. The steak-house menu was dropped, and so was the name Clive's. According to Berkman, Johnston's new menu is a nostalgic homage to Charley's 517 "through the ages," with borrowings from all the former great chefs who have worked there.

"The old classic dining rooms of Houston have faded away," says Berkman. "Maxim's is gone, and Tony's will soon be replaced by Anthony's, if you believe the rumors." Berkman hopes that Charley's 517 can fill the old-fashioned dinner-house void with an elegant place that isn't stuffy or pretentious. It will be a few years before the Charley's 517 comeback pays any dividends. "Downtown is a mess now," Berkman says. "But in two years, when the construction is done, this area is going to take off like a rocket. Then we will really be back."

Take entrance no. 2 off Main, mosey through Rice campus and see what they've done to the place. Rice has one of the few college campuses that you can actually drive through without being accosted by the police or hitting a dead end every 20 feet. If you don't lose your nerve when you see the stadium parking lot (it's awfully big for such a little school), you can cut all the way over to University Boulevard or Greenbriar and sail into West U by the back door, avoiding both the construction and the maddening Bissonnet traffic jams.
Andy Fastow was the creator of those infamous outside partnerships with the Star Wars names that diverted millions from the company to his family foundation and the bank accounts of fellow employees. After winning a conviction of accounting giant Arthur Andersen for illegally shredding Enron documents, government prosecutors have given every indication that they may go after Fastow's scalp next. Runner-up: Hamilton Middle School Principal Kenneth Goeddeke, a fave with parents and students who resigned after district computer police caught him using his office computer to access adult porn sites.
After years of successfully defending local celebrity clients like QB Warren Moon (spousal abuse) and Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich (DWI), former Harris County prosecutor Rusty Hardin finally jumped to the major leagues with national coverage of his roles in the Anna Nicole Smith probate jamboree and the Arthur Andersen shredding trial. Hardin got so under Smith's skin during cross-examination that she immortalized him for the nation's court TV junkies by snapping, "Screw you, Rusty." The lawyer charmed reporters from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal during the Andersen trial with his country mannerisms and hokey off-color suits. He repeatedly ridiculed the government's case with the slogan "Where's Waldo?" Unfortunately for Rusty, Waldo turned out to be Judge Melinda Harmon, whose instructions forced the jury out of a weeklong deadlock and into a conviction of his client.
Minute Maid Park
God bless that American tradition of elections -- those august times when the populace flows into frayed schoolhouse hallways or churches or even humble homes or garages to exercise their voting rights. But the downtown crowd, at least the Republicans, got a better deal on this democratic notion in the party primaries. While the lesser Democrats of the same precincts were packing into the Knights of Columbus Hall, the GOP (as in Grand Ol' Park) was granted access to the airy delights of Union Station, a.k.a. Minute Maid Park. Makes sense. Ballots take on the look of lineup cards. There's a turnstile of sorts to take the straight-ticket voters. The players in this game have already tapped into their base of fan support with fat PAC backing. A dangling chad dispute? Call in the ump. And electoral turnout would soar if they could only expand the process to let fans vote on fresh candidates for some of the Astros' positions -- or even on a new owner.

East End native Carol Alvarado has been crusading for other people's municipal campaigns ever since she could walk, and last fall she finally won her own place on Houston City Council. The former aide to Mayor Lee Brown weathered an acrimonious contest against two opponents to win the District I seat without a runoff. This success came to her despite the fact that she was opposed by both her term-limited predecessor, John Castillo, and the other Hispanic member of council, Gabe Vasquez. The 35-year-old Alvarado won her race by utilizing a wealth of contacts built through more than a decade of community involvement. Somewhere down the road she might just face off with last year's Best Politician, Councilman Vasquez, for the right to become Houston's first Hispanic mayor.
Kyle Janek, a West U anesthesiologist, knocked off former GOP county chair Gary Polland by a decisive 66-34 percent margin in the spring primary for State Senate District 17, effectively putting to sleep Polland's incipient political career. Janek also may have ended Polland's reign as political payout king of the Harris County courts, where Republican judges for years have showered the defense attorney with lucrative appointments to represent indigent defendants. Janek, a rock-ribbed conservative, had to weather a Polland campaign attack that accused him of being a "left-winger." When Republican voters stopped laughing, they went to the polls and voted Janek.
This 40-year-old native Houstonian went public with his battle with severe depression in 1994, and since then he's become a leader in public health care legislation. He's been repeatedly lauded by Texas Monthly in its yearly evaluation of lawmakers and honored by the Texas Medical Association. After disclosing his illness, Coleman began taking antidepressants to control his condition. Last year the legislator was arrested on charges of assaulting the owner of a Montessori school attended by his children. He eventually pled to a misdemeanor and apologized to the man. Coleman denies that the incident was related to his mental illness. Associates point to family history: Coleman's father, the late Dr. John Coleman, a political kingmaker in Houston's black community, was famous for his temper. Coleman also may be taking up the kingmaking role of his dad. He was heavily involved in the campaign of Ada Edwards for the District D City Council seat last fall. Although most of the heavy hitters in the black community went with her opponent, Gerald Womack, Coleman's candidate won.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of