In this era of über-chic salons and bewilderingly varied hair products, a visit to a traditional barbershop is a rare treat. And the Avalon Barber Shop is a classic, complete with revolving red-and-white-striped barber pole. Ask for Paul, who'll sit you down in one of the vintage chairs and deftly snip away at your mop as you survey the walls, filled with pictures of faithful customers and a stuffed alligator head. Close your eyes and drift off as he wraps your face in warm, steaming towels. Your pores appropriately massaged, Paul will swab on hot lather and glide a straight razor along your skin with the skill of a surgeon. A fresh "sage rub" aftershave will put some color back in your cheeks. Suddenly, you're as sharp as the well-heeled regulars who've frequented the shop since the 1940s. This is the grooming of kings.
Soundwaves - Montrose
The biggest store in the Soundwaves chain knows how to soothe the savage beasts that are music consumers. Their wide collection of new and used CDs, not to mention hard-to-find import albums and indie releases, is enough to satisfy any music junkie. And the place has become a haven for local DJs, thanks to a vinyl collection that's heavily up to date with the latest dance, trance, jungle, acid jazz and all that other kooky-sounding club music. The store even has a built-in DJ booth for "Saturday Sessions," a two-hour spotlight where spinners can test out the latest techniques on their Technics. Soundwaves deserves some credit -- and not just for those late-night commercials where the big-breasted women bounce around saying their store is the shit.
Being stranded sucks almost as much as towing fees. No more. Nathaniel Mayes III is on the scene. Give him a call, explain the problem, and he'll be out there the same day. He'll check out your car, procure the necessary parts and fix the problem. If he can't fix it right there, he'll tow it himself back to Big J's Power Garage. He won't jack you around. And he's easygoing, so don't be afraid to negotiate. Eventually, Mayes wants his own fleet of mechanics for an expanded house-call business. But if this award affords him more business before that fleet is in place, please be patient. You may also have to sit tight if you call Mayes's cell phone and hear a woman giggling in the background. It'll be a while.
Allegiances run deep among Houston grocery shoppers. Die-hard Kroger devotees are just itchin' to pop a cap in some Randalls-card-carrier's ass. And don't even get us started on the Whole Foods posse. Us, we're members of the Fiesta crew. If you want good food (especially Mexican specialties) at good prices and can sacrifice some decor, this is the place to go. There's nothing fancy here -- including those annoying, privacy-invading discount cards. Wherever you live, chances are you won't have to drive far to find one. Plus, they pipe in oldies like the Temptations and the Beatles, making the shopping experience a whole lot more fun.
You won't find a B. Dalton, Gap or Olive Garden at this Chinatown landmark. You will find an exotic Asian market with fresh produce, meats and seafood; unusual sauces and condiments; inexpensive housewares and decorations; and an outstanding selection of drinks, snacks, candy and sweets. Elsewhere in the building are shops that sell herbal remedies and books on Asian (largely Vietnamese) culture. Hair salons and restaurants lease space, but the turnover rate seems high. Business looks good, though, for the Banh Mi Hoang Son sandwich counter. Asian-Americans, downtown dwellers, local artists and bike messengers drop in for cheap and delicious tofu sandwiches ($1.50) and inexpensive Vietnamese food.

If you let a six-year-old loose in here, the contact high would probably last a week. Sugar. The place smells like pure sugar. There are multicolored cookies; strawberry, pineapple and peach tiramisu; and fresh, original versions of those cinnamon and sugar sticks that Taco Bell and Domino's Pizza ripped off. You can also special-order cakes and cookies and breads. That's right, El Bolillo isn't just for the sweet tooth. There are also hard rolls perfect for smearing with butter or making tuna sandwiches. If you store the rolls in Tupperware, they'll last as long as that six-year-old's sugar high.

Whole Foods Market
Are you a soy newbie? That is, you hear about the soy craze on the news but don't know what the hell you're supposed to do with the stuff? Does the idea of eating tofu make you want to yawn with boredom or gag with disgust, even though it's been shown to cut cholesterol and even fight some cancers? Never fear. Whole Foods Market is the right place to go for a soy virgin. Not only do the four Houston-area stores stock nearly every type of tofu-based product, but most of their goodies are easy to incorporate into the average diet. (Sure, tofu hot dogs sound weird, but wait until you taste one.) Once the helpful staff has introduced you to the mock meats and soy milks, you can venture on to the "raw" tofu and start experimenting in the kitchen yourself.

If you find the aroma of coffee intoxicating, you'll be in heaven at the House of Coffee Beans, which has an on-premise roaster that constantly emits alluring fragrances. The coffee beans are purchased from all over the world in the green state and then medium-roasted in small batches. Looking for some shade-grown, hand-picked beans from a family-owned estate in Guatemala? Here's where you'll find them. In addition to selling more than 100 different types of coffee, they also have every coffee machine and gadget known to man. Prices range from a few dollars a pound to over $40 for the Jamaican Blue Mountain variety, and the staff is happy to offer advice on what to buy. After all, they've been roasting and selling coffee for 30 years, so they really know their beans.

Epicure Cafe
The Austrians take their coffee and cake very seriously. After all, where else do they confer the honor of konditoreimeister, or master pastry chef? (Okay, Germany.) Epicure Cafe owner Khan Esmail is a native of Iran who studied in Austria and brought his knowledge and skills to Houston some 16 years ago. Everything he sells, he makes. Fine European pastries and handmade cookies have undergone even further refinements under his direction. A simple napoleon is transformed into a strawberry napoleon. Cream cakes are embellished with Frangelico, pistachios or cappuccino-raspberry, and his crème caramel is legendary. If you're looking for a way to liven up your next coffee klatch, you'll find the offerings at Epicure simply irresistible.
You wouldn't expect a 1930s-era drugstore and diner to have an attitude, but Avalon does when it comes to gift cards. In fact, it's one of the best places in town to grab a greeting. Four rows and a rack are stuffed with paper salutations -- Weiner Dog and Sunrise Greetings sharing space with recycled products and traditional get-well cards. But those in the know come for the humorous ones, the cards with a little kick. Is a card not going to cut it? The store also stocks wrapping paper and lots of little gifty things -- from fragrances to paperweights -- for last-minute shoppers.

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