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.

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.

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.

Despite being choked by the light rail construction, the flower stalls along Fannin Street, like perennials, are making a comeback. Need to redecorate for tonight's party or impress a date? The indoor-outdoor markets are still the best place to buy roses without breaking the bank. Ten bucks will usually get you a dozen roses of almost any color that will last at least a day or two. For those just off the trucks from south of the border, $14.95 is the going rate. You can get higher-quality roses, you can get prettier roses, but you can't get cheaper roses anywhere else. And a rose is a rose is a rose...

Diamonds might be a girl's best friend, but they're also as common as a flat highway in East Texas. The mall's no help. Every bauble there is a cookie-cutter version of every other. Instead, try A.A. Benjamin, a tiny showroom hidden in the back of a bank building. Among the many antique and estate delights laid out in the glass cases are hand-cut, one-of-a-kind diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires set in platinum and gold dating back to the 1800s (some even further). Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and La Cloche are just a few of the designers represented in their collection. If they don't have what you want on hand, they'll go looking for it. And if you're really special, they'll even bring the merchandise to you, to view in the comfort of your office or home. You can't get more uncommon than that.

Sound Exchange on Richmond and Black Dog Records were neck and neck for top honors in this category. Both stores have an exquisite collection of rare and long-lost vinyl LPs, often at affordable prices, and they both have their share of eccentric regulars who like to hip the knowledgeable employees to the latest conspiracies. For a while there, Black Dog was in the lead, thanks to its use of incense. But after a second look, Sound Exchange won because of its extensive bargain-basement selection. Yes, for one dollar each, you can get a bounty of lost vinyl treasures: R&B, jazz, Christopher Cross...Plus, the Exchange has a rep for letting local bands -- such as the Jewws and Freedom Sold -- do makeshift shows right next to the record players for sale. Like any good record store, Sound Exchange preserves the independent spirit of music. Now, if it could just add a couple of incense sticks here and there...

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