Hard Times and Misery Saloon A couple of blocks west of Jack Johnson Boulevard squats this neighborhood bar, which rivals a Mexican cantina called El Higado No Existe ("The Liver Doesn't Exist") and a rough pub in Lancashire called Dr. Syntax as the very best bar name we've ever come across in a couple of decades of spending time in the cursed joints. Remember -- it's not just Hard Times you can escape from at this saloon; it's Hard Times and Misery. Tennessee Williams couldn't name a bar any better than that.

Best Place to Pretend You're in the Hill Country

Blanco's Bar & Grill
Blanco's Living inside the Loop, it's easy to forget you're in Texas. In parts of Midtown, it's easier to trick yourself into thinking you're in Saigon; in parts of the Second and Sixth wards it's easy to believe you're in Puebla or Matamoros. But what about Texas? For that, you'll have to swim the country music-echoing sea of Shiner, Stetsons and Wranglers over at Blanco's, which feels like more of a piece of its namesake town, New Braunfels -- or maybe even Marble Falls -- than East Texas.

The Boulder For a garage apartment that really rocks, look no further than this one in a Southampton alley. It is, simply put, a giant gray boulder with windows. And it's on Wrox-ton Street, so we suspect a pun. In a city with no zoning, all too often we end up with giant McMansions looming over postage-stamp lots; in this case, somebody has finally taken that freedom and done something fun instead of grotesque.

The Norman Now here's a place we can see Mr. Ralph Furley holding court. It's the perfect backdrop for Jack tripping, Chrissy bouncing and Janet, well, doing whatever the hell it is Janet does. With its palm trees and mustard-yellow detailing, the Norman looks like it's been transported through a time machine. (Could the name be a veiled tribute to Three's Company actor Norman Fell, who played Mr. Roper?) In an area of town that screams character, this swingin' Montrose pad blends into the mishmash perfectly, without compromising any of its disco charm. Fittingly, the final n in "Norman" dips down in a display of almost intentional kitsch. We don't know how much it costs to rent at this eight-unit complex, but we definitely want to come and knock on the door.

Examiner Newspaper Group Publishing a local paper in tony River Oaks and West University presents special challenges. How do you entice readers who have The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal delivered to their doorsteps? Such was the challenge publisher George Boehme and editor Edwin Henry faced in 2001, when the pair launched the weekly West University Examiner. A slow, steady readership followed, hooked by Henry's authoritative, hard-news take on local stories. A River Oaks Examiner followed, and soon the papers were racking up statewide awards for journalistic and design excellence (including coveted Lone Star Awards). Now there's a third Examiner based in Memorial, making this impressive publishing entity one to watch in an era of declining newspaper readership.

Bailey Moore's State Farm Insurance Office The fab window displays at this insurance office often go unnoticed. The unassuming building under U.S. 59 on Montrose might not grab your attention unless you were walking past it or stuck next to it in traffic due to all the construction. And the displays aren't for the dim-witted or imagination-impaired. When the Clara Harris trial was unfolding, the display featured a toy car running over a doll. And during Pride Week, Dorothy's blue-and-white gingham dress and ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz hung in the window for a gay-friendly display. This time of year, catch the infamous pyramid of white shoes and a red crossed-out circle flashing in the window -- a reminder that white shoes are a no-no after Labor Day.

The Waterway at Woodlands Mall Only in the Houston area could you discover a pristine 1.25-mile water route steps away from a P.F. Chang's. But there it is, winding through the Woodlands Mall, featuring a water wall, fountains, pedestrian bridges and even water taxis. The taxis run every ten to 15 minutes from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the week. Group charters and dinner cruises are available, too. Take a break along the way to pop into Barnes & Noble or the Cheesecake Factory before becoming one with the water again. Part of the walkway is still under construction, but it's already worth a visit.

Vargo's This place is strictly old-school. Its location on eight acres of plush lakeside gardens means it's also strictly gorgeous. Private parties and functions are their specialty, and the old pros at Vargo's have helped hundreds of happy couples achieve nuptial nirvana, since they know how to accommodate any request. Not satisfied by the menu's country-club fare? They'll work with you. Want your wedding indoors? Outdoors? Lakeside? They'll work with you. After nearly 30 years of hosting, it's no wonder -- with service and scenery so nice -- there's still a generous waiting list.

Rice Addict When publishers Mike Tran and Jesse Choi set out to print a guide of Chinatown, they decided to go the extra mile with a bit of added flavor. Rice Addict features articles on all things Asian in Houston: cutting-edge style, culture and entertainment. Ad sales have been brisk enough to double the number of pages of the palm-sized bimonthly publication, which comes packaged in a tiny rice sack. The magazine now features gadget reviews, fashion spreads, recipes and music articles, and was recognized by the Asian Board of Commerce last year. Rice Addict is available for free at high-end retailers around the city.

Toyota Center
Toyota Center You have to pay admission to use these facilities. What's new? You have to buy a sandwich if you plan to drop a dook in Subway. While it's nothing special aesthetically, the Toyota Center Restroom Committee seemed to pay special attention to an issue many larger venues often forget: the sheer number of toilets. If an entire Rockets crowd decided to head to the head during halftime, they'd be covered. (Well, maybe not, but a Comets crowd for sure.) Another reason the Toyota Center deserves the Toilet Bowl Hall of Fame award: their ability to keep those white walls so graffiti-free.

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