Best Place to Act Like a Japanese Schoolgirl

Super Happy Fun Land Tucked into a low-slung, lime-green bungalow in the Heights, a half-block down from a perpetually whirring metal-fence factory, Super Happy Fun Land is a Shangri-la of cute, zany dorkdom. Only here can you sit on a futon, snuggle with an array of custom sock monkeys and play Parcheesi while listening to bands such as Ctrl+Alt+Del and Japanese Karaoke Afterlife Experiment. The adjoining art gallery, with its baby-blue walls and frequently cartoonish exhibits, looks like the perfect place to meet a big-eyed model straight out of the cult-classic Japanese fashion book Fruits. It's no wonder the club hosted the renowned Japanese electroclash band Polysics this year, or that it's the regular meeting place for the anime club. So strap on your leg warmers and plaid skirt, give a little giggle and head to Super Happy Fun Land, the coolest geeky place in town.

Best Place to Hang Out with Local Rock Stars

Poison Girl
Poison Girl Little more than a hole-in-the-hot-pink-wall of a lower Westheimer strip center -- and a brand-new hole at that -- Poison Girl has quickly become the it spot for Houston's Inner Loop punk, indie and hard rock crowd. Not as downright scary as Lola's, nor as off-puttingly hipsterish as the Proletariat, nor as intimidating to newcomers as cliquish Rudyard's, Goldilocks (that original Poison Girl) would find this place just right. The Saint Arnold's is muy affordable; the jukebox is stocked with every variety of Texas music from the Geto Boys to Bob Wills; there's pinball for the wizards; and out back, there's a verdant patio that somehow whisks you away from the urban grit of Darkest Montrose to the wide-open spaces of Austin or the Hill Country. And maybe this bar will keep more musicians from moving to that band-thieving, so-called Live Music Capital of the World -- these days a drink on the back patio is like quaffing a couple in the green room at the Press Music Awards. On one recent midweek night, we spotted members of about a dozen local bands clinking glasses and gossiping about one another. No, there's no stage, and this isn't a music venue, but it is where the musicians really play.

Rives Taylor Complete with round spectacles, bow tie, close-cropped beard and hard hat, Rives Taylor looks the part of a master builder. Taylor studied at Rice University, where he now teaches sustainability and eco-friendly architecture classes (he also teaches at the University of Houston). As the head architect for the Medical Center, Taylor has kept busy. His four-month-old nursing school building at Holcombe and Bertner has been showered with local awards. The building is the most eco-friendly in this region; 70 percent of its materials are recycled, and with rainwater storage tanks, a cooling rooftop garden and smart use of sunlight and shade, the estimated yearly energy savings might top $77,000. But it's Taylor's consistent enthusiasm that makes him the best; he teaches, he lectures, he sits on panels, he writes (in Houston's Cite magazine and others) -- in other words, he actually engages with the city he helps to build every day.

Washington Terrace Civic Association Bordered by Alabama, Blodgett, Ennis, Cleburne and Almeda streets, the neighborhood of Washington Terrace, which surrounds Texas Southern University, is right smack in the middle of the redevelopment maelstrom gripping the Third Ward. Goal No. 1 is to preserve the fabric of the community (WTCA wants to maintain its single-family-home feel and stop town houses from moving in). Cheryl Armitige, the president of the WTCA, says it's a matter of dedication and participation: "Our group works because we all work together. We have young people, older people, renters and owners representing us." But this association isn't dedicated to only redevelopment issues; neighborhood beautification is imperative, and WTCA holds the city's feet to the fire when it comes to faulty traffic lights, deed restrictions and public works cleanups. The association also honors local businesses (recently, Jackson Funeral Home) and individuals (such as local schoolteachers and retired WTCA president Joyce Williams) in successful fund-raisers every other year.

Houston Public Library: Julia Ideson Building
Houston Public Library Maybe it's not as glamorous as one or two brand-spanking-new sporting arenas. And maybe it doesn't have the sexy, futuristic cachet of the automobile-hunting light rail. But the Houston library system offers something those other budget-gobblers can't: free knowledge. Sure, there's the occasional overdue-book penalty, but it's relatively cheap compared to the price of getting the light rail dents out of your car. And really, nothing's more forward-looking than free reading programs for children, or free summer learning and activity centers for adults, including computer and art classes and free movies. The library system has a minuscule budget, but with three branches being renovated this year, it's a positive alternative to expensive stadiums and destruction-derby transit systems.

Best Place for a Lunchtime Tryst

Skyline Bar and Grill
Skyline Bar and Grill People love a good view. It's so steadfast a truth, in fact, that when the Hiltons opened a restaurant on the top floor of their new downtown convention center hotel, they named it Skyline Bar and Grill. The marketing team, no doubt, was promptly given a bonus. The Hilton is located stealthily on the outskirts of downtown, so if you're meeting that secret someone (or if just the thought of walking a block in Houston's heat makes you sweat), the valet will gladly accommodate you. The drinks and French/ Mediterranean/Asian fusion fare are a bit pricey, but you knew that going in. It's the Hilton, not Motel 6. So enjoy your lunch, blow a kiss, look into each other's eyes and then get a room.

Katie McCall Ever since it hit the air four years ago, KHWB's nightly 9 p.m. news broadcast has been a welcome addition to the Houston media scene -- solid reporting, not a lot of glitzy hidden-camera investigations of strip clubs. Epitomizing the station's less-frills, more-facts approach is night reporter Katie McCall. A cum laude graduate of Vanderbilt (in Spanish and English, no less; no RTF major here), she's been at KHWB since the start-up, having come over from a Tucson station. The Chicago native was the first to report that Andrea Yates had been hospitalized after refusing food; less seriously, she landed the only interview with Janet Jackson's tailor after the Super Bowl. Whether it's the Enron epic or the latest weather disaster, McCall brings a sharp eye and an aggressiveness to get the story, and get it right.

Jeffrey Arndt Metro has gotten its fair share of grief over the past year, what with the new light rail train barreling over cars and pedestrians like a vengeance-seeking instrument of an angry god. But the fender-benders draw attention away from just what the agency has accomplished: a smooth opening of a $324 million rail line and, even trickier, the transition needed to get Main Street commuters off their buses and onto the train. And all this had to be accomplished with a Super Bowl coming to town just a month after the grand opening. Where should the credit go? A lot of it is owed to Jeffrey Arndt, Metro's senior vice president of operations. Arndt has worked in a wide range of jobs in his almost 25 years at the agency; he's excelled at both the slow-but-steady jobs like improving service for handicapped riders and the sudden disasters like dealing with Tropical Storm Allison and emptying downtown Houston on 9/11. Just because Houston drivers can't see large trains doesn't mean that Arndt hasn't had a good year in a largely thankless job.

Jim Blackburn Houston is a city where it's always good to have the phone number of an environmental attorney handy. After all, you never know when somebody's going to decide to build a container port on your favorite spread of wetlands, covertly spew toxins into your air or simply dump a bunch of crap in your backyard. So thank your lucky water lilies for Jim Blackburn, Houston's environmental lawyer extraordinaire. Blackburn might not always win his cases (hey, it's Texas), but he's almost always on the side of nature and the little guy. Winner of the National Wildlife Federation's 2001 Conservationist of the Year Award in the legal category, Blackburn also does his part to reach out to his community. He teaches environmental law at Rice University and helped organize this year's Global Forum on Water as well as an air pollution conference for the State Bar of Texas. This fall, keep an eye out for Blackburn's name on bookshelves. His Book of Texas Bays will be released in October.

Goode Co. Barbeque When it comes to native pride -- the kind that makes you want to hook your thumbs inside your overalls and throw your chest out -- no state in the union does it quite like ours. Everything is bigger in Texas; everything, that is, except for irony. Hey, we are bigger than France, aren't we? The entreaty tattooed on the side of Jim Goode's barbecue barn is no thrift-store kitsch phrase -- it's earnest, it's the real deal: "You just might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars that you're in Texas." The old-timey jukebox, the DIY ice chest of beer, the assorted horns and antlers on the wall and ol' Jim looking like the lost fourth member of ZZ Top -- in a culture of affectation, premature nostalgia and placeless chain eateries, these are artifacts without artifice. So slather up a plate with our finest national export and ask yourself this question: Is there anywhere you'd rather be?

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