Best Place to Take Out-of-Towners

The West End We'll start this driving tour a little outside our spotlight area, at the Starbucks at the corner of West Gray and Shepherd. Then we'll walk across the street and continue planning our itinerary at the other Starbucks at the corner of West Gray and Shepherd. That ought to impress them! Then we'll head west down Memorial to Otto's and casually mention that the elder George Bush eats his brisket there. Then we'll head north into the West End proper, and once there we'll take a gander at all those freaky houses. There's the Beer Can House, of course, at 222 Malone, and then all of those groundbreaking tin houses scattered hither and yon. But for us, the pièce de résistance is Frank Zeni's colossal Temple of Fun at 5420 Floyd Street. In a city with plenty of pretentious columns, Zeni's asymmetric Ionic pillars never fail to make us smile, and it's surely as awe-inspiring as the dueling Starbucks and George I's favorite brisket house.

Richard Mithoff Hard-core neo-cons and corporate guys whine about troublemaking plaintiffs' lawyers, but they actually sweat and pull at their collars when it comes to Richard Mithoff. When officials wanted to sweep away the furor over the senseless police shooting of Pedro Oregon, he kept pursuing the truth. Mithoff also demanded that surgical outfits and doctors be held accountable for a string of badly botched stomach-stapling operations. And he was in the lead on a $1 billion settlement with manufacturers whose faulty artificial hips caused agony for thousands of recipients, many of them poor and elderly. This legal dynamo developed his considerable skills, grace and guts under the best: U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice and attorney Joe Jamail. Now even corporations recognize his credibility and brilliance (he's representing JPMorgan Chase in the Enron cases). His low-key friendliness and philanthropy reflect his character, and if that's not enough, the guy climbs mountains for fun (Kilimanjaro was his last). We're just glad he's on our side.

Michael Ramsey Rest assured that one grand Houston legacy lives on -- that of the wise, witty, sharp, comfortable and confident criminal defense attorney. Percy Foreman and Richard "Racehorse" Haynes set the standard decades ago, and the next generation's Dick DeGuerin, Rusty Hardin and others have gone on to garner their own national recognition. That's especially true of Michael Ramsey, who started out defending his own father, former county commissioner V.V. "Red" Ramsey, against bribery charges. A protégé of Racehorse Haynes himself, Ramsey has enjoyed several recent successes, including the high-profile acquittal of bookie Robert Angleton, who was charged with having his wife murdered (that verdict so enraged prosecutors that they're gunning for him on the federal front). And the Ramsey-DeGuerin-Chip Lewis tag team turned the state's slam-dunk case against Robert Durst (the cross-dressing real estate heir who hacked up his Galveston neighbor) into shambles. Now Enron's Key Lay has his money riding on Ramsey's excellence. However badly Enron turned out, you can bet the house that Ramsey is one wise investment for anybody accused of a crime.

Best Benefit to Living Downtown

Main Street Until recently, Main Street was more Mange Street, with whole blocks of poor wandering souls, piss and construction rubble. It didn't matter that most of downtown was roaring ahead during the last decade. Without a focus, downtown's streets were merely loose threads leading to theaters, stadiums, clubs, new lofts and old landmarks. But it's all coming together now, thanks to the dynamic transformation of Main Street. The posh landscaping, popular clubs and nightlife and, above all, the Metro light rail are forming the new, vibrant corridor that's a blast for nearby denizens and easy to navigate. Credit the downtown district for bringing people together at its Main Street events. The backbone of the Bayou City is back, stronger than ever; and if you live downtown, it's on your doorstep.

Babirusa What if you found a stud with tusks growing vertically upward through his upper jaw, piercing the flesh on his snout and arching backward to a length of up to 12 inches? And what if he was a vegetarian? From Indonesia? Wouldn't he be the perfect bad boy to go with your Montrose cool? Meet Babirusa, the hairless wild pig with a stylish grayish-brown color. He's a swift runner and swimmer, but his favorite activity is mud wallowing. If he clatters his teeth at you, don't be scared. It means he's excited.

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 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 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 Of Houston®

Best Of