David Rozycki
Quite simply, nobody does it better than Alice and her crew at the Tall Texan. Located on the northern edge of the Heights in a residential area that's anything but hip, this little out-of-the-way watering hole attracts all kinds. From elderly barflies to middle-aged professionals to young movers and shakers, the clientele here generally comes for one thing: the beer. Funny thing is, they only sell two on tap, Lone Star and Shiner. But they're served in frosty, goldfish-bowl-size schooners that, at least for the first few sips, take two hands to lift. They come at a buck fifty a pop, making this about the best deal you're gonna find at a bar in Houston. Occasionally, you'll spot a regular ordering setups to accompany his own bottle of whiskey, but this no-frills juke joint is famous for the beer. Like all good dive bars, the Tall Texan is the place for intriguing, often political conversation. As you sip your beer, sit back and listen to the old codgers pontificate on the president while the TVs play whatever sport is in season and the paint on the walls continues to fade.
Since the 1940s, "fill'r up" has been a popular phrase at Washington and Yale. Nowadays, we aren't talking petrol. Housed in what once was a gas station, this classy, uber-chic bar has a rich sense of nostalgia. The bar still has original tile work from the gas-station era, and its richly colored, comfortable leather and vinyl furnishings are striking. The patio is one of the best in town, with a clear shot of the downtown skyline, as well as a Guinness World Record-holding Absolut bottle sculpture by the Art Guys behind the outside bar. If you want to capture the good times, step inside the color photo booth and record them for posterity.
At the Tavern, the shots keep coming. They happen when the Rockets are on TV, and when patrons down buttery nipples, but that's just the icebreaker. The main attraction here is the bar games. Tavern denizens can shoot pool at a dozen tables inside this spacious sports bar. On the patio, they can take a shot at foosball or air hockey. Video game aces can call their shots on the Golden Tee machine, and trivia buffs can fire off their brains with NTN Trivia. And of course, no serious gaming bar would be complete without a couple of dart boards. Best of all, a majority of these games are set away from the loud commotion in the main bar area. This gives you and your pals a private, clear playing field for some fierce one-on-one action that hopefully won't spill out into the parking lot.
From the title's love-hate relationship with our fair city to the songs themselves, this CD compilation of abrasive Houston rock bands captures the mood of a town just a-fixin' to explode. The skyline photo on the cover is particularly evocative: the twisted images reflected from what looks to be the curvature of the Enron Building mirrors both the beauty and evil that is Houston. It practically threatens to melt the jewel case itself, grafting it onto your hands with waves of prickly heat. It's an accurate representation of Houston's rock scene -- and climate -- both inside and out.
Jason Villegas is the Iron Chef of local artists. Put that man in a room with some random materials, and you can bet he'll walk out with something interesting in his hand. For his "Beast Taxidermy" show at Commerce Street Artists Warehouse, he used cardboard, felt and tape to create a surreal menagerie of animals, including a giant humpback whale and little birdies mounted on the wall like mammals. And his pieces at the last two installments of the "Buffalo Bayou ArtPark Xmas Tree Show" slouched below those of the other artists, but in a good way: Villegas removed the spines of fake trees, creating a lumpy mass of Christmas cheer. And that's just the beginning of this guy's output over the last few years. Now Villegas is on his way to Rutgers to get his master's degree. Let's just hope he comes back.
Readers' choice: Slim Thug
For a band to be the best in any given city, they should sound like that same city. Los Skarnales -- that fearsome agglomeration of ska, norteno, rockabilly, punk, surf and even zydeco -- sounds like Houston. Or at least the funky parts of town -- places like Magnolia Park, where beer-fragrant icehouses stand next to Mexican Pentecostal churches, and every house is on cinder blocks and has a wrought-iron fence. This year's Pachuco Boogie Sound System was Los Skarnales' best album yet, and their live shows are nonstop thrill rides. They may have been around a while, but they've never been better, and Houston's never had a better band.
Readers' choice: Dune*TX
We were big fans of Guava Lamp in its old location, tucked away over there at Shepherd and Richmond, but we like its digs on Waugh even better. The new circular bar, covered in copper-colored tiles, just makes it a lot easier to check out who's checking us out. The clientele seems to have remained pretty much the same, and local poet-comedian-cutie Todd Gresley is still hosting kick-ass karaoke on Wednesday nights. This place really is perfect for when you don't want to deal with the Pacific Street drama -- not that the regulars here don't have a little drama of their own.
Readers' choice: South Beach
No effing contest. Once again, West Alabama Ice House gets the prize. The beer, the bikers, the bands -- this place has it all. Where else can you dine on dogs, pitch shoes and take it to the hole, all in one place? In your own backyard, you say? Well, that's the point. This place has always been more of a family barbecue than a watering hole, albeit one where even your ne'er-do-well uncle can fit in. On any given day the party is populated by hippies, yuppies, kikkers and hipsters. At least a few of them have got to have something in common with your drunk unc. Bring him out, but make sure he stays clear of the horseshoe pit: A lot of these folks aren't the best when it comes to aiming.
Sure, Poison Girl may have come along and seduced away some of this venerable bar's clientele and staff, but Rudyard's has kept on keeping on. Mike Simms has continued longtime booker Scott Walcott's great tradition of quality music; the new outdoor seating area is the tops; and the beer, burgers and fish and chips are as tasty as ever. All of 27 years old now, Rudyard's today seems reinvigorated, somehow a bar apart from what it was a few years ago. Or as Mr. Kipling himself once put it, "Funny how the new things are the old things."
With the Inner Loop getting all cosmopolitan and whatnot, it's often all too easy to forget that you're in Texas. Thank our lucky stars for the Armadillo Palace, Jim Goode's latest paean to all things Lone Star State. There's museum-quality lore on the walls, twangy sounds on the stage, lots of little Texas touches (pistol-grip door handles, saddles on the barstools), the clack of dominoes and plenty of Goode's wonderful Gulf Coast grub. It may not be subtle -- 15-foot, red-eyed, smoke-breathing armadillos like the one outside the saloon's front door never are -- but Houston needs more oases of Texan-ness like this one.

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