The best view in the Houston area requires some gas money and a large appetite for Gulf Coast seafood. Head down I-45 to Galveston, catch the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula and follow the signs to Stingaree Restaurant. For optimal viewing, arrive about an hour and a half before sunset and insist on a table by the window. If one isn't available, opt to wait -- your eyes and stomach will thank you. Get comfortable and order the all-you-can-eat barbecue blue crabs ($19.95). You'll be here awhile. As the sun sets, marvel at the massive barges surging through the Intracoastal Waterway. Like it or not, this is Houston's industrial raison d'etre, and even in the chemical light, it's beautiful.
Remove your shoes and shuffle to the front of the hall. The benevolent eyes of a three-ton white jade Buddha follow your steps -- as do those of a hundred lesser gold Buddhas sunk into the front of the aptly named Grand Buddha Hall. The psychic residue of the thousands of devotees who have cycled through this space since it was built in 1989 ease your passage into a comfortable meditation. A quiet walk around the lotus pond puts you in just the right frame of mind. Maybe you'll reach enlightenment, maybe not. For an extra boost, try the temple's sessions in yoga and meditation.
Speed, man. There's nothing more exhilarating. But speed can get expensive: Mustangs, motorcycles, meth -- that stuff adds up! So instead of saddling yourself with more debt (or, God forbid, another nasty addiction), head to Edwards cinema on Weslayan. You don't even have to buy a ticket to ride the theater's outrageous length of fat metal rails into oblivion. Divided into three levels of 16 stairs each, the wide, psychedelically carpeted staircase is adorned with bars set perfectly at hip level. Just throw half of your butt over, take a deep breath, and hope for the best. Wear long pants and sturdy shoes -- here, the landing's the thing -- and keep an eye out for Johnny Law at the bottom.
Andrea Yates is obviously a disturbed woman, and no one can know what demons drew her to (at this point, allegedly) drown her five kids in a bathtub. But in their zeal to make a case, Harris County prosecutors threw away caution. They brought in a California psychiatrist expert named Park Dietz who said he was a consultant for the TV show Law & Order. Dietz ominously testified that one L&O episode had dealt with a woman who drowned her children and was found innocent by reason of insanity. That episode, he said -- and you can almost hear the Matlock-like grumbles among the audience as he broke the news -- aired shortly before Yates killed her kids! And prosecutors had made clear already that Yates was a dedicated L&O fan! Dramatic stuff, if true. Which, unfortunately, it wasn't. No such L&O episode ever existed. Dietz said it was "an honest mistake," but the First Court of Appeals tossed out the conviction in January. Looks like Harris County will need to get a slightly less dramatic conviction.
When the judge is the son of the county sheriff, it's safe to say that criminal defense lawyers aren't going to have the most optimistic feelings heading into court. But 338th District Judge Brock Thomas, son of Tommy, has dispelled any doubts about whether he can be a fair arbiter behind the bench, quickly establishing a reputation for evenhandedness. At 34, he became the youngest Harris County criminal judge when he was appointed three years ago. This year he handled the potentially explosive Quanell X with aplomb and won high honors in the annual State Bar of Texas poll ranking judges. The sheriff's son and former prosecutor has been a pleasant surprise and addition to the county judiciary.
It's a cliche that politicians who are so eager to send other folks off to war sit safely behind their desks. Not Rick Noriega. He was sworn in for another term as state rep this January -- not in Austin, but in a wooden barracks building outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. Lieutenant Colonel Noriega was on active duty training the Afghan army. It's true the state legislature doesn't have much to say about sending troops overseas, but it's still home to more than its share of platitude-spouting pols who don't have to back up their glib patriotism. Even from Kabul, Noriega continued his good legislative work though his wife, Melissa, who temporarily filled his seat and was named "Freshman of the Year" by the legislature's Democratic caucus.
Readers' choice: Bill White
Those of us who weren't living in Houston when Tropical Storm Allison paid a visit seem to have missed out on the kind of bonding experience only tragedy can create. But thanks to TNT ("We Know Drama"), everyone got a chance to see how the courageous doctors at Memorial Hermann Hospital saved hundreds of lives in the titular timeframe. Or sort of, anyway. For one thing, filming in Vancouver kind of slaughters any semblance of verisimilitude -- there ain't no mountains surrounding the Med Center. But who cares when you have none other than Kris Kristofferson, JoBeth Williams and Rick(y) Schroder representing the hospital's crackerjack staff? Okay, so the general consensus was that the movie kinda sucked, but did TNT make any other movies this year about the heroic efforts of doctors in any other cities? Was anyone watching a movie about a leaky faucet in Des Moines? Hell, no! We're sure at least 100 people watched 14 Hours, and folks, you simply can't buy that kind of publicity.
The talent level among Houston television's anchor desks has dropped precipitously in recent years, thanks to vapid newcomers and fading veterans. One longtimer has maintained his A-game, though: Channel 2's Bill Balleza. Thoroughly familiar with our town (you won't catch him mispronouncing "Kuykendahl"), Balleza also tries, as much as possible, to tone down the hype machine that is KPRC. He doesn't always succeed, but even among the whizzing "Big Story!" graphics and live (but meaningless) police chases, the ex-marine manages to maintain the utmost dignity and gravitas in today's TV-news environment.
Readers' choice: Dominique Sachse
While they definitely aren't the sexiest staff of journalists, and they don't have the eye-popping graphics and whiz-bang of the other stations, the veteran tried-and-true hands of KTRK consistently produce the best local newscasts overall. Staffed with a combination of virtual Houston landmarks that have been at the station longer than some of their competitors have been alive (Ed Brandon, Bob Allen, Doug Brown and Elma Barrera all started in the mid-'70s), along with capable newer faces, KTRK presents the news efficiently and succinctly, with no fuss and a strong local bent. The sometimes clownish antics of Don Nelson and Marvin "Slime in the Ice Machine" Zindler even have a kind of bizarre folksy charm. And rock-solid Dave Ward (who's been at the station since 1966) is the closest thing Houston has to Walter Cronkite. And that's the way it is.
Readers' choice: KPRC/Channel 2
When your own station's Web site singles out your "off-beat delivery," you know they're not talking about the recipient of a bachelor's of broadcasting degree. That's exactly what we like about the quirky Scotty Kilmer, the car-care expert who hosts the twice-weekly taped segments. But it's during his Saturday-morning live appearance answering viewer calls that the Guru of Gaskets really shines. As disembodied voices attempt to imitate the sounds of their cars' various ailments ("Scotty, it goes wrrr-wrrr-wrrr-ch-chunka chunka! What do I do?") Kilmer is fast with his simple, direct answers and explanations, all delivered with flailing hands, darting eyes, odd voice modulation and not-meant-to-be-funny pronouncements ("Check your dipstick, it might be foamy"). After he gave instructions during one recent segment about how to start a flooded car, the befuddled caller asked, "So, it has something to do with the spark plug?" That's right, lady. And bonus fashion points to Scotty for wearing the gold-stud earring.

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