Under a green canopy of trees, a stream meanders by a series of raised beds boasting a variety of leafy greens. Through the narrow aisles, volunteers' sandals and work boots pad along. The stream feeding the Local Organic Outpost is one of the last that flows over mud and clay rather than city-engineered concrete channels. It feels a thousand miles from nowhere, or at least a thousand miles from the wild pace of Houston traffic, but this urban gardening adventure is just a hop from both downtown and Interstate 10. Launched in 2001 by Joe Nelson Icet, the garden is fueling the boom in organic farmers' markets and health-minded Houston restaurants. It's also a resource for the organic minorities of Fat City, USA. Here is our town's true counterculture. Like the kale, it is vibrant and growing.
Ah, the rich caramels. The hints of chocolate, the earthy aromas and the lingering taste of exploited labor. As so many addicted Houstonians know, a good cup of coffee can be a lifesaver. But what about the extreme poverty suffered by plantation pickers? FairTrade labeling organizations and the high-minded folks at Taft Street Coffee want your cup of joe to be guilt-free. Serving only FairTrade, organic coffees roasted right here in Houston by Katz Coffee, Taft Street is putting its business principles where its mission-oriented mouth is. And the beans aren't suffering for the distinction. Deeply satisfying strains of Guatemalan, Sumatran and blended coffees are yours for the picking at $11 per pound -- without that guilty aftertaste.
For almost eight years, Marva's Psychic Fairs have been a staple of Houston's metaphysical community. The first Saturday of each month, a conference room at the Ramada becomes a veritable Galleria of the world beyond this mere dimension. There are astrologists, palm readers, reflexologists, iridologists, herbalists and tarot-card readers. (Here's an idea: Go to several different vendors and get them arguing about why each sees a different future for you.) There's also a wide selection of jewelry and books, all in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. If you've got any doubts about where your love life or career is going, Marva's fair will have answers. Maybe not guaranteed answers, but answers nonetheless.
This perennial favorite continues its stranglehold on this category for two simple reasons: They stock things you can't get anywhere else in town, and the staffers know their shit. Whether it's a Houston or regional title, import, long-lost record your granddad had, or an obscure EP by Death Cab for Cutie, you can find it at Cactus. If not, they'll order it for you. The store has also started a "Build a Better Music Library" sale that encourages patrons to check out original classic albums on CD rather than buying greatest-hits compilations. And though toys, shirts, videos and knickknacks take up a good chunk of floor space, Cactus still has the widest and most eclectic selection of music anywhere in Houston. Its LP and vinyl business has increased over the past year. Time to reorder those fuzzy black record dusters.
Forking over $15 or $20 for a new CD these days puts a dent in the wallet of many music connoisseurs. Thankfully, there's Half Price Books. Here, you can find used CDs of mainstream artists and popular indie acts priced anywhere from $5 to $8. Lesser-known artists show up on clearance racks, priced from $1 to $3 -- and music collectors should take note of this section. Between all the music that some might say isn't worth a dime, there are out-of-print gems that have gone undetected by the populace for months, many of which go for a lot more on eBay.
So, you want to dress as a naughty elf for that certain someone. Or you want to dodge the landlord (an inconspicuous glam metal wig and pair of Bono shades). We suggest you hit the full-to-bursting rooms at The Way We Wore, which offers an almost endless selection of everything from oversize mushroom hats to false teeth. Whether your kick is identity theft, fetishism or posing at Swing-a-Thons in crisp, new bowling shirts, stop in here for your first stab at glamour. A top hat and tails could help you talk your way into fancy parties, while the right collaboration of tie-dyed platform shoes and bawdy Victorian garb could actually get you committed -- you know, if that's your thing.
Readers' choice: Buffalo Exchange
"Back in the day -- 1977 -- Houston was a sleepy cow-town, known mostly for petroleum-related businesses, serial killers with "Wayne' in their name, and the Astrodome..." So begins the epic saga of Sound Exchange, as told on its extremely entertaining Web site. But here's a spoiler alert: The saga ends with a few dudes running a great new-and-used record store out of a cool two-story Montrose home. If you want the new Avril Lavigne-Clay Aiken duet CD of Celine Dion covers, it's probably not your place, but if you get goose bumps digging through hard-to-find new and classic vinyl, or want to check out a good selection of indie, punk, blues, jazz and rock on a newer technology known as the compact disc, then this little brick house is your home, too.
So, you have a subscription to Wine Enthusiast, own a wine encyclopedia and special corkscrews, and conduct blind tastings at home with vintages from your cellar. Still feel like that's not enough? If you really want to impress your friends and be the ultimate wine geek, fork out $1,500 and take the Wine Fundamentals course offered by the International Sommelier Guild at UH's Hilton School. You'll soon find out there's more to life than just sniffing and swigging. Once and for all, you'll be able to decipher wine labels and know the correct way to store and serve it. And all the tastings are sure to heighten your sense of aroma and flavor, helping make you an expert at food and wine pairings. Now, if you can just fake that French accent.
We counted 20 varieties of wine bags alone at this chic boutique located in the Upper Kirby District. To say the least, it's an oenophile's wet dream. Wait, make that a person-buying-an-oenophile-a-gift's wet dream. Wine charms, wine stoppers and books about wine abound. Need a bottle opener? But of course. They even sell cheese accessories and tasty varieties of wine vinaigrette. The best part, though, is the extras. There are weekly wine classes, and the bar (conveniently located next door) is available for private tastings.
Ever paid someone to wash your car by hand, only to spend another hour at home erasing pesky droplet spots? Sometimes a task isn't worth doing unless you do it yourself. We found a place that allows you, the driver, to dry and polish your car. It's the best of both worlds: a top-notch automated car wash that gives you the satisfaction of erasing every last speck of bird poop and grime yourself. Turn on the stereo, and you've just invented the latest workout craze. Just make sure to bring an extra towel for yourself. In the immortal words of Mr. Miyagi: Wax on.

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