Lai Lai Dumpling House
Newly arrived from Boston, the single-named Lai is already making noises on the local psychic scene. The Norwegian native has been featured on television here and in Canada, and she uses a full array of metaphysical tools to help her clients: tarot, past-life readings, "straight psychic" stuff. Remarkably perceptive, she uses all her talents to tell you things about yourself you never knew. If you've been at loggerheads with your boss, you don't even have to feed her information -- she volunteers your past-life histories. Wondering why you didn't get promoted? Lai knows you tortured your boss -- he was a young, virgin girl and you a sand baron -- in Persia thousands of years ago. Some think Lai's own past life was as a gypsy.
Frustrated thrift shoppers at the Washington Avenue Salvation Army Store inevitably wander across the street to marvel at Mid-Century Pavilion's mother lode of cool, retro furniture and find ways to convince themselves that Mid-Century's prices won't break their budget. (Most likely, the budget was left behind at the Salvation Army, anyway.) Mid-Century's space-age-bachelor-pad furniture is the main attraction -- tables, chairs, sofas and lamps that look like they were ransacked from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey -- but customers can accessorize their purchases with vintage jewelry, clothing, kitchenware and objects, such as a vintage deco Bakelite ashtray ($395), which no self-respecting bachelor should live without. Hint: Don't be afraid to haggle.
Readers' choice: Star Furniture
Anybody with a soul will argue that too many Inner Loop bungalows have been bulldozed to make room for that architectural atrocity of the 21st century, the McMansion. But like it or not, builders will keep at it as long as our fair city keeps growing. At least the folks at Benssons Builders are trying to construct something lovely from their Hardi-Plank dreams. A real mom-and-pop operation, the business is owned and operated by Steve and Lynda Anderson, along with British designer Sarah-Jayne Smith. They have been constructing sensibly sized, affordable "cottage homes" in the Heights for a few years now. They feature all the typical amenities, including granite countertops, hardwood floors and postage-stamp yards. And the charming exteriors have the tincture of a sweet home in, say, San Francisco or Boston. Best of all, Benssons stand by their homes. They seem to like nothing better than making their clients feel right at home.
Rice Epicurean Market
Sometimes we all need a break from chicken-fried steak and baby-back ribs smothered in mesquite barbecue sauce. And, well, some of us don't like to eat dead stuff. So when your inner hippie's stomach starts grumbling, hightail it to Rice Epicurean Markets. These classy joints are part of Houston's oldest family-owned supermarket chain, founded in 1937. The first Epicurean Market opened in 1988, with a mission to offer more than the usual fare. Although the folks at Rice Epicurean were the first market to carry Krispy Kreme doughnuts in Houston, you really ought to check out their health food selection. Silken tofu, extra-firm tofu, tofu lasagna, Dr. Soy snack bars -- they're all here. And with fair prices, there's no excuse not to give their broad selection a shot.
The moaners and screamers are mostly men, Ati Shafik will tell you in her delightful Egyptian accent, as she applies a sticky paste of warmed sugar and lemon juice to your hairy parts. It's part of a hair-removal process called sugaring, akin to waxing, but allegedly less painful and damaging to your epidermis. True to her spa's name, Cleopatra's Secret, Shafik will keep your personal hair-removal designs and desires hush-hush, even offering options to protect your anonymity. (Guys wanting to avoid raised eyebrows from gym rats in the locker room should leave belly hair intact, she advises.) Female hair-haters might opt for "The Egyptian," a procedure as old as Cleopatra herself that promises you'll be bare down there, er, front to back throughout. (You'll understand what we mean when Shafik cheerfully tells you on the table to "turn the engine over.") This sugar mama is a savior for swimmers, bodybuilders and even camping enthusiasts, who swear by her back-door treatments when a leaf is your only source of personal hygiene.
We don't care much for porn. It debases both the performers and the viewers, if you ask us. But we've got this, um, friend, right, and this friend of ours has been to just about every adult video store in this sticky city, and that's saying a lot, considering how many there are. So our friend just loves Emporio 30 XXX, even if the name is a little repetitive when you break it down into Roman numerals. (No worries: Next month the place is changing its name to Carmen's 24 Hr. Boutique & Video.) Our friend raves about the selection -- straight, gay, bi, transsexual, even the classics -- and our friend can't get enough of the viewing rooms, where you can flip through 127 channels of sweaty pleasure. And when our friend's done with that, there's an erotic boutique next door with even more fun. Our friend really loves this place.
Thirty-five years ago, Dan and Joy Boone started refurbishing secondhand bikes in their backyard for extra grocery money. Today, they have one of the most popular bike shops in the city. The shop is still in the backyard, but they now have everything from $300 city bikes to a $4,000 specialty frame and fork. In addition to road bikes and mountain bikes, they have an extensive collection of clothes and accessories, including jerseys, gloves, shoes, cleats and helmets. If you buy from them, the shop will also service your new ride free for a year (not including accidents or abuse). As unique as the setup is, owner Joy Boone says the place is easy to miss from the street. "If you're not looking for the bike shop, you may just pass it by," she says. We recommend you don't.
All convenience stores are pretty much the same, right? Wrong. This place has all the basics -- you know, candy, chips, sodas, cigs, forties -- but it's the extras that really make it a cut above the rest. There's incense, faux designer sunglasses and weed magazines galore. (Seriously, we had no idea there were so many mags devoted to bud.) But what really makes this place rock is the young staff (always helpful and friendly) and the music (always jamming and turned way the hell up). Hang around long enough and you'll become an expert in Asian-tinged electronica, not to mention what kinds of nuggets have been coming out of BC lately.
Frankel's Costume
Halloween is but one time of the year to dress up and pretend you're someone (or something) else. For example, you can go rampaging anytime. For the uninitiated, that's when a group of friends all dress up in the same wacky style, be it as Santas, ballerinas or simians, and hit up bars and events en masse just to see how people react. And Frankel's will meet all your rampaging needs. This place has got materials for pretty much any kind of costume you can imagine, not to mention tons of other party favors and magic tricks. You and your friends want to go out as Madonnas? Frankel's has the wigs and bustiers to do it. Y'all wanna go all Jersey-style and dress up as gangsters? No problem -- just grab a suit and a fake gun. And how about faux cowboys? Yep, Frankel's has even got you covered when it comes to stirrups and Dubya masks. Now get out there and raise a ruckus.
Six years ago rapper Paul Wall hooked up with Vietnamese jeweler Johnny Dang, and the mouths of the South haven't been the same since. Dang's skills with grills are legendary in the hip-hop community, as is evident by the man's client list: Lil Jon, David Banner, Z-Ro, Mike Jones and Nelly, to name a few. It's easy to attribute a lot of this success to Wall's promotional skills, but you can't deny the benefits of TV Jewelry's factory-direct approach. You walk in, pick out a style, get fitted and come back when the work is done. And then you get to slobber all over the piece before walking out the door, just to make sure it's going to stay in place. Pearly whites, get ready to shine.

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