We've been to Absinthe Lounge on nights it's so busy that you can't hear a damn thing over the voices echoing off the tile floor, and each time we're more impressed with owner Ralph Rager, who's a machine when it comes to slinging drinks. He's so deft and accurate, so quick with his hands and on his feet, that we can't help but wonder if he wasn't trained in a sweatshop. He'll have people yelling at him from all directions, and he'll spit everything back out with a slice of lime. Seriously, the man's in the weeds less than Tiger Woods.
Texas Art Supply
We're going to have to retire this award unless someone else steps up to the easel pretty soon, but for now the folks at Texas Art Supply can hang up their third plaque in as many years. The place really does have it all: paints, brushes, canvases, easels, stamps, inks, molds, clay, posterboard, books, desks you name it. Good luck coming up with something this store doesn't stock. And, if you do, no worries: You can go online at www.texasart.com and order it.
Is there a shopping center anywhere in America as gangsta-riffic as our own Sharpstown Mall? Each of the mall's entrance halls is lined with jewelry stalls or bling counters, as we like to call them. Of course, there's the Johnny Dang/Paul Wall joint venture TV Jewelry, which now has multiple outlets in Sharpstown Mall alone, and there are about a dozen competitors. All the clothing stores sell throwbacks and other hip-hop gear. The rock and country bins are afterthoughts in the mall's FYE Music store, but the rap bins are stuffed to the gills. Every local rapper from the underground to the top of the charts has a section brimming full of not just all their official releases, but many of their street mixtapes as well. And where most malls would have kiosks offering up scented candles, Sharpstown's have silk-screened Bun B T-shirts and hats that say "Southwest Side" and "Fifth Ward Posse."
If there were any justice in the world, Nick DiFonzo would be a wealthy man. A few years back, the KHOU-TV technician/satellite truck engineer started Bizarrerecords.com, a Web site on which he posted scans of hundreds of the weird, tacky and just plain bad album covers he's found in the thrift shops of Houston and Austin. Several of them, including that of Joyce, a dowdy Sealy pastor's wife, and that of obscure rap pioneer Devastatin' Dave the Turntable Slave, have gone on to become Internet lore they've been picked up by thousands of blogs and online mags around the world. But accept no substitute. Click on over to DiFonzo's site and check out the originals in their native habitat. What's more, he's always adding stuff, so you can be one of the first to jack his newest finds. Not that you should, but...
We used to bemoan the way the Houston 420 franchises were taking over the city. We felt like the Starbuckization of head shops was, like, totally uncool, man. But then we realized that all head shops are already pretty much the same anyway: bongs, hookahs, metal and glass pipes, Bob Marley T-shirts, sex toys, wacky bumper stickers...We were going to say the list goes on and on, but actually that's about it. The real difference comes when you're dealing with the salespeople, and that's where the Heights' Houston 420 smokes the competition. Got a question about how a bubbler or a double-chamber bong works? They'll let you know without going all more-stonier-than-thou on your ass. The sheer helpfulness of the staff is enough to drive a narc insane.
The reigning queen of fashion, this Highland Village landmark is the place for serious femme shopping. Don't let the overattentive sales staff ("May I get you a drink?"), trophy wives and designer jewelry intimidate you. Sure, River Oaks divas drop a bundle on the evening gowns here, but Tootsies also stocks more reasonably priced fashion-forward casual clothes. Plus, get in good and they'll alert you to the fabulous sale days and maybe even hold a little something aside for you. And the shoe department keeps getting bigger and better. We'll take the Charles David platforms in a size 7, please.
Central Market
Central Market is the cure for the common grocery store. Exotic produce, gourmet microbrews, healthy snacks, bubble bath and sweet-smelling soaps, case upon case of tender cuts of meat, freshly baked bread, prepared foods and towering bulk bins vie for patrons' attention in this gourmand's paradise. You'll never again be able to say you don't know where to find truffle oil or a rare spice. Central Market has it, and the in-store foodies, who specialize in wine or cheese or coffee or vitamins and so on, will help you find what you're looking for among the constantly restocked and cleaned aisles. Daily cooking classes on the upper floor of this giant culinary heaven teach old and new chefs how to use knives, prepare sushi or decorate cakes. Even if you don't like to cook, the shelves teem with prepared snacks and meals ranging from new and unique morsels to favorite comfort foods. Best of all, quality store brands such as Central Market Organics and those of parent-company H-E-B mean you can fill your stomach without paying an arm and a leg.
Houston is not the only place you can find this sports authority, but it is the home of what was once known as Academy Super Surplus. It's for good reason that this local favorite has spread its huge selection of boats and bats, shorts and shotguns, tents and tennis balls to 80 stores in ten states. The management never forgets the holy trinity of retail: service, selection and savings. The warehouse-like stores are packed with everything you need for any sport or outdoor activity, from clothes and gear to fishing and hunting licenses. The feather in Academy's cap is its support of hometown teams. A special late-night opening for Astros fans after the conclusion of the National League Championship Series, plus the proliferation of free "Astros: We Believe!" signs at World Series time, equals customers who believe in Academy, too.
The type of cars you'd normally see being patted down with diapers by valets can now be spotted rolling into a $4 car wash. Why? As the name implies, there's a magnetic appeal to a place that offers a job well done. The best part is that you, the driver, are in control of how much or how little of the job you do yourself. Customers wishing to debug or de-bird-poop their Dodges can spend a little time removing those pesky specks with supplied buckets and brushes before a deluxe drive-thru wash sudses and shines the whole shebang. More options abound: Each wash comes with a dollar's worth of vacuum credit to be used or saved. Carisma is the choose-your-own-adventure of car washes.
If you're on the lookout for Elton John-esque specs, funky, cheap or just cooler-than-average eyewear, Smith's Opticians is the go-to place. Owner-optician Phillip Brown is an affable guy with a burning love for spectacles, an affection passed down to him from his dad, who was also an optician. Brown's vintage pieces are sought after by film companies in need of period eyewear, and prices are great on his contemporary stuff, much of which comes from glasses reps who unload merchandise deemed too funky for more conventional retailers. The shop is cluttered with myriad frames and boxes full of random eyeglass cases, but rooting through them is just part of the fun.

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