The Fountainhead

Some of the best establishments in fast-growing Houston are situated in quickly slapped-together-looking strip malls, including The Fountainhead, located off of Farm to Market Road 1960. The tavern-like hole in the wall makes it worth trekking Interstate 45 past Beltway 8 to feel the right-at-home goodness that will probably include a spirited conversation with a regular over a stiff drink and/or a game of pool. If you're short on smokes or feel like making friends through the power of cigarettes, walk across the street to the Sound Revolution smoke shop (which also boasts an impressive collection of used and new LPs and CDs) and pick up a pack of fags for you and your new buddies at this welcoming neighborhood dive.

Notsuoh
David Rozycki

An anarchist punk, a woman in a sexy dress, a musician who plays the guitar strings with pieces of yellow and red chalk, some chess players and a homeless man walk into a bar. That bar is Notsuoh, which is connected to the equally curious Dean's. It's a sleepy Tuesday night — not even a bustling weekend evening — and these folks have found themselves inside this gritty downtown hang housed in one of Houston's oldest commercial buildings. On weekends, add in some metal bands, alt-thinkers and tourists who have ventured over from Hotel Icon, and you're all set for amazing people-watching.

Joystix Classic Games-Pinball

Joystix is the kind of arcade you have to plan your month around. The rest of the time it's a retailer of all sorts of tabletop amusements available for sale and rental: billiard and air-hockey tables, photo booths, etc. But the first and last Fridays of every month, after 9 p.m. the showroom near Minute Maid Park becomes a wonderland of power-ups and extra balls known as "Pac-Man Fever." Accompanied by a period-appropriate soundtrack, Joystix sets its more than 200 machines to free play and lets patrons go crazy. With everything from the good old Pac-Man and Mortal Kombat you remember from the 7-11s of your youth all the way up to a hulking monstrosity with a 42-inch LED screen based on the movie Terminator: Salvation — plus row after row of pinball machines and racing simulators and a full bar via neighboring Eighteen Twenty Lounge — Joystix is everything you can ask for in a man cave except perhaps strippers or porn.

NJ's

The patron saint of NJ's is Miss Norma Jeane Baker, the pinup model who became film icon Marilyn Monroe. Her glorious image is plastered all over the front room of this Oak Forest neighborhood haunt just off the Northwest Freeway. From the street, NJ's looks a lot smaller than it is once you get inside, with a pool hall and gaming room in the back adding more drinking space. The covered smoking area out front feels more like a cozy garage than the forbidding zones where most bars throw their smokers.

Valhalla

You want cheap? Even today, the most economical beer selections on the menu at Rice's venerable student pub are available for less than a buck, and the wine is just as good a deal, relatively speaking. (And we're talking Lone Star and Ziegenbock, not Schaefer and Texas Pride. Volunteer bar staff keep the price down; your tips go toward communal semi-yearly parties for them all.) You and your beau or belle will hear some great conversational mots from the assorted rapscallions and ne'er-do-wells who frequent the dominion below Rice's old chemistry building, and if it all gets too much, you can get your bevvies to go and either relax on the Saint Augustine outside or stroll amid the live oaks and magnificent edifices on the campus. And all this can be yours for $15 or less.

Earlier this year, Japanese artist Yasuaki Onishi filled the Rice Art Gallery with what seemed to be a floating mountain. Onishi, who uses a process he calls "casting the invisible," created the installation over a three-week period. He and an assistant first draped plastic sheeting over stacked cardboard boxes, then glued the sheets in place with black hot-glue, which was dripped down thousands of plastic lines hung from the ceiling. Onishi removed the boxes to leave a void. The effect was mesmerizing. Under the sheets was empty space; above the space was a torrent of what seemed to be black rain. Visitors walked around and through the room-size installation, marveling at the weightlessness of it and at the painstaking process that created it.

Big Star Bar

It may lack a skyline view, and it might not sprawl alongside a so-called "creek" like a nearby competitor, but damned if we haven't had more fun sucking down coffin-nails in the backyard of Brad Moore's Big Star Bar than anywhere else. Amid all the picnic tables, there's a quasi-military, sorta-camouflage tent back there that looks like something under which Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John would quaff barracks-distilled martinis, and in the cooler months, fire pits are trundled out to warm chilly partiers. It's dog-friendly and there are lots of crawfish boils? What's not to love? Plus, the whole thing is attached to one of the most unpretentious bars in the Heights, a low-ceilinged love shack replete with thrift-store furniture, a ramshackle pool table, cheap and stiff drinks, and a well-curated CD jukebox, so no tool can ever ruin your night with a rock-block of Creed or Nickelback.

Silver Slipper

You'll likely experience one of the unique evenings in your adult life dancing alongside (and oft-times with) the regulars to live and legit soul, blues and R&B on the Silver Slipper's black-and-white checkerboard dance floor. And even if you're saddled with two left feet, the heavy eyes of judgment from the decked-out ladies and the three-piece-suit-wearing gentlemen will never look your way. If you get hungry, replenish with an order of delicious, tender catfish served with a side of fries, then get back on that dance floor that's been holding it down since the Cormier family swung open the doors to its Fifth Ward shotgun shack for the first time in 1952.

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Even when this complete dive in the East End isn't hosting real-deal punk and metal shows that run in the $5 to $7 cover-charge range, the punk-ness oozes from the cans of PBR and the raucous back patio. The best times are Fridays and Saturdays, but even off nights are awesome, such as when Dallas-based Dead to a Dying World headlined a Sunday-night gig on New Year's Day. The Swan also hosts the occasional festival, including Unite to Destroy, which featured two evenings of get-trampled-in-the-pit punk and metal from Texas-based groups such as Gall and Turbokrieg as well as national and international acts. In true punk form, pinning down exact show dates, times and lineups is an elusive proposition. Instead, you'll have to check the posters on the bathroom doors of the Swan, the flyer shelves at Sound Exchange on Richmond, or ask your local punk.

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