Houston is a city of constant evolution and rebirth. And I think more than anything else, the ever-changing landscape is what defines this city for me. Houston seems to continually be in a state of flux, modernizing or reinventing parts of its past in favor of newer development.
This cycle of renewal is one of the things that makes Houston an exciting city to live in, but it also means that some of the unique places that give Houston it's flavor are not guaranteed to be around forever. Most people get used to certain businesses being "around." We pass them in our cars, taking note that the cool old-fashioned looking store has always been there, and then one day we're shocked to see that place is closing down, and will soon be gone forever.
It's probably a good idea for us to enjoy some of these establishments while we can. Places like..
8. AAA Restaurant - 2526 Airline Drive
Triple A Restaurant is a throwback to an era of eating out that seems out of place in modern Houston, and I mean that with great affection. Serving "Traditional American Style Food" and family owned and operated, this place looks like it was last renovated sometimes in the 1970's, and that's a good thing. It has wood paneled walls that were probably in style when Nixon was President, and most of the waitresses seem to be in their 60's, probably having worked there for decades.
The comfort served at AAA Restaurant is simple but delicious. Don't expect a fancy kale salad or craft beers, but do expect to leave satisfied and well fed with the sense that you just stepped back in time 40 years. The place is located in the slightly seedy part of Airline that looks like the nearby Heights did several decades ago, which somehow adds to the restaurant's charm.
7. Canino Produce Company - 2520 Airline Drive
Sharing the same huge, pitted parking lot as AAA Restaurant is Canino Produce Company, which has operated since 1958 as an inner loop farmers market. The place has grown to over 20,000 square feet, and is one of the area's best places to find locally grown produce and other goods. Behind the main produce building is a flea market-style area with all sorts of stuff being sold in the stalls. Whether you're looking for local honey, hot sauces, or produce, or want to browse a selection of weird statues and piñatas, Canino Produce Company is a great place to start.
6. Doug's Barber Shop - 219 E. 11th Street
This barber shop is about as unique as possible, and it would be a true loss to Houston if it ever shuttered it's doors for good. Made slightly famous when it was used as a location in Wes Anderson's film "Rushmore", the place has fortunately not succumbed to any kind of touristy kitsch. It's about as old school as a barbershop can be, and a person could spend multiple visits taking in the environment. The walls are plastered with everything from old newspapers declaring events like the JFK Assassination and the end of WWII, to odd paintings and other weird stuff. It's almost like visiting a museum, or the home of some time-traveling hoarder.
During my last visit there, even the magazine stand proved to be a surprise, as an issue of National Geographic from 1923 was sitting near the top of the stack. There's also a friendly three legged cat calling the place home.
If you're a guy that wants an old fashioned haircut from barbers that still remember how to do them right, look no further. Doug's is also inexpensive, the last haircut I got there only set me back $16.
5. C & D Hardware - 314 E. 11th Street
Open since 1951, this hardware store right up the street from Doug's Barber Shop is one of the few independently owned hardware retailers that hasn't been crushed by the nearby Home Depot and Lowe's. Unlike those big box stores, C & D still has a lot of the neighborhood charm that the Heights area is known for. Yes, it may not have every supply you'd need to build a house from scratch, but it carries most of the things that an average person would need to fix up their place. Unlike the giganto big box retailers, C & D also has a lot of quirky items and gifts for sale. On a recent visit I noticed balsa wood glider kits near the cash register area. I hadn't seen those in years. If you need to paint a room, fix a toilet, or buy a house-warming gift for someone, C & D is a good place to look, and is far more charming than the warehouse environment of a Home Depot or Lowe's.
4. Alice's Tall Texan Drive Inn - 4904 North Main Drive
The Tall Texan is not exactly "unknown" as it regularly seems to make it into lists of the best dive bars in Houston, but it feels like a mostly undiscovered drinking hole whenever I go there. The place is small, there's hardly any parking, and the older ladies that run the bar seem to have a not extremely friendly attitude most of the time. But the jukebox has a pretty good selection of old country albums. The mix of old people playing dominoes and younger weirdos is an interesting one, and the beer is cheap and plentiful.
There is ancient wallpaper with a western theme that looks like it could've been on the bedroom wall of some 10 year old boy back in the 50's, and there's a pool table, albeit one with little room to maneuver around. But the real appeal of the place is the completely unpretentious atmosphere and the beer. For $1.50 you get a frozen schooner (basically a large glass goblet) of either Lone Star or Shiner. So for less than the cover charge at some trendy bars in town, you can cultivate a healthy buzz while listening to some cowboy singer trying to get your tear in those beers. It's a beautiful thing, check the place out.
3. Guy's Meat Market - 3106 Old Spanish Trail
The stone exterior and brightly painted signs advertising BBQ make Guy's Meat Market look different and dated in a charming way. While lots of area BBQ restaurants are basically new buildings made to look authentically old and rustic, Guy's is the real deal, and the building dates to the late 1950's.
The interior is equally anachronistic, with old butcher tools and other items everywhere a visitor might look. There's a display case full of old beer cans, many of which haven't been available for years. Guy's is an old fashioned meat market featuring ancient wooden butcher blocks and meat cutters that have been in the business for decades, and is a throwback to a different era.
The other half of the small store is dedicated to the shop's award winning BBQ and smoked burgers, with fast moving lines to get those items during much of the day. Although the shop has been featured in national magazines and local press many times, not much has changed at Guy's in years. It's a great place to soak up an authentic atmosphere that seems out of place in time, and to get some great food while doing so. Arrive between 11 and 1 if you want one of the award winning smoked burgers they're famous for, as they usually sell out.
2. Southpaw Guitars - 5813 Bellaire Blvd.
Located on a stretch of Bellaire Boulevard where run down strip centers replace expensive homes, Southpaw Guitars is the world's largest retailer of left-handed guitars, including a nice selection of vintage instruments. The place doesn't look like much from the outside, but once a person enters the store they'll find a great guitar shop lurks behind it's doors.
Left-handed players, who were once given the lame advice to "Learn to play right handed" or to "String the guitar upside down" will rejoice upon discovering this shop, and it's a fun place for guitarists that play standard instruments too.
1. Southern Importers - 4825 San Jacinto St.
Southern Importers is located in a nondescript building just outside of the core of downtown Houston. It has long occupied the space, and offers customers all sorts of costuming possibilities, ranging from professional stage or film makeup to goofy Halloween costumes. The place has lots of cool rubber masks and fancy fabrics for people interested in sewing their own clothing, as well as many other hard to find supplies. Southern Importers is just the place you'll need if you're looking for a chicken mascot costume, or need party supplies for almost any theme. It's a fun store to just walk around and browse for awhile. Some people will find themselves asking "Do I really need this giant rubber nose and oversized novelty hat?"
The answer is obviously yes. Yes you do.
It makes sense that a city as large as Houston would be filled with many one of a kind businesses, and it is. This list just scratches the surface. Many of these shops seem to be very successful, and they probably are. But in a time period where brick and mortar stores are closing, constantly under pressure from big box chains and Internet shopping, we should try to frequent them while we can. Many of the more unique places are small family businesses, and may not continue indefinitely. They are treasures that give Houston a lot of its unique charm, and are worth the time and effort to visit.