That learning can be fun is a good idea in theory, but it doesn't hold up when juxtaposed against a compulsory public school education. And there is something about the concept of an educational toy that seems less playful than a toy ought to be. But Learning Express does its best to dispel these notions, offering a wide array of toys that promote knowledge and still offer kids a rollicking good time. Whether it's the Math Shark or the Geosafari Laptop or a Wrist Rox Bracelet Kit, there is something for every age, gender and interest at Learning Express. Friendly, knowledgeable service cuts against its chain-store origins and that overwhelming feeling you get from a Toys R Us. If you are late for a birthday party and need something fast, not only can you find it here, but Learning Express will gift wrap it as well. That's why the place is a boon to those of us who are poorly organized and might not have been, if we would have only played with more educational toys in the first place.

While the rest of the world seems to love soccer almost to the point of obsession, we doubt that many people in Dallas would be able to identify the name Pelé or tell you when to catch the next World Cup. (And if we valued our status as Texans, we wouldn't dare say that we stayed up till wee hours to watch World Cup games but fell asleep during the Super Bowl.) So, for all you soccer subversives out there, Soccer Corner is a "football" mecca. They have all sorts of equipment for actual players--balls, clothing, protective gear--plus T-shirts and hats for those of us who couldn't make a goal if our life depended on it. If nothing else, being a soccer fan will add a little European flair to your life--especially if you buy the "Soccer Players Do It For 90 Minutes" bumper sticker.

Veggie Garden

Even the chain grocery stores are stocking Boca burgers, Gardenburgers and other fake meat now. But those who want the good stuff--the filet mignon and caviar of the vegetarian world, if you will--can find the largest selection at the Veggie Garden restaurant stacked in freezer cases at the back of the dining room by the buffet. There's Tuno (the fake tuna that tastes like the real deal when mixed with Veganaise, the fake mayo, for Tuno salad sandwiches) and little chicken wings made from soy, with small wooden rods serving as bones. Trust us; they taste much better than they sound. These same fake meats are used in Veggie Garden's all-vegan buffet and menu dishes. Its sister restaurant, Suma's Veggie Cafe, has a small grocery section in its dining room as well.

Of the five Dallas locations and three in Denton County, this Lower Greenville store is the flagship, offering the entire gamut of the hard stuff as well as 1,500 brands of wine, ranging from the best produced by Texas wineries to imports from all over the world. If it's beer you're stopping in for, reserve some time to look over the 100 or more brands, ranging from domestic to imported to microbrew labels. Bottom line is that wine is the specialty of the house, proven by the fact that Goody purchasing director Dick Rick Jr. annually travels throughout Europe, South America and Australia to buy the best of the best.

This category is about quantity. Of the rows of chocolate Super Target sells, which include your standard Halloween-sized bags of Almond Joys, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers bars and the like, there is one deal that will make your eyes pop out: Super Target, the bigger and more upscale version of regular Target, sells a Toblerone bar the size of a fire log for next to nothing. We're talking 14.1 ounces of pure Swiss-made, almond nougat chocolate ecstasy for $4.99. If the triangular-shaped treat isn't your taste, 3.05-ounce Lindt bars can be found for $1.79, and bigger still Cadbury bars, weighing in at a belt-busting 4.05 ounces, go for just $1.29.

Remember the scene in Mallrats where Brodie and T.S. head to the "dirt mall" for a little spiritual cleansing and wind up having their fortunes told by a three-nippled Priscilla Barnes? Well, this place is a little like that; we've never actually visited this flea market's fortunetellers, and there are several, but we're taking it on faith one's gotta have something special up her, ahem, sleeve. If not, there's still plenty o' plenty to keep you occupied from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday--when this joint is open, which means it must be special--from rows of "retailers" peddling "leather" apparel to the dude selling samurai swords (fun for the kids!) to the furniture outlet loaded with stuff we might actually buy, were this 1994. Our fave destination here is the guitar shop--prices so reasonable we bought a National steel and don't know how to play it--but we're also fond of just spending a day without spending a dollar, though the booth selling retro bumper stickers for stoners did get us to cough up a quarter. The dust here got us to cough up a lung.

Listen up, fatty, you've had a lifetime of hard work hefting longnecks and munching chicken-fried anything, so why not put that well-earned gut to a little use and try your hand at the Japanese art of sumo wrestling? (That is, if you can call two really big guys bumping bellies an art form. We would, at least to the wrestlers' faces.) Thanks to this game-rental company, even svelte folk can get in on the action. Texas Sumo provides padded vinyl fat suits--complete with helmets with top-knots--mats and referees for pretend sumo bouts, popular for birthday parties, corporate gatherings and the occasional church group. (Must come in handy for settling those thorny doctrinal debates.) The company also rents a wide array of inflatable carnival games, climbing walls and such (see www.texassumo.com). But for our money, bumbling around in fat suits promises the most fun--just perfect for that big formal wedding reception.

The folks at Zeus have taken issue with our fondness (OK, fetish) for Titan Comics; see only the short piece on its bossman, Jeremy Shorr, to confirm their suspicions. But, see, we love Titan for the comics; it's a fanboy's paradise, a wet dream for those whose erotic fantasies find Power Girl going at it with Black Cat, and meeeeee-ow. Zeus isn't that kind of place, and it just took us awhile to get past that; it's the dork's privilege, if not birthright, to be a little...nitpicky. Actually, we love Zeus, especially come Christmastime or whenever a friend's birthday rolls around; we hang out with people who like comics- and movie-related action figures and board games, and Zeus has plenty, alongside the latest issues of Alias and Detective Comics. We've dropped plenty of coin here on old toys, too--that Captain Kirk doll we had when we were 12, for instance, which now sells for a week's salary (worth every penny...and $20 bill).

Remind us again: What exactly makes Dallas the "buckle" of the Bible Belt? Granted, when it comes to vice we're no New Orleans--our food isn't nearly that good--but when you consider the availability of nudie bars, porn shops and illicit slots here, it ain't exactly Vatican City either. Case in point: Dallas-based Mutuals.com Inc. this summer launched its Vice Fund (www.vicefund.com), a mutual fund devoted to investing exclusively in tobacco, alcohol, gaming and defense stocks--i.e., the growth industries. We can't speak to the wisdom of their investment strategy, but their honesty, at least, is refreshing.

Whole Foods Market

We begrudgingly part with our secret: When we're headed out to a party and don't have time to cook, we stop by Whole Foods, race to the deli, grab a large container of traditional hummus, book it over to the bakery, snatch a large loaf of rustic Italian bread and head for the checkout line. For $10, you get a classier version of potato chips and French onion dip and something less expected than tortilla chips and salsa. Even when we've splurged for the large sizes, we still have never made it back to the car with leftovers. Unless you count smudges of chickpea in the corner of the bowl and a few crumbs in the bag leftovers.

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