A while back I stopped by Blanco’s Bar & Grill for a cold one and owner Karin Barnes was chatting with some customers who had read the CultureMap exclusive about the closing of the longtime River Oaks honky-tonk.
She pointed me out as the writer and they came over to ask where they could go for a similar experience of Houston history, cold beers and food.
But I really couldn’t come up with an alternative.
Maybe the Goode Company's Armadillo Palace. It has a similar kitsch, Texas food, good drinks and bands for boot scootin’. But it’s not as cheap or as historically relevant. Blanco’s has been a rodeo and neighborhood favorite for more than four decades.
We are losing some of the city’s history and the quirky spots that make us cool.
Of course, Blanco's land was recently sold to the nearby St. John’s School and the honky-tonk is set to close this November and get torn down. (The owners say they are exploring the possibility of reopening in a new location.)
Then word came this week that Marfreless, the no-sign bar that’s been a fixture in the River Oaks Shopping Center for 40 years, is closing. Known as a make-out spot and late night bar, the owners say they cannot afford the rent anymore.
And that’s really the problem for these longtime places, the real estate they sit on inside the Loop is exploding as the city’s economy skyrockets and thousands of people move to Houston for the jobs being created here. It’s just a fact of life in a booming city.
But it’s also a fact that we are losing some of the city’s history and the quirky spots that make us cool.
Which is why I stopped by West Alabama Ice House the other day. I must drive by it several times a week, but it’s been years since I dropped in.
The ice house sits on a corner of inner Loop land that Harris County Appraisal District values at $672,718 as of January 2012.
It’s just an outdoor bar surrounded by picnic tables, a basketball hoop, dogs lounging around, old geezers drinking beer in the mornings, hipsters and neighbors dropping in at all times of the day and two pretty good food trucks.
But it’s really about community.
Saving Houston History
Ice houses were once the place you went to buy blocks of ice before anyone had home refrigerators. West Alabama Ice House opened for just such a purpose in 1928 but, like most South Texas ice houses, it learned early on that there was money to be made by selling longnecks, kept chilled on the ice blocks.
Like a Houston Cheers, it is a place where everyone knows your name, and your beer of choice, if you’re a regular.
Once people could make ice at home, the ice houses morphed into beer joints and convenience stores (7-Eleven stores started out as Southland Ice Company ice houses) and became neighborhood hangouts.
West Alabama Ice House hung on through the decades serving beer and wine (in plastic cups) and offering dominoes and occasional food. Today they have pool tables, TVs for sports watching, the occasional free Friday hot dogs, ash trays on every table, friendly staff and an atmosphere that is a second home to many.
“It’s my home away from home,” says Rick Johnson, a retiree who lives in the neighborhood. “I like the people who come here.”
And, like a Houston Cheers, it is a place where everyone knows your name, and your beer of choice, if you’re a regular.
“I live in Sugar Land but I drive up just to come here,” Brian Avery says. “I love it. All the people love each other; it’s just an amazing place. It’s BYOB so I can bring my vodka and orange juice.”
Anna Acosta comes for the Papou Jerry’s Gyro food truck parked on the corner of the lot.
“Anywhere I can get Greek food and a beer, I’m there!” she says.
Weekends find the place packed with bikers, neighbors, kids and dogs and often there are chili cook offs in the fall or crawfish boils in the spring. Most are held to raise money for local charities like Make-A-Wish Foundation or Barrio Dogs.
But as more of our neighborhood hangouts bite the dust to development, how much longer can this iconic ice house hang on?
Luckily, the owner of the ice house also owns the land, and has no plans to sell.
“No I do not,” Pete Markantonis says. “We’re not going anywhere. My dad bought this 26 years ago and I’ve worked here ever since.” Markantonis inherited the ice house when his father passed and he’s hoping to leave it to his kids.
“I’ve updated the place, brought it up to code, spent money adding more seating and I want to buy an adjacent lot for more parking," he says. "We’re part of the neighborhood and I want to keep it exactly like it is.”
Here’s hoping the West Alabama Ice House will still be a community hub in another 80 years.