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Texas, USA: Why America is obsessed with ice houses

TIME : 2-26 17:15:07

On a Saturday morning in San Antonio's leafy inner city suburb of Southtown, a Boston-born friend and I sit at a wooden picnic table in the autumn sun drinking Texas beer and cold sweet tea to the smell of near-ready wood-fired barbecue.

We're discussing 1980s intellectual progressive rock because the retro signage and super casual atmosphere of B&D ice house have us reminiscing good things of the past. When a paper-lined tray of brisket, ribs, sausage, chicken, turkey, slaw and beans is placed between us, the time for talk is over.

Before modern refrigeration, ice houses sold solid blocks for domestic ice boxes. Each household needed to collect ice at least a couple of times a week, so the neighbourhood ice house naturally became a gathering place for locals. As domestic refrigeration reached most homes, ice houses began to melt away across the US but, in typical Texas style, ice merchants of the Lone Star State refused to go under without a fight and diversified to sell groceries and beer. 

Today, ice houses are a southern Texas institution and variations on the theme can be found throughout Southtown, across San Antonio and beyond. Something between a German beer garden and a Mexican cantina, some serve food or have live music but all are semi-open-air, sell affordable beer and, ostensibly, welcome everyone. 

Owner of B&D Ice, Jody Newman admits during a later phone interview that she and her husband are now "obsessed with ice houses" after discovering how much these places once meant to the community in their heyday of the '40s and '50s and realising "there's still a place for them in San Antonio today".

The Newmans also own the Friendly Spot, right across from B&D, as well as Alamo Street Eat Bar at the Acapulco Drive-in and another on East Cesar E Chavez Boulevard. 

B&D was named by the original owners, Bruno and Deloris, and is now renowned for its barbecue and Bruno sandwich. "Brisket's where it's at," the guy who lowered the tray between us had said with a quiet confidence in his chargrill skills. After virtually licking the tray clean, it seems a natural progression to cross South Alamo Street to Friendly.

The sprawling southern mansions of this part of San Antonio are now affordably dilapidated and the area demographically diverse so that a variety of people fill the colourful chairs around tables spread across the spacious shady yard. We're possibly the only ones who aren't local, but don't feel out of place.

The Friendly Spot – also a name retained from previous ownership – is the one Newman feels is "a true re-imagination of the ice house as a gathering spot". She says on one particular afternoon, "we had a three-day-old baby just released from hospital and someone had their grandfather there who was 93". Pets are welcome, there's a kids' playground and Wi-Fi's free. On weekday afternoons, the so-called town hall of Southtown is "a place for families between three and five o'clock, followed by workers from the Toyota factory. Then, from about nine it's mainly people from the neighbourhood". 

At Friendly, they "sell the heck out of homemade sangria" and offer more than 300 types of beer, including 76 on tap. Newman then furthers my ice house education: "it must sell a Lone Star tallboy: a 16oz beer in a can. The tallboy is a Texas-sized portion of beer".

Newman says some bars are now calling themselves ice houses to sound trendy. Others are the real deal, like Sanchez 1 and 2 named after the original owners, and La Tuna, which Newman calls "the king of ice houses" where there's "bottled and canned beer, floor covered in bottle tops, really really nice, just a great relaxing environment". Texas Ice House, on San Antonio's outskirts, has booths, pool tables and wall-to-wall characters. None of these joints belong to the Newmans. Yet. 

"It's taken us by surprise how much joy there is in the ice houses … in keeping that feeling alive, keeping that culture alive." Newman and her husband initially thought they were just making business decisions to create a better life for themselves and their young children. Now ice houses are a family passion. "We never want to see them torn down".

At the Friendly Spot, my companion and I settle into our beer and sangria, and the afternoon's conversation soon descends into a mutually gratifying Monty Python quote-off.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitsanantonio.com; traveltex.com; discoveramerica.com 

GETTING THERE

United Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to San Antonio (via Los Angeles or San Francisco). See united.com.

STAYING THERE

King William Manor Historic Inn, 1037 South Alamo Street, is a 1901 guesthouse in Southtown where room start from $180 a night. See kingwilliammanor.com.