Inside Houston’s Iconic West Alabama Ice House

In his "Bar Tripping" column, photographer Daniel Krieger travels the world to capture its most unique and photogenic bars. This week, he hits Houston's West Alabama Ice House, a watering hole that's been offering cold beer, food and community to an ever-changing neighborhood for nearly a century.

Drinking an iced longneck from the coolers at the West Alabama Ice House is like drinking Houston history.

There’s pretty much always someone cooking something out front. The gentleman above peddles foil-wrapped tamales stuffed with wild game, including two different types of deer: White Tail and Axis.

Across the street from the West Alabama Ice House, Tacos Tierra Caliente serves up some of Houston’s favorite tacos (left). A patron finishing his lunch with a smoke and a beer (right).

Quesadillas al pastor, some mudbugs and a Lone Star make for a uniquely Third Coast Saturday lunch.

Few things make a Houston bar feel like a Houston backyard quite like a good, old-fashioned crawfish boil.

Though the Ice House is an almost entirely outdoors affair, overheated day drinkers can seek respite in the shadows of the pool table alcove, where Lone Star (the National Beer of Texas) and upstart brewer Buffalo Bayou reflect both the old and new guard of Ice House regulars.

Big cigars, big hats and even bigger personalities are a common theme among many of the Ice House's longtime regulars, all doing their part to keep the “Bigger in Texas” tagline alive.

Boudin and saltines are served alongside the crawfish boil.

With Houston’s indoor smoking ban in effect, places like the West Alabama Ice House are the last bastion for folks looking for beer and a cigarette.

Multi-generational drinking is the order of the day at the West Alabama Ice House. While the old timers seem permanently perched on the stools lining the bar, the younger crowd tends to congregate around back watching friends shoot hoops or waiting for their turn at a game of Cornhole.

Some folks come to the Ice House for community, and some come to enjoy a solitary hour (or two) of people-watching at one of the city's oldest institutions.

There’s always a dog at the West Alabama Ice House. Usually a few of them. They roam amongst the regulars collecting affectionate ear scratches. They chase down your basketball when an errant shot sends it off the backboard, bouncing between the rows of picnic tables that line the rambling backyard. They are cooed at by small children brought along by their parents on sunny days. The dogs are a permanent fixture at a bar defined both by its permanence and its mutability.

More so than many other large cities, Houston is in a constant state of flux. This makes it an exciting and dynamic place to live, eat and drink, but it also means that history is hard to come by. We’re more likely to redevelop than refurbish, more likely to look forward than back.

In a city like Houston, settling on an iconic anything is a somewhat tricky question. Part of the answer lies in those places that somehow manage to feel timeless and contemporary, where the demographic shifts of the city are reflected in the clientele and in the character of the bar, even while the bar stays resolutely itself. In Houston, that bar is the West Alabama Ice House.

Opened in 1928 as an actual ice house, selling blocks of the cold stuff for home refrigerators, the place quickly became a fixture of a neighborhood that hasn’t stopped changing for 88 years. Ice soon took a backseat to ice-cold beers and the news of the day.

Functioning as a sort of communal living room for the neighborhood, an evening (or an early afternoon—the Ice House starts up early) spent here is like a time-lapse view of what it means to live in Houston. A taco truck parked across the street slings lengua tacos with fiery salsa, while a rotating cast out front might offer Tex-Cajun smoked boudin or boiled crawfish. Older and hard-drinking regulars take up their bar stools early, always ready with a story or three if you care to ask, and young parents with strollers amble in from the surrounding neighborhoods, whose older homes have steadily given way to young urban condos and mid-rise apartments. 

On the weekends, the Ice House is often flanked by motorcycles, as crowds of college kids down buckets of cheap beer in the back, playing games of cornhole or Wallhooky Ring Toss.

This cast of characters has shifted with the neighborhood surrounding the Ice House, skewing younger and more clean-cut than it once did. You can see that in the coolers, which once housed only Lone Star and the usual big beer suspects. Craft beer would have been unthinkably frou-frou five years ago. Now, a locally brewed IPA seems like a natural fit next to an iced bucket of Bud Light. Nobody at the Ice House will shame you for either.

While the core of the place is still a bit rough and tumble, owner Petros Markantonis and his father have spent the better part of three decades refurbishing. Fancy decking now graces the side yard. A system of misting fans helps keep patrons cool on blisteringly hot summer days. There’s landscaping. Still, even the new parts feel time-worn, as if the place is immune to real change. In a place where history is transient, West Alabama Ice House manages to straddle the past and the present like a comfortable mainstay, cold beer at the ready for old-timers and first-timers alike.

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