There’s a benevolent breeze blowing across the asphalt patio at the Sanchez Ice House. “Neon Moon” is blaring from the jukebox, and as it muffles the sound of traffic from I-35 overhead, it’s almost welcome. A few couples sit scattered at scarred picnic tables; the condensation from their buckets of Bud and Miller Lite drips unrelentingly on the pavement below. Dancing won’t begin on the concrete slab that is the center of this space until later in the evening, but it’s never too early to reminisce about the roots of such San Antonio institutions. Here at South San Saba and Guadalupe Street is one of the last of a dying breed: a true Texas ice house.
According to Rhett Rushing, folklorist at the Institute of Texan Cultures, the first commercial ice-making machine in Texas (and only the second in the U.S.) was smuggled from Mexico into San Antonio through a federal, Civil War blockade. German settlers who had brought both a thirst for beer and the knowledge to brew it to Texas with them weren’t the only citizens to appreciate this new development. As stations built to store and distribute blocks proliferated across San Antonio, and then across other cities, these ice houses became hubs of neighborhood interaction. More than simple ice dispensaries, ice houses were where beer and other staples were kept cold for nearby residents — some even hosted events around massive tables built of ice. Business deals were struck here; politicos were obliged to appear on a regular basis. Eventually, an ice house in Dallas got the idea of adding other, non-perishable staples, and the convenience store — 7-Eleven, literally — was born. We’ll let Dallas have that one.
In San Antonio, the traditional ice house continued to thrive for a time. Contreras Ice House on the banks of Alazan Creek at 1617 West Commerce was my first introduction to the tradition. It was a cultural eye-opener, still going strong in the mid-1970s. To someone having just arrived from working in France, the jukebox alone was a revelation. Sadly, Contreras is no more, and it’s not the only one of its kind to have faded away during the Current’s 25 years.
Nostalgia may bring a version of the institution back in time; despite bearing scant resemblance to the original, Pearl’s La Gloria calls itself an ice house, for example. Closer to the mark is the new Friendly Spot on South Alamo. But it’s best not to wait for a renaissance. Go now to the traditional places that remain: Acapulco Drive Inn on South Alamo, The Texas Ice House on Blanco Rd., the two Sanchezes (#2 is on Seguin St., also in the shadow of I-35) … any place that serves cold beer outdoors, preferably at tables set on a carpet of crushed bottle caps — domino playing is a plus. Based on the cap criterion alone, Southtown’s La Tuna is ice house royalty. Que viva el rey.