To us, it's a club, not a bar, says Biff Sutherland, who took over from the previous owner in January 2000 and worked with friends in law enforcement to clean up the place. He says the location had been called the Afterburner since the mid-90s.
The previous regulars — rumored to be mostly gang members — may have considered the Afterburner a club of sorts, too — their club. But Sutherland made it clear that their world was going to change in the new millennium, starting with the new zero-tolerance policy for illegal drug use, spelled out in a sign covering most of the front door.
The white sign with bold black letters is still there. And it’s still a toss-up: Does it make you feel safer, or more nervous?
To be sure, the Afterburner is still a little rough around the edges. It's dimly lit, which is probably a good thing, and when it gets packed, as it does most Friday nights, it can get smoky as a Helotes mulch fire. When you pay $2.75 for a beer, you are truly paying for the beer, not the atmosphere. Tracks from an old garage door still hang from the dark-blue ceiling, as do an assortment of bras, panties, and G-strings, most autographed with thick black markers.
The regulars, most from the nearby Air-Force base, can get pretty drunk and rowdy, too. If they need it, we'll give them a free ride home, Sutherland says of the military guys, who make up about 80 percent of his regular clientele.
Texas Hold 'em Poker tournaments are a popular option, filling the Afterburner's calendar on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. (You play with chips but don’t risk any high-stakes losses, because the pot is based on a $1 membership fee).
On the quieter nights, there’s less smoke and noise. People shoot pool, play video games, or just hang out around the tables or at the bar. Then there are the busy nights, when things can get wild. During the 2007 Super Bowl party, for example, a stripper was giving lap dances, according to one of the regulars. (Can you call it a wardrobe malfunction if it comes off on purpose?)
If an atmosphere of spilled beer, stale tobacco, and testosterone-fueled cheering and shouting doesn’t make the Afterburner a good choice for a nice romantic evening, at least, says Sutherland, the police have yet to be called to break up any brawls.
And the place has heart. Sutherland has been using the venue to raise money for charity since he first took over. A benefit for local comedian Louie Montalvo raised more than $1,200 from a comedy showcase, steak dinner, and silent auction on January 20. “You were there that night, right?” Sutherland asks me. “Did you feel the love?”