Under the Volcano

Ducking Humberto at Under the Volcano

My lame headlights do their best to pierce the pitch-black, pre-storm stretch of Kirby Drive leading to Under the Volcano (2349 Bissonnet). Tropical Storm Humberto is coming, they tell me, and I believe them. Sort of. Ideally, I’d find a dark hole with a well-stocked whisky selection near Montrose or Downtown, just in case Humberto comes ashore and forces me into survival mode.

But I’m hooked on the Volcano — I’ve been there four times in the past six days, a definite anomaly for someone who is easily bored. Maybe two bars have sucked me into their vortexes before this; it’s usually the bartender, but not in this case.

The Volcano employs some charming ladies and gentlemen, to be sure. But more important, if you’re a lush, is the fact that this is one of those rare bars that cares about their drinks. Owner Pete Mitchell thinks his bartenders are the best in town; if only for the amount of work that goes into crafting each cocktail, I happen to agree.

“Fresh-squeezed juice makes all the difference,” touts the menu. And it does, even if Mitchell admits to swiping the concept from nearby Houston’s.

“I used to go there a lot, and one morning I had a hangover,” says Mitchell, who talks far faster than I can write. “Someone mentioned fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice; I tried it and was amazed at how much better it was than the canned stuff. I made a mental note, for sure.”

The big juicer sits beside the cash register on the bar like a statement of purpose. The liquor gallery is the best-lighted spot in the entire room. These two factors don’t leave much to the imagination: You’re in a bar, buddy.

Behind me, the jukebox spins the Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society.” Three guys to my left play a card game with the bartenders. I’m nursing the sidecar a Volcano mixologist put together for me.

The sidecar is, by most accounts, a child of WWI-era France, equal parts brandy and triple sec with a dash of lemon juice. Shake it, strain it and you have one of the finest mixed drinks in the history of mankind, one no living soul seems to have given a damn about for at least three generations. Finding a well-crafted sidecar in a West U bar seems peculiar.

“How much of this do you actually have to make?” I ask a bartender, pointing at the menu. “All of it. A lot of Tom Collins and Singapore slings,” she assures me.

I’m taken aback. The Singapore sling is an elusive cocktail around these parts; numerous barkeeps have scowled at me just for mentioning it. But there it is on the Volcano menu, alongside the Tom Collins, Pimm’s cup and a few other vintage gems of serious boozing.

“Word gets around,” she says. “People are afraid to spend almost $10 on a cocktail, but once they see how much alcohol we’re putting in the sling, they jump on it.”

They should. It’s reassuring, if somewhat surreal, for a writer who worships hard liquor to be in a bar named after a novel (Malcolm Lowry’s eponymous tome), where the sling has taken its rightful place above the Long Island iced tea. The jukebox contains a number of obvious necessities (Mingus, Grateful Dead, Exile on Main Street), recent interests (The Hold Steady), Texan song stylists and noise merchants alike (Jon Dee Graham, Los Skarnales), rounded out by a smattering of records from Chile, Argentina and other points south.

The clientele is eclectic, with an unobtrusive yuppie bent: Rice students, young singles, middle-aged singles, married people, engaged people, tequila-shooting attorneys and medical personnel working at frozen screwdrivers. The crowd thins, pops and evolves. It calms down, but it never gets quiet. Someone is always talking; so what if their conversation is with themselves?

I close my tab and finish my bourbon. A young man takes the seat next to me and leans eagerly on the bar. He orders a Tom Collins and is soon joined by another guy in his mid-twenties. This one orders a Singapore sling. For a moment, my faith in mankind is renewed.

Then I get to my car and find a parking ticket under my windshield wiper. I have a fresh lust for anarchy, and Humberto is nowhere to be seen — which means I’ll have to figure out my own reasons for looting.

 
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