Bar Beat

Cocktail Therapy: Lee Wagner of OKRA Charity Saloon

Bartender Lee Wagner is as cool as they come.
Bartender Lee Wagner is as cool as they come. Photo by Kate McLean

Twenty-five people walk into a bar. That's it. That happened. All at once. As Lee Wagner calmly checked every box for every customer; he charges an iPhone, pours ten mixed shots, he looked over at the Houston Press with a big grin, "so, do you have a curfew?"

In five minutes, the OKRA Charity Saloon teemed with life and on a downtown Tuesday night no less. Mexican razorblades or a neat pour of Elmer T. Lee, Wagner steadily knocks out orders left to right. He turned back to the guest in front of him, "we want shots."

Whether it's studying metaphysics or building and designing beer draughts for Texas Draught Specialist, bartending allows Wagner to follow other pursuits. An avid writer with a huge library, at the beginning of every rabbit hole is Wagner's curious nature. "I like figuring things out, how systems work."

An army brat, he was born in Würzburg Germany, and even did elementary school at West Point where his father taught. Wagner landed in Texas 28 years ago for high school and would later attend Texas A &M to earn a degree in business. After college he sold mutual funds for Prudential. "Hated it," he says, he went back to bartending.  "Bartending gives me time to learn new things."  Wagner has worked at OKRA for five years.

OKRA is simple in design; open, wood, brick, it used to be an old alley-way, but now sitting at the bar feels a little bit like you're a bat below deck on a Viking ship. The select inventory is straightforward and beautiful in that way, after all, it is for charity. I mean, drinking for no reason is a blast, but drinking for kids, or the homeless, or the elderly, we could all afford to do that more.

The Original Okra Charity Saloon is owned by a slew of different people who also all own bars and restaurants, most of them downtown. OKRA opened in 2013 as a shared effort from these owners to revitalize downtown Houston, and also to do a little good in the world. Each month four charities are chosen and guests who receive one ticket per food or drink item vote for their favorite. At the end of the month, tickets are tallied and the winner receives all of that month's profits. Spread across 66 charities, OKRA has donated more than $1 million. And as another added bonus, it's plastic-free.

This month's charities include; Camp For All, Sunshine Through the Rain, Have Shears Will Travel and The Children's Assessment Center.

Al Green when I walked in, Hip Hop when I walked out, drinking at OKRA with Wagner behind the bar just makes you feel good inside.

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The Southside cocktail at OKRA.
Photo by Kate McLean
"The Southside"

2 ounces Beefeater Gin
¾ ounce simple syrup
1 ounce lemon juice
10 mint leaves
Mint for garnish

Muddle mint and then add all of the ingredients. Shake with ice and double strain into a coupe. Garnish with mint and have more on the ready; the Southside is easy to knock back.

Shot of Advice: Everyone knows something that you don't.

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Be sure to say hello to Simon, who's great with dating advice.
Photo by Kate McLean
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