The plywood walls and rickety shelves are gone, replaced by eggshell-colored paneled siding and sleek black wall mounts holding rows of Southern beer and half-empty liquor bottles. There's a new coat of paint on the outside, though years of chipped layers are still visible under the facelift. The perpetually open garage doors have been closed to keep the cool air from the newly installed AC unit in the building as much as possible, and a large OPEN sign has been hung outside, lest people assume the shuttered doors mean the joint is out of business. But the double-parked cars in the small gravel lot are a sure indication that the place is hopping, and the smell of late-season boiled crawfish and sinus-clearing red beans with sausage is more than enough to lure in any patrons unsure of the bar's status.
It's back, it's open and it's better than ever.
Better is a matter of opinion, of course, since some are bound to see the new and improved Shady Tavern Ice House, now called The Boot, as an unfortunate upgrade from the gritty neighborhood watering hole it once was. The original 1939 structure was so hidden among the towering pecan and oak trees on West 20th that to many it felt like a weather-worn oasis, an escape from the hustle and bustle of Houston and a return to a simpler time when everyone shared a complimentary bowl of peanuts and only classic rock poured forth from the ancient juke box.
Though the exterior has undergone some (much-needed) renovations, the vibe of the bar is still the same. Area folks mingle over a game of washers while the bartender inquires earnestly about each customer's day. Beer is cheap and cold, and wine comes in white or red. Hours pass without anyone realizing where they've gone.
And now there's food. Really surprisingly great food.
Tommy Duplechin and his brother Billy opened The Boot about four months ago, taking over the run-down but effortlessly charming former home of Shady Tavern. Together with their business partners Jimmy Jones, Chico Ramirez and a third brother, Glenn, they did some remodeling that mostly consisted of aesthetic changes, but they did add air conditioning in the small interior space that holds the bar -- the first time in the building's 75-year existence that it's been climate-controlled. They also introduced a short but mighty menu of Cajun classics ranging from crawfish to gumbo to pair with an excellent selection of Abita beer. While folks are still coming mainly for the beer and camaraderie, the food should not be overlooked.
The brothers learned to cook in Louisiana, where they were born and raised, and because of their devotion to Louisiana meats, spices and seafood, they import as much as possible from our neighbor to the east. Late-season crawfish are covered in a lip-numbing spice blend that Billy created and has manufactured in Louisiana to ensure authenticity. Red beans are served in a styrofoam cup with a scoop of white rice that helps to quell the heat of the chile powder and pepper in the ruddy stew dotted with Louisiana sausage, another proprietary recipe trucked in from out of state.
"It's just better when it comes from Louisiana," Tommy says, as if excusing the fact that he hasn't jumped on the locavore bandwagon.
Oh well. At least the Lone Star is from Texas.
The original building that still stands on The Boot's property and serves as bar, restrooms and arcade (thanks to a single golfing game that sits untouched by the front door) was once a legitimate icehouse -- the kind where blocks of ice were kept in sawdust and entrepreneurially minded owners eventually started selling cold beer to go along with the frozen water. In spite of the intentions for the space, Shady Tavern was always more watering hole than purveyor of ice, eventually becoming pure bar and neighborhood hangout like the few classic icehouses that remain in Houston today. It was unpretentious and unfussy, and that's the atmosphere that Tommy says he hopes to maintain in the bar's new incarnation.
A few Thursdays ago, The Boot held a washers tournament like the kind Tommy's family used to host at their home in Louisiana.
"We'd have at least 40 people at each tournament," he says, "and the prize was this big trophy -- like a cup -- and the winners would have to chug beer out of it."
At The Boot's tournament, the winner got a cash prize, but there's certainly no shortage of beer should a victor want to celebrate in that manner. Abita, brewed and bottled in Louisiana, is the beer of choice, but The Boot honors its Texan location by offering Karbach, Saint Arnold, Lone Star and Shiner Bock, as well as other national beers. The beer is the last thing on my mind, though, as soon as I get out of the car and the smell of crawfish étouffée hits my nostrils. The étouffée is one of eight dishes on the short, seafood-centric menu, and it's the one that first caught my attention when I stopped by The Boot intending only to drink.
A styrofoam cup brimming with white rice and reddish-brown stew slid across the bar to someone a few seats down from me, and I had an instant "I'll have what she's having" moment, without even realizing I was hungry. My cup of étouffée was just as satisfying as I'd hoped, with a rich, buttery flavor and just enough heat -- most likely from the same Crystal hot sauce the bartender hands you with each order -- to have me ordering a second beer. And best of all, it was overflowing with crawfish tails.
"I can peel about 40 crawfish a minute," Tommy tells me. "I grew up doing that. It's easy." It's not as easy for me, as I discovered another evening, especially when you're getting the last mudbugs of the season with dark, hard shells. Still, the rub is so good and the tails -- tiny though they are -- so sweet and briny, I persevered, eventually eating the bulk of two pounds of crawfish, stacking the carcasses neatly in one corner of my Abita serving tray. I'm eager to return during the height of crawfish season next year, when the bugs will be big and bright red.
Shrimp and crab are both tossed in the same spicy rub, but unlike the crawfish, they don't survive the freezing and thawing process with their sturdy armor completely intact. The u-peel-em shrimp aren't bursting with the juiciness I've come to expect from fresh Gulf crustaceans, while the crab shells are rubbery and hard to break in places, sometimes a sign of excess freezing. The snow crab meat itself is damn good, though. Once you're able to get through the flexible shell and dig out the sweet red and white meat, it can be difficult to stop eating until all you're left with is a heaping pile of chitin and claws.
Because a Cajun joint isn't a Cajun joint without gumbo, The Boot also serves the signature Louisiana dish, though not with the same success as the étouffée or red beans. A bartender explained that they purposefully make it thin and easy on the spice because the weather is so hot and humid here in Houston. The cup is filled with so much rice that the flavor of the chicken and sausage gumbo is largely lost, save for a vague smokiness. It's more like chicken and sausage soup than a true dark, complex gumbo, but perhaps when the weather starts to cool down, the gumbo will heat up.
The red beans embrace the dynamism missing in the gumbo, even though that cup is also filled with plain white rice. Like the étouffée, the beans are spicy enough to necessitate a bit of rice, and the chunks of smoky, earthy sausage add an extra dimension to the dish every few bites. Pair the beans with some crawfish and Abita Purple Haze for the ultimate Louisiana experience.
In several weeks, the owners are planning on opening a food truck to serve the crowds at The Boot. Tommy and his brother are currently working out of a tiny kitchen area where they're able to boil seafood. Everything else -- the gumbo, red beans and étouffée -- gets prepared in the kitchen of a house on the property. It's not the best setup for a place serving dozens of pounds of crawfish a night during peak season, but it'll do for now.
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Billy hopes to build an actual kitchen on the property, then take the food truck off-site to parks and events to serve "those dishes that real South Louisiana natives crave for from their childhoods." He's well on his way to a Cajun food empire once The Boot conquers the finicky Heights crowd. In spite of the loyalty so many felt toward Shady Tavern, The Boot seems to have won people over quickly.
There's something about the Southern hospitality and laid-back charm that makes you want to stay awhile, even if the AC isn't running, even if the crawfish are a little small and hard. The nostalgic feel of the classic Houston icehouse coupled with family recipes perfected in the swamps of Louisiana is an ideal blend of Bayou City and Bayou State, and perhaps one that, like the old building itself, will stand the test of time.
The Boot 1206 West 20th, 713-869-2668. Hours: Wednesday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Saturday, 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Crawfish $5.99/pound Shrimp $13.50/pound Snow crab $16 Étouffée $8 Red beans $5 Gumbo $6.50 Sausage $6/link Boudin $6/link