Solo or Sweaty, The Katy Trail Ice House is Welcoming (and Worth the Calories)

Sitting on a pine-hewn picnic bench with a cold beer in hand isn't a bad place to be in these last days of summer. It's even nicer when you're flanked by a lovely lady. Tonight, it's Luna by my side — a 5-year-old pitbull mix.

There are lots of canines sniffing around the massive outdoor patio at the Katy Trail Ice House, the bar that opened in March next to the exercise path that gave it its name. Luna and her contemporaries make for an easy approach, fostering conversation with strangers who quickly become drinking friends.

But, honestly, this is a patio that's fine for quiet people-watching. An endless parade of health nuts torture their bodies out on the trail while I torture mine with fries and burger grease. Two water coolers sit at the patio's edge, to tempt the physically fit into doubling the day's calorie count. Suddenly I'm dreaming up one of those demented exercise regiments that sandwiches a cold draft beer (or seven) between two three-mile runs.


Katy Trail Ice House

It's not the smartest idea, but it's not far off what's happening here. Several people have shown up in gym shorts and T-shirts, their hair slicked with sweat as they suck down suds under glowing strands of lights that climb the trees like vines. Two girlfriends catch up over an abomination called the beerita, which inverts a Corona bottle into a lackluster frozen margarita. A table of older women socialize while picking at chips and salsa; we'll save them from that tired label, although they do appear on the prowl. A guy with a cowboy hat watches baseball on an outdoor flat-screen while a foursome lobs beanbags in a game of corn hole.

Inside, the bar lives up to its name. Air conditioning pours from vents strategically perched just above ceiling fans. It's cold in here. So cold the warmth outside is almost soothing when dampened with fans and misters. Not little spitting spritzers, either, but big spray nozzles, thrust through fans that really push some air.

There are huge televisions everywhere, but thankfully the place doesn't feel like a sports bar. And yet I can't think of a finer place to watch a game, surrounded by the thick cedar planking, corrugated metal and neon signs that line the walls. It's the top of the seventh now and the Rangers are wearing their crimson-red alternates while they spank the Sox 4-0. The bar watches, but only casually; Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham and Merle Haggard are playing up just enough distraction.

Customers sit in comfortable stools and rest their feet on a footrest fashioned from old train railing. The tables are custom, too, in lacquered yellow pine and angle iron. Three massive garage doors stand at the ready, and sure enough, after the sun sets, the middle door rolls open and eddies of cool air pour onto the patio space. Together, the three doors are poised to turn the entire bar into a massive indoor-outdoor shit-show when the weather shifts. If the weather shifts.

For now, inside is nice. "Milk" and PJ work the bar. Milk got the nickname as a kid, thanks to his large, almost domineering presence: tall and obviously gym-sculpted. He's a Goliath compared with his slight and impish partner, PJ, who's pouring a draft while talking over his shoulder at the bar. Milk will call you Brother when you order a beer. PJ calls you Bud.

They both know their beers. When I lazily order my third straight Budweiser, PJ leans on me, urging me to branch out. Now I'm sipping on a Live Oak Pilz instead. It's clean and floral and hoppy but not adversely so. And I'm not the only one heeding the prophecy. Two guys try to order Miller Lite and end up with Saint Arnold Fancy Lawnmowers instead. They appear just as pleased.

The crowd here swells through the week. On weekend evenings, it's hard to see much of a restaurant. The youthful overflow from McKinney is in full force on a Saturday night — lined three deep at the bar, waiting on drinks, no time for beer persuasion. Yet somehow the kitchen gets my burger to me in less than 10 minutes, time I pass chatting with two women holding hands and sharing their own burger at the bar. By the time I'm done eating they've invited me to a show.

It's a fine burger: a blend of beef and pork shoulder formed into half-pound patties and slightly over-cooked, but still juicy. The kitchen wraps each sandwich in paper before cutting them in half. That last part's a senseless gesture. Ask them to leave yours alone and let the burger steam away inside its paper parcel. The cheese will melt a little more, the bun will moisten as flavors meld. And if you can't pick up a whole burger with your teeny hands, there are always knives at the table.

Several custom burgers fill out the menu with different cheeses and chili. It's a shame they don't offer a burger with pepper Jack and a handful of their "bottle caps"; they'd quickly have a menu item with a cult following. Those caps — slices of pickled jalapeños, breaded and deep fried — are more addictive than potato chips, and twice as flavorful. Ask for the house-made blue cheese dressing for decadent dipping.

But don't shirk those potato chips. They're made in-house as well, shaved impossibly thin with a mandoline and fried to perfection. Each chip retains a ring of potato skin around the edges. Order these and a side of that same blue cheese, and taste your couch-bound Lays binge sessions being ruined forever.

The chili is a flop, tasting more like a condiment than a hearty beef stew. Maybe that's why it's on the burger; that's really where it should stay. The guacamole falls flat too. It's missing sufficient lime to brighten things, a surprising omission considering the execution elsewhere on the menu.

"Chicken-salad salad" is not a creative name, but it describes what you'll get: two ice-cream scoops of bird, dressed in mayo laced with dill and propped up with crunchy walnuts and sweet, dried cherries on a bed of greens with sliced avocado. Employ the balsamic dressing here. It's got a lot more kick than your standard Italian varieties.

Tucked against the trail, this place can feel more Austin than Dallas, and on weekends, a massive trailer smoker that turns out ribs and sandwiches only further evokes Longhorn Land. It's like hanging out in someone's backyard, only you have to buy your beer and someone else has to pick up the cigarette butts.

Things slow down some during the week, but even on a Tuesday evening, the parking lot is full of cars, plus an '03 Softail with ape-hangers and a Sportster-turned-cafe-racer. Pedal power represents as well. Bicycles line two racks and total near 20, quite a sum for a summer night in Dallas. You can hear the planes out of Love Field grind out altitude overhead, while the sun releases its stranglehold on the mercury, the sky darkens and customers shift outside. This isn't a place to come for a quick beer. It's meant for a longer session. An outdoor space for lounging when the weather's kind, though people linger even when the heat is in the triple digits.

The owners would do well to replace that big blue billboard selling beer with an outdoor movie screen showing casual, social movies, Real Genius or maybe Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Movies you've seen a hundred times, that you can dip in and out of and catch a funny soundbite while maintaining conversation with your friends.

Not that you need them here. I've come alone to the Katy Trail Ice House a few times now, and I find someone to talk to every time.

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