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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

An island in the asphalt sea

Posted on Wed, Jul 1, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2009-07-01

According to Wikipedia, a “Clark Bar” consists of a honeycomb peanut-butter crisp with a chocolatey covering. San Antonio barflies have their own definition. A “Clark Bar” refers to any one of five bars owned by Clark Boeken: the Thursty Turtle, the Safe House Drinkery, the Cross Eyed Seagull, Baker Street Pub, and (the oldest and coolest) Coco Beach.

Boeken opened Coco Beach on North Saint Mary’s during the strip’s 1980s heyday. Events like MTV’s Beach House Party invaded the strip, and Coco (as regulars lovingly call it) was in the middle of the madness (think fake IDs, police barricades, and Daisy Fuentes on the mic). When the party magic ended, Coco flew north to the no-man’s land of Enchates Village to take over a space that had been (at different times) a deli and an alleged counterfeiting operation. This was something of a visionary move for Boeken since Coco is basically the only place to sneak in a cold beer in this mainly industrial neighborhood. 

Flanked on every angle by “found-in-the-Yellow-Pages-only” cement-box stores selling windshields, medical supplies, spray-on bed liners, window tint, and granite countertops, Coco serves as an urban oasis, complete with the only palm tree in sight. 

Once inside, a satisfying combination of cold beer, air-conditioning, and kitschy seaside ephemera helps the mind wander south to Port Aransas and Padre Island. If you avoid peering through the blinds at the concrete landscape, you might even get a little nostalgic for childhood summers spent at the coast. A taxidermied shark emerges from a corner above the pool table, a neon sign advertises Pat Magee’s Surf Shop, fishing nets hang from the ceiling, and an antique diving helmet sits proudly on a shelf while the jukebox plays beach-bum favorites like Kenny Chesney’s “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem.”

Over a Dos Equis ($2.50), a friendly regular explained to me why Coco is the ultimate neighborhood bar: “If I walked all the way around this bar, I would probably know 70 percent of the people by name.” 

While we spoke, the bartender set down several “coupons” (empty shot glasses), reminding him, “These are from the other night.”  Picking up one of the coupons, she continued, “If you keep coming back here, this will probably happen to you — people send drinks to each other across the bar.”  I was charmed to see this happen in a purely platonic way. A woman nearby asked my new friend how much longer he planned on staying. Glancing at his roll-over coupons, he said “For at least three more.”

One fan described the place as “the most comfortable bar on earth.”  These denizens seem invested in preserving the ultra-casual atmosphere and have banned weekly nuisances like live music and karaoke. 

I decided to pay Coco a second visit during its popular Happy Hour (which starts at 2 p.m.). “You came back!” the bartender chimed. She even remembered my name. I ordered a Salty Dog and watched as one of the regulars left his seat to wash glasses behind the bar. “Does he work here?” I asked the bartender. “No,” she said, “he just does that for free drinks.”

Leaving the bar in a bit of a daze, I had a flashback as a jet flew over with a deafening roar. I smiled as I remembered nights spent lying on nearby “Acid Rock,” watching the planes coming in to land at a terrifying overhead proximity.  Ah, cheap thrills, cheap drinks, and fond memories. Coco Beach is my new favorite mirage.

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