Who opens a bar in a former garage in the 'hood? Thievery Corporation's Eric Hilton does. On a lonely corner at DC's 9th and V Street, Eric Hilton (with the help of brother Ian and partner Joe Reza) opened bar and barbecue joint American Ice Company (Amico) as the latest in a line of crowdpleasers, which include Marvin,The Gibson, Dickson Wine Bar and Eighteenth Street Lounge.
Textures play off textures: sleek cement floors, the spiraled metal stems of stools, the warmth of wood. Chipped brick walls show off metal placards of cryptic automotive signs while others announce "Certified Clean Restrooms" or "Butts Here." Industrial lamps hang in succession, creating a dim symphony of light. A paneled glass garage door is the main vestige of the building's former life as an automotive shop. On warm days, the door opens to the picnic table patio, allowing a fluid space between indoors and out.
If you're lucky you'll find pitmaster Ravio Ling in the corner by the door, cleaver in hand, surrounded by a cloud of heat wafting toward the ceiling. Tall, mustachioed, slightly stooped and a bit surly, Ling looks like a mad butcher.
Ling has rigged a smoker on the patio of an art gallery several blocks away. As a result, the air at American Ice is laced but not saturated with the smell of smoked meat. "I couldn't stand the way my clothes smelled," said Joe Reza of the pre-opening days in November when the smoker was on site. "My girlfriend didn't love it either."
To transport dinner, Ling rides a souped up custom bike that allows him to transport pans filled with smoked turkey, pork, chicken, and the super-popular brisket. Go early for it—brisket often sells out by 7, and the turkey is smoky but quite dry. The swatchos—pork nachos—are cheese-laden and delicious. And while you may get lucky elsewhere late night, it's likely not the case at Amico: Too late and the food is gone, and the keg you were hoping for may be kicked.
As for the drinks, I wish they were named after vintage tattoos. The bar has that kind of vibe—and that much ink: The Anchor, The Eagle, The Naked Lady, The Bluebird.
But there's no cocktail list. Instead, patrons find drinks by ordering a liquor straight or giving in to serendipity by asking the bartenders, whose looks range from vintage pinup girl, biker chick, to the bad girl version of Twiggy. Guys have requisite facial hair, gingham shirts, and tattoos inspired by mid-century modern illustrator Charley Harper.
While the weather is still cold, the cocktails are still brown: think bourbon, scotch, Jameson. Go with a twist on the Negroni, made with Aperol rather than Campari ($10). There are no homemade bitters, no celery seed infused Falernum. But while there are no frills, the cocktails are spot-on. Aside from booze, the rest is about beer: draughts of Racer 5 or Czechvar ($6), cans of PBR or Pork Slap ($5), which is perfect with smoked meat. As for wine? You're in the wrong place.
Though the food is at times uneven, the cocktails are solid, as is the service, regardless of how thick the throng. As the season progresses, I'm guessing the food will become as consistent as the look. With the Hiltons at the helm, the place is already finding a groove.
American Ice Company
917 V Street NW. Washington, DC 20001 (map)