Since 1986, the Whip In convenience store has been an oasis of eccentricity among the chain hotels and restaurants along South Interstate 35. Now this neighborhood institution has achieved an even higher order of quirkiness and convenience, offering live music and a 78704 twist on South Asian cooking, in addition to familiar necessities such as beer, wine, local honey, ice cream and homeopathic remedies.
The Whip In's relatively new Parlour Cafe was carved out of space at the front of the store, where a tight configuration of booths has supplanted a couple aisles of groceries. The backs of refrigerated cases form the back wall of the cafe, artfully disguised with Indian tapestries and filigreed wooden panels. An Oriental carpet covers the small stage and an array of framed vintage beer signs, prayer flags and miniature Japanese paper lights decorate the area, striking an appropriately cozy and eclectic tone to soften the utilitarianism of the reddish linoleum floor and metal ductwork overhead.
The cafe briefly flirted with table service, but seems to have settled on a routine whereby customers get their drinks and order food at the front check-out. There's a terrific selection of beers and ales on draft, and staffers always seem ready to let you try a couple sips before you buy something exotic (and diplomatically refrain from wincing when a customer peers at the taps and asks "What tastes most like an Amstel Light?"). The menu ranges from spicy chana masala to "panaani" sandwiches (on homemade naan bread) to chips-and-queso-con-chutney, which sounds like a truly novel way to clog your arteries.
The bookings are even more heterogeneous, encompassing among other genres vintage Hawaiian stylings (Combo Mahalo), lissome Brazilian music (Os Alquimistas) and Indian ragas (Avatar). The singer-songwriter contingent is not neglected, and the surprisingly warm acoustics have proven particularly well-suited to the recent residency of Lee Barber and Scrappy Jud Newcomb. On the last Saturday of 2009, the duo captivated an audience as hushed as any at the Cactus Cafe, while on the first Saturday of the new year, they drew a jovial overflow crowd that made it seem more like the Saxon. One of the Whip In employees had to pull temporary doorman duty and try to look stern because Parlour capacity is limited to a paltry 32, which left a number of customers milling around the beer aisles.
Seats were available again by the second set, but it's always a good idea to arrive early to snag a booth before a show. Although the clientele is friendly, and couples and parties are generally happy to let strangers squeeze onto one of the pews or padded benches, if you arrive too late, you might be lucky just to get one of the few extra stools at the counter-cum-bar in the back of the store. You won't hear much from there, and the fluorescent lighting around the beer coolers doesn't flatter. Happy hour ends at 7 p.m., and you can add the money you save to the musicians' tip jar (there are rarely cover charges).
Fortunately, there should be more room for music lovers soon with the opening of a sidewalk cafe. Picnic tables recently materialized on a patch of asphalt between the front and back parking lots, and the Whip In is jumping through necessary hoops to expand outdoors. Perhaps one day soon drivers stuck on I-35 between Woodland Avenue and East Oltorf Street will be able to roll down their windows and enjoy live music, if not curbside service.