ALLEGO’S MEXICAN FOOD RESTAURANT in Alpine is not—or, I should say, was not—the sort of place to catch a traveler’s attention. Nothing about the nondescript white building on the south side of U.S. 90 suggested that it was a cultural and civic icon. Had I not been looking for it, I might have missed it. The highway splits into two one-way thoroughfares just before it reaches the restaurant, diverging at a McDonald’s. As I veered around the golden arches, Gallego’s modest pole-top sign, a relic from the era before fast-food franchises brought their conspicuous logos to town, flashed by off to my left.
It was early April, and I had come to Alpine because Gallego’s would be closing in less than a month, shutting the door on eight decades of history. A bank had bought the place and planned to turn it into a branch. If Gallego’s was never quite as venerated as the Old Borunda Cafe in nearby Marfa (born 1910, died 1985), it nevertheless was the last link to the early years of West-Tex-Mex, a spicier, heartier, less cheese-laden version of the familiar dishes that are designed for city palates. I wanted to sample its No. 1 dinner while I still could.
But more than just the food drew me to Gallego’s. Any restaurant owned by a single family for eighty years has stories to tell—not just of a family but also of a town. I already knew the last chapter: Pete Gallego, the grandson of the restaurant’s founder (Pete Senior) and the son of its current owner (Pete Junior), grows up washing dishes, realizes that he has options that were inconceivable a generation earlier, decides he never wants to wash another dish in his life, goes to college and on to law school, wins a seat in the Texas Legislature in 1990, and now, at age 35, is one of five representatives who write the final version of the $86 billion state budget. What had come before? The answer, I was to discover, was a multigenerational and metaphorical tale of Hispanic Texas.
On a warm spring day I drove west from Austin, left the Pecos behind, and climbed onto the high grassland prairies of Brewster County. Gallego’s was closed for the afternoon, so I headed into town, which was overrun with visitors headed for Big Bend. They were stocking up at Furr’s Supermarket, bikes mounted on their four-wheel-drive vehicles, or getting equipped at outfitter shops. Art galleries and upscale restaurants further testified to the transformation of Alpine from isolated outpost to thriving tourist town. But when I turned south at the Amtrak depot and crossed the train tracks, I instantly entered a different world, a neighborhood made up mostly of small and decaying adobes that is known to its residents as Pueblo Viejo, the Old Town. This is unmistakably the wrong side of the tracks in Alpine, and for many years it was about as wrong as you could get in Texas. When the settlement was still in its early years, armed men from the Mexican community crossed the tracks one night bent on mayhem, but the Anglos had been tipped off, and the shooting war was inconclusive. The next day Anglos swept across the tracks to confiscate all guns—and found not a one. Thereafter, day after day, for years that stretched into decades, hostilities were limited to lines of children who stood on opposite sides of the tracks and lobbed rocks at one another.
The story of the Gallegos and of Alpine begins here, in 1882, when the track-laying crews for the Southern Pacific railroad line arrived from the west. Most of the workers were Mexicans from both sides of the border—no one made much of a distinction in those days—and one of them was Wenserlado Gallego, whose nickname was Ben. The workers lived in tents, and when the rail