Food for Thought

The closing of a Mexican restaurant in Alpine says a lot about how West Texas has changed— and even more about a family’s evolution.

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 line was nearing completion, some of them built adobes and stayed on. Ben Gallego, though, drifted east, returning several years later with an Anglo woman who had left her husband and brought along her three young sons (they later had five children of their own, including Pete Senior). He had enough money to buy an entire block in the barrio, where he eventually built five houses. Later he acquired two square miles in the mountains west of town and started a ranch. In a 1908 photograph taken in front of the ranch house, with a white picket fence in the background, the Gallego clan numbers 21, spans three generations, and looks very prosperous.

But there was trouble ahead. As a 1981 history of Alpine puts it, “The land was choice property, and many persons sought to buy it, but Ben would not sell.” What happened next was an all-too-frequent occurrence across the southern tier of Texas. Two of Ben’s children were arrested on trumped-up charges of violating game laws. Ben was told that the punishment could be severe, but the charges would be dropped if he would sell his land. Under duress he sold in 1916 and then had to pay “court costs” before the charges were dismissed. He got almost nothing for his land. “It was a beautiful place,” Pete Junior told me when I finally met him at his restaurant. “I still go up to Paisano Pass sometimes just to look at it.”

At 72 Pete’s face had a permanent look of gravity etched onto it, and his voice was soft and slow. Gallego’s had opened for dinner, and he and his wife, Elena, were seated at one end of a rectangular table in a secondary dining room that we had to ourselves. The decor was plain: paneled walls, five black-velvet paintings, a few pictures of their son glad-handing with various Austin politicos. On the table in front of them were file folders stuffed with papers, old newspaper clippings, photographs, and a menu from the sixties. “After we close,” Elena said, motioning to the heap of papers, “I want Pete to write a book, to tell everything that has happened.”

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