Pete Dominguez eases his rattletrap Chevy Malibu into the driveway of the old house in Wills Point. “Here we are,” he says cheerfully. “Home.” The house was a showplace when he bought it, in 1970, but now it’s literally falling apart—paint is peeling from the Greek Revival columns, one corner of the wraparound porch has collapsed, and the roof looks as if wolverines have camped there. Pete paid cash for it, $10,800, which was little more than pocket change for the young and energetic impresario of a burgeoning chain of Mexican restaurants. That was then. Now he struggles to pay off a mortgage of more than $100,000, a debt incurred in one last, futile effort to save his failing business. Once, Pete Dominguez was the toast of Dallas. But at 68, he is alone, broke, and nearly forgotten. “I used to think I’d come out here and retire,” he tells me as we step gingerly across some broken boards and into the foyer. “Yeah, I’m retired all right.” This is said without bitterness or rancor but with a melancholy acknowledgement that irony is the worst of life’s aimless jokes.
The floors are littered with piles of old clothes, magazines, and assorted trash, telltale signs that there hasn’t been a woman around for a long time. Pete’s second wife, Graciela, divorced him years ago, no longer willing to tolerate his drinking. His mother used to stay here from time to time. You can see her touch in a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in one of the downstairs rooms. At 88 she’s mostly confined to a rest home in Austin; the grand house that Pete purchased for her years ago fell victim to his mounting debt a while back. Same thing with his 220-acre farm near Wills Point. They’re all gone, all except this house, which is in the late stages of going. One by one, he lost his restaurants; there were nine of them. Pete filed for Chapter 13 individual bankruptcy protection last year, but the protection never went through because he failed to send in his tax returns. At the time of the filing, his debts amounted to $330,000. More than $50,000 behind in rent, Pete sold his final restaurant, Casita Dominguez, last December, for a token $5,000. Since then he’d been looking for work. He was willing to do anything, he told me—walk dogs, clean bathrooms, cut grass. A few days before my visit, in late March, he’d found work scrubbing restrooms and doing odd jobs at the Canton Marketplace, a flea market about fifteen miles southeast of Wills Point.
I follow him up a narrow, hand-carved staircase installed in 1914 by the original owner, a lumber baron, to a suite of bedrooms, their doors closed. The ceilings are water-stained and caving in. The house isn’t air-conditioned, and the only heat comes from a small space heater, which Pete moves from room to room. He doesn’t use his upstairs bedroom anymore, preferring to sleep on a worn sofa in a downstairs parlor, in front of an old TV, near a phone that seldom rings. In one of the upstairs rooms, Pete finds what he’s looking for: packing boxes full of framed photographs of sports stars and celebrities that once hung on the walls of his restaurants. Dozens of other pictures and mementos were consumed by a fire that destroyed his flagship place, Casa Dominguez, in 1992.
“That fire was the beginning of the end for me,” he says, removing the pictures from the boxes and spreading them across the bed. Authorities called the blaze “suspicious,” but blame was never assigned. Though Casa Dominguez was later rebuilt at another location, it wasn’t the same.
Pete is smaller than I remember, his thick nest of hair gone silver, his quick dancer’s step beginning to falter. How long had it been? Twenty-five years? Thirty? I know we first met in the fall of 1963 (my God!), just after he opened Casa Dominguez. I was working for the Dallas Morning News and Pete had moved to town six years earlier. He grew up in Manchaca, near Austin, one of five children born to a cowboy-farmer and his wife. Dropping out of school after the seventh grade, he’d taken a series of jobs washing dishes and busing and waiting tables at Mexican restaurants in Austin and later in Dallas. He’d married his first wife, Mollie, in 1958, and they had had two sons, Mark and Adrian. The original Casa Dominguez was a hole-in-the-wall on Cedar Springs Road, north of downtown, that advertised “Austin-style Mexican food.” That’s what attracted Bud Shrake and me and a couple of other newspaper types. Turned out to be the best Mexican food we’d ever eaten. Pete served us, then sat down and had a beer and talked. We liked him instantly. He had less than $60 in the cash register but insisted on picking up our check. Bud wrote about the new restaurant in his Dallas Morning News sports column the next day, and that night the joint was packed. “We ran out of food,” Pete remembers now, his smile large but sad. “You guys made me.”
No, the truth is Pete made himself. The recipes came from his chef, an acquaintance from his Austin days named Marcello Montez—all except the pralines, which Pete prepared using his mama’s recipe. But what made Casa Dominguez the hottest spot in town was Pete, that mile-wide smile greeting you at the front door, that willingness to please, to be your friend. In no time, Pete knew everyone and everyone knew Pete. A whole generation of Dallas Cowboys became regular customers and friends too— Meredith, Gent, Lilly, Harvey Martin. Pick a name and I promise you he ate there. Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr. did, as well as other Dallas swells. Pete was especially partial to sports heroes. Lee Trevino and Darrell Royal became close friends; Royal was even the best man in Pete’s second wedding. Over time celebrities like Clint