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.” She was full of motion and emotion, as animated as he was restrained.
From the clippings and the conversation, I was able to piece together more of the family’s history. Finding steady work in town was next to impossible for the Mexican population. Most worked on area ranches; the other option was to start a business. Yet even then it had to be a grocery, a restaurant, or work-for-hire, such as driving a truck; owning a filling station, for example, was out of the question because Anglos would not patronize it. Some of Ben’s sons went into trucking. In 1917, after doing ranch work for several years, Pete Senior decided to open a restaurant—Pete Gallego’s Chili Parlor—in a tiny adobe south of the tracks that had room for three tables. Enchiladas, typically prepared by Pete’s wife, Victoriana, were 15 cents a plate. Old clips from the Alpine Avalanche document that Pete Senior moved the restaurant twice in 1918: once near the railroad depot and then to Marfa, where there was an Army post.
By the mid-twenties Pete Senior had a family. He wasn’t poor—he had a telephone, a significant status symbol, as early as 1927—but the restaurant wasn’t bringing in enough money. For a time he tried trucking with his brothers, but eventually he went back to ranch work. This meant that he had to live on the ranch, and while the rancher would provide housing for his family, his children would have no way to get to school. All across Texas, generations of Hispanic children grew up uneducated under this patrón system. But in 1935, when Pete Junior was ten, his father moved back to Alpine so that his kids could go to school. (In Fort Stockton, Elena’s father would soon make the same choice.) He reopened his restaurant in a larger adobe—eight tables this time—as the Green Cafe. The name was literal: The exterior of the cafe was painted green. There were no street signs on the Mexican side of town, so the color enabled customers from across the tracks to find it. The staff was entirely family members; Pete Junior waited tables, raised chickens, and slaughtered goats.
In 1944, while Pete Junior was serving in the Pacific theater during World War II, Pete Senior died. Relatives kept the restaurant going until Pete Junior came home to take it over. By 1949, two years after he married Elena, it was apparent to him that the restaurant was too small. When the Marfa Army Air Field closed that year, he bought the long, narrow mess hall, transported it to the barrio, painted it green, and made it into a new Green Cafe. On the day it opened, the local radio station did a live broadcast from the cafe, and students from Sul Ross State Normal College provided live music.
For the next twenty years the Green Cafe was Alpine’s favorite hangout. High school and college students had parties there. Aspiring politicians gathered around tables pushed together in the front of the restaurant. The extraordinary length of the building made it a favorite trysting place; in the slow hours of the afternoon, married men met their girlfriends there, seeking the privacy of dark booths with individual jukeboxes toward the back of the restaurant. Pillars of the community who were self-proclaimed teetotalers dropped by for “coffee,” and Pete Junior kept their coffee cups filled with beer poured from a coffeepot. In 1959 he was elected to the school board with the help of friends on the north side of the tracks.
The camaraderie at the cafe notwithstanding, Alpine was still divided. Its two elementary schools, like its two Catholic churches, were organized mostly according to ethnic lines. The barrio’s Centennial School had no Anglo students and no Mexican American teachers. “We started keeping track of the students who went through,” Elena said. “Forty kids would start; only one would graduate from high school.” At 68 she still smolders over ancient wrongs. As a fifteen-year-old in Fort Stockton attending a segregated school, she became separated from her classmates while walking to a movie. “My hair was almost blond,” she recalled, “and when I tried to buy a ticket to sit in the balcony, the lady wouldn’t sell me one. She said I couldn’t sit with the Mexicans, I belonged downstairs.” Elena bought a ticket for the lower level under protest, only to be forcibly removed from the theater by the manager, who recognized her because he was also a teacher at the school. When she told her father about the incident, he strapped on his gun, marched to the theater, and announced that if his daughter couldn’t watch the movie, no one else was going to. “And no one did,” she said. “The theater was closed for the rest of the day.”
Like many Hispanic businessmen of the post-war generation, Pete Junior returned to his community determined to change it—but because he had Anglo customers, he wanted to change it in a nonconfrontational way. For ten years he pushed his colleagues on the school board to integrate the elementary schools, and for ten years they politely stalled. In 1969 he ran out of patience. “[T]he time has come,” he wrote his fellow members, “and we must take action on it now. . . . I will not consider any partial solution to this problem.” The board proposed a bond issue to build a large new school, but appallingly, the chamber of commerce opposed it, and it was defeated.
That fall the south side parents refused to register their children at the Centennial School and joined together to enroll them at the north side school instead. The school district gave in, but the north side retaliated. Young Pete Gallego, age eight, got his first exposure to politics then. He remembered an angry man storming into the Green Cafe and shouting at his father, “I’ll have the shirt off your back!” All of a sudden, longtime customers from the north side stopped coming to the restaurant. “No one ever said anything about a boycott,” Pete Junior said, “but that’s what it was. One day we did $3.50 worth of business. We had to move to the highway to survive.”
Gallego’s restaurant opened in 1971. No radio station broadcast the event. No band came to play. Pete Junior made no attempt to recreate the Green Cafe. Unlike the old place, Gallego’s had no bar, no late hours, no atmosphere, and no extensive menu of American dishes to draw a north-of-the-tracks clientele. (In recent years, to compete with the influx of fast-food franchises, it instituted a buffet lunch.) Gallego’s was a way to make a living—a good enough living to see two children through law school and another through medical school and to build a new house north of the highway below Sul Ross.
Pete Junior disappeared into the kitchen and reemerged with dinner. The star of the show was the chile relleno. The deep-fried long green pepper was the shape of a burrito, long and round and hefty, and it was as squishy sweet as a ripe peach. A subtle, savory red sauce covered the enchilada. It ranks among the best No. 1 dinners that I have ever had.
After dinner Pete Junior and Elena escorted me to the almost-empty parking lot. In the flawless evening sky the Hale-Bopp Comet loomed bright and close above the redbrick buildings of Sul Ross. At the main entrance to the campus stood the handsome new headquarters for the Museum of the Big Bend—a new Gallego contribution to Alpine as the restaurant passes into history. Pete Gallego the legislator got a state appropriation to refurbish Lawrence Hall, the former dormitory on whose steps his father and mother first met in 1946. But young Pete still has to fight some of the same battles his father fought. Sul Ross has had one tenured Hispanic faculty member in 75 years.
I asked Elena how she felt about Alpine after, as she had put it earlier, “everything that has happened.” She folded her arms against the advancing chill of a high desert night. “It is my home,” she said. “People who have lived in Alpine, if they must leave, it is with a broken heart.”