Columns 2013

Adios, Pepe’s

It’s hard to explain to people who have never lived in a small village in the Alaska Bush how you can mourn the loss of a restaurant almost as intensely as you would mourn the loss of a friend. But I’m going to try because Pepe’s was more than just a Mexican restaurant in Barrow.

When I first moved to Barrow, there were two restaurants in town. One was Al’s Eskimo Café. It was open year round. The other was Brower’s Café. It opened only during tourist season when it served reindeer soup and an Eskimo donut in an atmosphere redolent of past Arctic expeditions.

Then came Pepe’s – a Mexican restaurant run by this positively insane lady and her equally insane cook, Bob Green. They put out food the likes of which Barrow had never seen or experienced before. And Barrow fell in love with it. By the time Pepe’s moved from its original location to the location that recently burned down, it was well on its way to becoming the center of town.

A lot of restaurants have opened and closed in Barrow in the years since Pepe’s served its first tacos. Some were good. Some were bad. None was ever able to achieve the iconic status of Pepe’s and that was, over and above all other reasons, because of Fran Tate and her particular take on how to treat the community whose appetites supported her restaurant.

Fran believed in giving back and give back she did. She gave gifts to every newborn; she sent food to every funeral. She participated in every July 4 parade dressed in the most outlandish American flag outfit ever seen while tossing candy out of the back of the truck on which she rode. She hosted a jazz radio program on the local radio station for almost 30 years. The Rotary Club met in her restaurant. She organized the official Polar Bear Dip each year. She kept a book in her restaurant for visitors to sign and then piled them high with Pepe tchotchkes. Every year she sent personally signed holiday cards to every name in that book.

Pepe’s had Taco Tuesdays and Lady’s Half Off Dinners night on Wednesday. If you were a senior, a piece of pie and a cup of coffee were always free of charge. And if you invited Fran to your house for any reason, you pretty much knew she wouldn’t show up but a tray of appetizers from Pepe’s would. Quite frankly, there was no celebration in Barrow that was considered complete until that tray arrived.

Since Pepe’s was connected to the biggest hotel in town, it’s where almost every visitor or businessperson who landed in Barrow had at least one, if not more, meals. While you sat there eating, you could gaze at the wall full of t-shirts and sweat shirts for sale. My favorite was the Elephant Pot Sewage shirt. It’s motto, if my aging brain recalls correctly, was “We clean up your act so you don’t have to.”

When the no carbs, only protein diet was all the rage, two friends and I used to go to Pepe’s for Sunday brunch. Fran would see us coming and grab a big plateful of bacon and send it to the kitchen to be made extra crispy. Deb, Kim and I would then sit there through innumerable cups of coffee and ungodly amounts of bacon while visiting with Fran. That’s the only way you actually got to visit with her. She constantly made the rounds in the restaurant, refilling coffee, chatting with customers, making the whole place feel more like a family dining room than a restaurant.

Fran may be getting on in years – I’m not putting a number in here because I don’t want her to whack me when I go to see her this afternoon – but when she says she’ll rebuild Pepe’s, I believe her. Because you can’t kill the spirit that created a Pepe’s. She may have lost irreplaceable memorabilia – the signed picture from Johnny Carson commemorating her appearance on the show, the ivory tusks, the wall full of pictures of birthday and wedding parties that happened over the three decades of its existence – but she didn’t really lose Pepe’s. That’s a place that exists in her soul. And her soul will not be squelched.