It was our place. That’s what it was. I grew up in a little fishing village, nestled in the Florida Panhandle.
This was long before the tattoo parlors, before the T-shirt shops, before Whole Foods and Bass Pro.
Today our little town is not even a shadow of its former glory. On any given month, Destin is inundated with 8 million tourists wearing thong bikinis. And those are just the men.
But once upon a time, we had Pepito’s. It was your quintessential Mexican dive restaurant. It was clean. The staff was friendly. They had ugly orange walls. The joint was always packed.
They served good food. The chips were always hot. The salsa was fresh from an actual tin can. They had ice-cold Tecate.
You could order a “King Burrito,” and you wouldn’t be hungry again for the next three or four presidential administrations.
My first kiss happened outside Pepito’s. It was late. Her name was Teresa. She had red hair and she smelled like Head and Shoulders.
Do people name their kids Teresa anymore?
As a young man, all my friends went to Pepito’s because it was where you went. We spent entire evenings in those booths, discussing who we were going to grow up to become.
For a few bucks, you could fill your belly on queso dip that would turn your bowels into stone. If you had enough cash left over, you could take in a movie across the street.
Years later, I worked at the restaurant next door to Pepito’s. We served cheap sirloins. I was a line cook. I worked in a dank kitchen until 1AM every weeknight, doing dishes.
They were long nights. Pepito’s shared our same dumpster. So, whenever I took out the trash, there were always a few Latino guys out there smoking cigarettes, speaking in rapid-fire Español, drinking longneck Pacificos.
I learned to speak Spanish in that alley. I had no idea they were teaching me dirty words.
Before I married, I would take my future-wife to Pepito’s. On weekends, they had a mariachi trio. Three portly men played vihuelas, guitaelas and violínos, strolling between tables. If you didn’t put money into their guitar soundholes, they would play louder.
One night, I requested the trio play “Besame Mucho” for my fiance. They actually let me sing a song with them. My musical performance was so impressive, all the people in the restaurant sprang to their feet and rushed for the exits.
After we married, my wife and I lived in a cheap apartment behind Waffle House. It was a horrible place. I got fleas. Twice. We were flat broke, so eating out was a luxury. Whenever we treated ourselves, we went to Pepito’s.
But then, that was a long time ago. Somehow I grew up. And so did our fishing village.
One by one, the mom-and-pop shops disappeared and became real estate offices or vape outlets. The post-war block houses were demolished so that homes shaped like the Sears Towers could be built in their places. They tore down the fishing rodeo docks and built Six Flags over Avarice.
But Pepito’s was a mainstay. You could always count on Pepito’s. You could walk inside, order an immobilizingly cold beer, eat lukewarm guacamole, and play the memory game with old friends.
“Remember when we used to…?” “Remember when we were kids…?” “Whatever happened to what’s-her-name…?”
For a few bucks, you could eat mediocre Mexican that tasted the same as it did a lifetime ago. And you could remember things.
Such as the night, long ago, when you brought your widowed mother here and broke the news that you were getting married. She cried. And so did you.
Or the night your best friend brought you here and told you he was leaving for Afghanistan in the morning.
Today, they’re vacating Pepito’s. The property was owned by investors in Canada. But the good ole days are gone. It’s been purchased. The new investors want to build a Publix. Tourists got to have their groceries.
Even so, I’ll always remember the balmy evenings from the summers of my Florida youth. I’ll remember the dim-lit booths of an average Mexican-American eatery, where the promise of my entire future hung in the air.
I’ll forever remember how young we were. How smooth our faces looked. And how good it felt when, in that corner booth, a young woman once took my hand and said, “Yes, I’ll be your wife.”
You can tear down Pepito’s. But keep your hands off my memories.