In closure of La Mex, the end of a Spenard era

mtheriault@adn.comDecember 7, 2013 

For 42 years, La Mex has stayed the same as Spenard Road has transformed around it: Black velvet paintings on the walls, frothy margaritas coming from the bar, longtime waitresses like Jeannie Elam taking orders.

But change has finally caught up with La Mex. The restaurant is closing its doors Saturday.

"I always imagined La Mex without me," said Elam, an expert waitress with nails stenciled with tiny tropical scenes. She has worked there since the Reagan administration, on and off. "But I never imagined me without La Mex."

The reason is simple: The big blocky building with a metal cactus for a sign is just not busy anymore, said owner Trina Johnson, whose parents opened the original restaurant in Mountain View in 1969.

La Mex's second location on King Street, near Dimond Boulevard, will remain open.

"It's bittersweet," Johnson said from a back booth in the half-empty restaurant on a recent afternoon. "La Mex is an iconic place in an already iconic part of town."

LOG CABIN RESTAURANT

Trina Johnson's parents, Ray and Shirley Johnson, came to Alaska with the U.S. Air Force.

They started the original La Mexicana in a log cabin on Mountain View drive in 1969, serving up the Americanized Mexican food beloved in their former home of Texas.

Shirley made guacamole tableside in the tiny restaurant, which seated 12 people. Tamales, rice, beans and a salad cost $1.25.

Customers kept writing checks to "La Mex," and the name stuck.

In 1971, La Mex moved to a building near the intersection of Spenard Road and Fireweed Lane that also housed a well-known dentist with the unfortunate name of Dr. Paine, and the Girl Scouts.

Inside La Mex was a cigarette vending machine, red-vinyl booth and hippie beads hanging from the ceiling. Black velvet paintings hung in the dining room. (They still do.)

Spenard had its own separate town center then: There was a Piggly Wiggly grocery and a post office next door.

La Mex was one of the few restaurants in the area, Johnson said.

People lined up around the corner for dinner on busy weekend nights, she said. Back then, going out as a family for enchiladas was a big deal. People dressed up. Mexican food was considered slightly exotic.

Then came a time when oil and cash flowed in Alaska and Spenard became a place to spend it, fast.

"There were more massage parlors than churches," is how Johnson remembers it.

In fact, Johnson said, what is now the restaurant's back parking lot was once the location of a brothel. She bought the place and tore it down.

A BOOZY 'BLACK HOLE'

During the pipeline era and beyond, La Mex was part of what locals called the "Spenard Triangle," a sort of boozy black hole of bars: Grandes at La Mex, drinks at Chilkoot Charlies, more drinks at an establishment called the Midnight Express, which supposedly had Alaska's first mechanical bull.

Liquors laws were looser. Bars stayed open until 5 a.m.

You could put just about as much tequila as you wanted into one of the "Grande" margaritas that La Mex has always prided itself on. You could step up to the bar and order a whole six-pack.

During this time so many people got in fistfights in the bathroom that Ray Johnson rigged up a switch that would alert someone behind the bar if the paper-towel dispenser was in the process of being ripped off the wall.

Rumors flew about the secret "Grande" margarita mix: La Mex was preparing it in vats underground. It was made with egg whites. (Neither are true, though Johnson won't say what's actually in it.)

THE NEW SPENARD

Spenard keeps changing.

Today there's a tattoo parlor and a fledgling East African restaurant next door. A thriving farmers' market uses Chilkoot Charlie's parking lot in summer months. At a hip, mixed-use commercial and residential strip mall nearby, you can buy a $55 sweatshirt or a $6.50 truffled chocolate pyramid with macerated berries.

"They got rid of the hookers," said waitress Jeannie Elam about this part of Spenard's transformation.

Over the years La Mex kept its regulars.

One guy enjoyed the Grande margaritas so much that he painted a self-portrait of himself in a turtleneck and blazer, drinking one with a half-clothed companion. That portrait now adorns t-shirts and posters at La Mex. The man, now elderly, comes in occasionally with his personal care attendants, said longtime manager Tyler Crenshaw. Another couple asked for the table where they got engaged.

Jolene Conley's dad would take her to La Mex to lecture her on "making better choices in life" over a meal.

Kenny Dancer said he took "many dates" there, "including my future ex-wife."

La Mex is where he'd park his Corvette for safe-keeping before crossing the street to party at Koots.

But the crowds of past decade have gone.

"It's not busy like it used to be," Johnson said.

There are so many other choices in the neighborhood: The Bear Tooth serves burritos and tacos and alcohol, too. Spenard Roadhouse draws lots of young people. Chain restaurants from the Lower 48 have moved in.

Out at Tikhatnu Commons, there's a waiting line to get in to Olive Garden at 11 a.m. in the morning, just like there was once at La Mex.

Johnson says she counts more than 40 Mexican restaurants in Anchorage.

"People just don't think of us anymore," she said.

The closure is partly personal.

Johnson started working at her parents' restaurant when she was 14, standing on a plastic milk crate in the kitchen with hot pads wrapped around her hands, slinging plates of molten cheese-topped beans and rice.

"I wanted to be like my dad," she said.

She's been running La Mex on her own since 1990.

Owning a small business is all-consuming. Restaurant work never ends.

In his last years, long after she'd taken over, her father would call from his nursing home to remind Johnson to order enough limes for the bar.

After her beloved dog died a few months back, Johnson felt it was time for a change. She called a local real estate agent.

"I'm ready," she said.

A group of local investors she won't name bought the building.

Johnson says she has no idea what's next for 2550 Spenard Road.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

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