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Memories of Barrow landmark Pepe's North of the Border remain strong, even if mementos are ash

Earl Finkler
Pepe's North of the Border Restaurant, Barrow.
TravelingOtter / cc via flickr
Pepe's North of the Border Restaurant burned to the ground on Saturday morning, August 31, 2013. The restaurant was a Barrow landmark.
Courtesy Mack Pennington
Pepe's North of the Border Restaurant burned to the ground on Saturday morning, August 31, 2013. The restaurant was a Barrow landmark.
Courtesy Mack Pennington
Pepe's North of the Border Restaurant, Barrow.
Terry Feuerborn / cc via flickr
Pepe's North of the Border restaurant, Barrow.
Loren Holmes photo

Before sharing some memories of Pepe's North of the Border, which burned to the ground at the end of August, I’d like to offer prayers and best wishes to Fran, Mike, Joe and Bob and the staff and the fine folks in Barrow, including and volunteer fire department and other responders who kept adjacent buildings from burning up too.

The original Pepe's opened in October, 1978, just about a block away from the site of the fire. As I remember, there was no Arctic entryway so tacos and other dishes would quickly get cold each time the door was opened. So my friend Kent Grinage and I would learn to eat quickly and wear parkas indoors if possible.

In 1987, my wife Chris and I got married there -- in Pepe's. She had been going to one church and I another, so we found a mid-point at Pepe's. Special thanks to Bob Green, who set up the whole wedding, including decorations, cake and other goodies.

Just last November, in fact, we flew back to Barrow from Medford, Wis., to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We didn’t have a ceremony, but had a nice “Taco Tuesday” with a good number of friends, including our Greenland husky Avu’s original owner Geoff Carroll and his wife Marie. Taco Tuesday was a long-time custom when tacos became special bargains.

On special returns to Pepe's on our anniversary each year, Fran would always have a romantic little corner table for us, and Joe would give us a ride home when it was very cold. One year, I surprised Chris when Geoff and his team of Greenland huskies took us out on the offshore ice from Browerville to Pepe's. When we arrived, I hugged Geoff and each husky and we went in to Pepe's in our parkas and Arctic gear.

I also remember when a number of Barrow baseball fans were avid fantasy baseball players. And Fran let us use one of her restaurant rooms for our annual draft -- which took most of the morning and afternoon. Nothing like tacos and baseball statistics.

Pepe's just has so many memories for me. I remember when Fran was a guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and got him to try some whale muktuk. He gingerly took a small piece, and then she told him about how hard it would be to get the smell off his hands.

So many luminaries, noted authors, and sports figures visited Pepe's over the years, that it would be impossible to list them all. But a personal favorite of mine, was the first and last scientist astronaut on the moon, Harrison Schmitt. I was so excited to meet him, being a big astronomy buff.

I also remember noted actor Harvey Kietel. I picked him up at Pepe's to take him to Barrow radio station KBRW radio for an interview, and his complaint was that Fran did not have an espresso machine! Can't please everyone.

Fran's the generous heart of Pepe's, too. If you sent her a Christmas card, she'd keep your name on file and send you one each year. Chris and I get cards from her on each of our wedding anniversaries. Fran would also send each senior a nice roast beef dinner once a year -- delivered. Seniors also got free pie at Pepe's.

I was very sorry to hear about the loss of some Pepe’s history in the fire, including mementos, scrapbooks and signatures of famous folks like former NFL players Dick Butkus. But even with the losses, Fran and the staff should know that lots of residents, former residents and visitors will long keep you and Pepe's in their minds and hearts. And if a new Pepe's can rise up out of the ashes, that would be great! I can’t wait for the next Taco Tuesday!

Earl Finkler is a former resident of Barrow and host of the Morning Show on KBRW Barrow -- serving the North Slope. He now lives in Medford, Wis., with his wife Chris and former Barrow Husky "Avu."

The views expressed in the above commentary are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.