Lately I’ve been feeling a little nostalgic. Perhaps it is the result of boredom and malaise, or maybe I’m just getting old. Either way, the nostalgia has triggered memories of my first food crush, an event dating back to my junior year of high school in Anchorage, Alaska. Like many who spent their teenage years in the 80s, I met my first crush at the mall—Dimond Center to be exact—where I inadvertently stumbled across Pepe’s Kitchen. In stark contrast to the highly-visible Arby’s which sat on the opposite side of the skating rink adjacent to the mall entrance, Pepe’s was resigned to a corner of the food court tucked behind the rink near the hall leading to the restrooms. It was an independently owned eatery that served up Italian American food without much fanfare. It offered a simple dining experience with good food and no pretense.
At the helm was the proprietor, whom I always assumed to be (and referred to as) Pepe. While often assisted by his son, he sometimes worked the restaurant alone, especially in the evenings when I tended to visit. I initially tried different menu items including the spaghetti, but my true love was unequivocally the Italian sausage sandwich, spicy (opposed to the mild variant).
The sandwich itself was nothing fancy. It consisted of an exceptionally long, but thin link of Italian sausage smothered in home-made marinara sauce and served on a hoagie roll. The length of the sausage was such that it overhung the bun at both ends. The plate was garnished with pickled peperoncini—the first hot pepper I summoned enough courage to eat. The spice and saltiness of the peperoncini was the perfect accompaniment to my little feast. As if the spicy sausage and peperoncini weren’t enough, I always sprinkled a liberal dose of red pepper flake atop the sandwich. Enduring the heat imparted by the capsaicin not only appealed to my teenage bravado, it helped develop my penchant for spicy food.
I attempted to bring friends along from time to time and although they always seemed to enjoy the sandwich, they were much less enthusiastic than I. Secretly (and jealously), I was relieved—Pepe’s was my hang-out, my sanctuary. During my senior year, visits became more than regular; they became a ritual. Every other Friday I would cash my paycheck and head directly to Dimond Center, the cathedral in which to partake of my gastronomical sacrament. Pepe began to recognize me and, before long, knew my standard order of an Italian sausage sandwich, spicy, and medium Coke before I even had a chance to utter a greeting. I had become a regular.
Over twenty years have passed since my last visit to Pepe’s. Feeling a bit curious about my old crush, I did what the wistful are apt to do: I turned to the Internet to conduct a Google search. My cursory attempts to discover any information on Pepe’s revealed that the small restaurant appears to be gone. It’s not listed in the directory at Dimond Center and the only reference I managed to find (aside from a Yelp-like directory listing from several years ago) was a coupon for Pepe’s printed in a 1988 edition of the Anchorage Daily News. Regardless of its fate, Pepe’s Kitchen has come to represent the type of restaurant I am most fond of and want to patronize.
First crushes are magical. For food lovers, that first food crush is a revelation: eating can be more than a necessity; it can be an experience that transcends a mere physiological routine. More importantly, first crushes teach us how much our past has influenced what we do and who we are today.