by John Tedesco
EXPRESS-NEWS COASTAL BEND BUREAU
Metro / South Texas
HEBBRONVILLE — You might not know it yet, but Paco is your friend.
The first time you meet him, you’ll open a rickety screen door and enter a bar where the walls are covered with pictures of Marilyn Monroe. Hunters in camouflage are drinking beer and eating steaks drowning in A-1 sauce.
Paco is the frail old man in the cap and flannel shirt.
“Hey, brother,” he’ll say to you, or “How ya doin’, sister?”
Sometimes, he’ll say, “Hey, cowboy.”
Hebbronville has lots of cowboys.
You might not know Paco, but he shakes your hand and casually pats your back, as he’s done a thousand times with a thousand strangers. Paco has played host to obscure and famous people in this little town since he returned home 55 years ago from Europe, where he fought in France, Belgium and Germany during World War II.
Paco got a job as a bookkeeper and clerk at a hardware store until he saved enough money to open his own business, Frank’s Cafe. His given name is Francisco Gutierrez, but everyone calls him Paco.
The restaurant is in a building once owned by his father — a general store in the old days, when his family sold saddles and ranching supplies.
Under Paco’s management, the new restaurant served good food, especially steaks. When time came for the bill, Paco walked to your table, counted the empty beer bottles, and told you how much to pay. The total was always different, but that was OK.
Many people who eat at Paco’s place are hunters. Hebbronville, population 4,498, lies smack dab in prime hunting country, and people with guns, money and occasionally a bit of stardom arrive annually from across Texas and elsewhere in the United States.
Paco’s menu and warm handshake kept them coming back, and word began to spread about Frank’s Cafe. Film stars and famous athletes have visited over the years. On the wall is an autographed poster of baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan. “To Frank’s,” Ryan inscribed it. “The best steak in South Texas.”
Officials in Jim Hogg County, where Hebbronville is the county seat, acknowledge that Paco’s restaurant has become the best-known landmark in town.
“It was the way he treated people,” said County Judge Agapito “Cuate” Molina. “People would go in there, he would sit down with them. He would pull up a chair, take the order, and at the same time have a conversation.”
The restaurant has gone through a few changes. There used to be Confucius-like sayings on the walls, little Frankisms that poked fun at locals and made sense of life.
One day, Paco’s son, Big Bob, put up a picture of Marilyn Monroe. Pretty soon, the clientele started bringing their own pictures and the collection grew, replacing the Frankisms.
There’s a sultry Marilyn. Poised Marilyn. Laughing Marilyn. Gee-isn’t-the-breeze-from-this-subway-grate-refreshing Marilyn.
There’s a framed painting of Marilyn at the Last Supper, with a milk shake instead of a chalice, surrounded by 12 movie stars.
If a picture says a thousand words, Frank’s Cafe has 60,000 words to say about the blonde movie star — and about a restaurant that has been embraced by a community.
Out of Paco’s success, he has been able to buy some land and educate his family. He had five sons — one died at birth. The others grew up to be a doctor in California, an assistant district attorney in Hebbronville, and a teacher in Austin. Then there is Big Bob, who runs Frank’s Cafe and takes care of his dad.
The restaurant’s hours have diminished. Paco, who will turn 85 in March and has diabetes, has slowed down some. But Big Bob keeps the family business running from 6 p.m. to midnight. Sometimes, Paco will be too tired and won’t be there to greet you. But occasionally, as you walk through the rickety screen door, you’ll see him in the cap and flannel shirt, a handshake at the ready.
“I like to accommodate people,” Paco said. “They sure like me for that reason.”
jtedesco @ express-news.net