End of a Cajun Era

A trio of big men, whose like-sized bellies might deserve separate introductions as they sag over dinner-plate-sized belt buckles, stride across the parking lot of Pe-Te's Cajun Barbeque House. They shout greetings to several friends in the extended cab of a pickup, gravel crunching under its wheels as it pulls up.

The smiling new arrivals wave back and get out boisterously, quickly moving through the front door that squeak-slams behind them on their way to the serving line. They emerge with plates towering with barbecue, dirty rice and boudin balls, the culinary calling cards for the 25-year-old Clear Lake eatery, just across Texas 3 from Ellington Field.

The three take seats in the front dining room, shingled with more than 4,000 license plates from as far away as Antarctica and dating back to the '40s. On one wall are autographed photos of astronauts who have dined here. Several of NASA's finest have played tapes of Lester "Pe-Te" Johnson's Saturday-morning Cajun radio program on KPFT while in outer space.

This gas station-turned-restaurant was among the first stops for several Russian astronauts after an extended, Spartan stay aboard the space station Mir -- just as it's been the first stop for out-of-town visitors staying with longtime Pe-Te fans from around Houston.

Like its founder, the restaurant is colorful, storied and full of braggadocio. But unlike its founder, the 7,000-square-foot combination restaurant and dance hall is huge.

Les Johnson's personality may be larger than life, but he stands five foot five. As the runt of the litter of five siblings growing up with sharecropper parents in Eunice, Louisiana, Pe-Te gained his nickname from his brothers and sisters. It is a muddled version of the French word petit, "petite" in English.

For all its kaleidoscope of familiarity, the eatery's longtime dining customers were oblivious on a recent day that they were nearing the end of a happy era.

Without a hint of an announcement, Pe-Te and his 42-year-old son, Johnnie, decided that last Friday would be the restaurant's final day.

The previous weekend was the first silent Saturday afternoon at Pe-Te's, known for its live Cajun and zydeco music, which regularly drew customers from Conroe to Angleton and all points in between. Entire families, from grandparents on down to snoozing infants in baby seats propped tabletop, occupied the long tables. Singles and couples young and old whirled on the dance floor, with fathers teaching daughters the dance steps to "Jolie Blanc" and the "Eunice Two-Step."

Pe-Te gained a reputation as a silver-tongued self-promoter over the quarter of a century that he's been serving food and large helpings of his native Cajun culture.

Through the years, the only real public controversy emerged in 1998, over a private matter. Houston City Councilman Rob Todd, responding to requests from several fans of Pe-Te's, proposed that the city install commemorative street signs to honor Pe-Te.

The plan was expected to receive routine council approval until it was reported that the restaurant operator was still serving deferred-adjudication probation for molesting a minor. Todd dropped the proposal.

Pe-Te, who had never sought the street signs, declined comment then. He was tight-lipped as well last week about the impending closing.

He would only say he retired last year and sold the restaurant to his son, who had decided that the fast-paced business "just wasn't his cup of tea." Shutting the place "just broke my heart," he said, referring questions to his son.

Johnnie, on the other hand, insisted that his dad still owns the enterprise and referred all questions to him.

"I don't want to talk about anything about Pe-Te's," he said. "I'll miss it, too -- we'll all miss it -- but you'll have to talk to my dad."

At lunch last week, two customers -- both Houston natives who said they'd been coming to Pe-Te's since they were teenagers -- were floored when they heard their favorite place would be gone in two days.

"You're kidding; this place can't close," said 47-year-old James Godbe. "I try to come as much as possible because I love the food and I love the atmosphere. I guess it's just another tradition to say good-bye to."

"Is Pe-Te okay?" Wyatt Tompkins, a Clear Lake chiropractor, immediately asked. "This place is an eye-catcher for local color. It's got such personality. All the natives know this place.

"I eat here once a week, and I've been coming here since it opened. I remember when it was a gas station."

That was before August 13, 1979. Pe-Te had bought and remodeled it and opened the barbecue cafe.

He first came to Houston in 1961 as assistant manager for Wyatt's Cafeteria. After being hired as a quality-control inspector at Brown & Root, one day he brought to work 15 barbecue sandwiches to sell at lunch.

"They were all gone lickety-split, and the people at the office asked me to bring some more," he recalled in an interview several years ago. Eventually he was bringing 200 sandwiches to work.

Not long after, Brown & Root wanted to transfer him out of town, and he took a six-month leave instead. He bought a linen truck, put a small kitchen inside and parked it on the side of FM 2351.

Pilots and other workers from nearby Ellington Field became such regulars that the base commander asked Pe-Te to park his brisket-mobile on Ellington's premises -- he wanted his employees to get back from lunch more quickly. Before long, the gas station across the highway went up for sale, and Pe-Te snapped it up. The barbecue house was born.

About 18 months later, he and wife Jennie had the first of their Saturday-afternoon dances. Despite the dreary weather, complete with sleet and high winds, homesick Cajuns quickly filled the dance hall. Pe-Te became the area's self-appointed ambassador for Cajun culture.

In 1982, a caravan from radio station KTEK in Alvin stopped there on its way to the rodeo. One of the DJs in the caravan asked Pe-Te if he would broadcast live that night, which began a yearlong stint at the station. After the station had a management shakeup, Pe-Te started helping out with a Friday-night program at KPFT.

He grabbed the first time slot that came open -- 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Saturdays -- and he's been there ever since.

He plans to continue the radio program.

"It broke my heart when the dance hall was closed," he said last week. And he "didn't want to go back into the [restaurant] business" when his son offered to sell it back to him recently.

"But I'm keeping that radio program -- it's my baby," he said. "I've got to keep the Cajun culture going."

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Carol Rust