The Frontier at 40
Sweet rolls, good memories
In four decades, no one has died at 2400 Central SE. This according to majordoughmo Larry Rainosek, who has greeted gut-growling crowds there since Day 1 back in 1971.
Sure, paramedics have on occasion been summoned to the barn with the butter-yellow roof. But never because of bad beef. There’s been a marriage on the premises and doubtless some proposals. First dates? Got a calculator?
A guy naked from the waist down once moseyed in the front door. Two kids slipped out a back door with a swiped painting of John Wayne. A wedding party warmed up here. Governors, mayors and judges chilled out. Jay Leno popped in. Ditto for Tom Brokaw. Brian Urlacher blitzed a platter of enchiladas, then another. Some years ago a cardinal graced the place. Forgive me, Your Eminence, for I have gorged.
“It’s unbelievable when you take the time to talk to people. And you can do that here.”
Then there are the regulars, habitués addicted to shambling the lunch-hour queue, mulling the mélange of artwork, searching the diners for a familiar face.
Here are three.
The white-haired gent in dark glasses pauses before putting a glass mug of coffee (95 cents) to his lips.
Across the booth, Chris and Hank wait for their friend’s pronouncement.
“He had on a wool hat, an unusual hat,” Basil Nellos is saying about the man he once met in the Frontier Restaurant.
“He had a thick mustache. He said hello to me. He was foreign looking. Maybe he sat down because of my Mediterranean looks. ‘What kind of hat is that?’ I asked him. ‘It is handmade,’ he said. ‘What is that, a tribal hat or what?’ ‘Afghan,’ he said. ‘I am Afghan.’ He was mujahideen. He spent 10 years fighting the Soviets. He never slept in a bed all that time. He showed me his bullet wounds.”
Chris and Hank glance at each other.
“Back then I would sit with my friends. Nobody had any money. We would buy a burrito for a dollar and drown it with ranchero sauce and then divvy it up.”
“He didn’t pull off his shirt. He just pointed them out.”
The booth goes quiet. Nellos sips his coffee.
“ ‘Who wins the war in Afghanistan?’ I asked him. He looked at me and wagged his index finger. ‘Nobody wins in Afghanistan.’ ‘Did you get medals?’ I asked him. ‘In this country, they’re always giving everybody medals.’ ‘Nobody gets medals,’ he said. Ten years in the army, and they gave him nothing.”
Basil Nellos takes a sip of his coffee. “You know what the Roman rulers used to say?”
Chris and Hank await the answer, as is their custom.
“Give them all the medals they want but not one inch of land.”
Basil Nellos is 70. He has been moving Levi’s at the Lobo Mens Shop, a block and a half west, since 1963. Mornings, Nellos holds court in the Frontier’s front room. “It’s unbelievable when you take the time to talk to people,” he says. “And you can do that here. You know what Einstein said? Knowledge is limited, but insight is limitless.”
“Frontier philosophers. You know, aging beats like Gus Blaisdell, who had the Living Batch bookstore.”
Chris and Hank nod.
Nellos has two, maybe three cups of coffee. Sometimes pancakes. “The pancakes (two for $2.35) are very good. But listen, this isn’t five stars.” Laughter fills the booth.
He browses the morning paper at home, then brings it to the Frontier in case he ends up by himself. That rarely happens. Looking around he says, “You just don’t know who you’re going to meet here.”
“Oh, my God, the breakup room.”
Tamara Couture says this in the tone one might speak of a Dachau chamber.
“When I started going to the Frontier, in, let’s see, the mid-’80s, we used to go to the far back room. Not the far, far back, but the second-to-last room, No. 4. No one I ever knew went to the far, far back room, the fifth room. I would peak in there from time to time. It had a real bad vibe. It was, I learned, the breakup room.”
Breakup, as in getting dumped.
The fourth room, that was Couture’s space, back when she was Tamara Nicholl, a purple-haired kid from the South Valley. She’s 39 now and runs a law practice with her husband, Tony Couture. Sixteen years they’ve been together. A visit to the breakup room is unfathomable.
“Back then I would sit with my friends,” she says. “Nobody had any money. We would buy a burrito for a dollar and drown it with ranchero sauce and then divvy it up. The attraction then was that the Frontier was open 24 hours and you could smoke inside. Nobody bothered you. We didn’t have cell phones or pagers in those days. But you knew if you went to the Frontier, your friends could find you.”
Later, as an adult, she studied at the Frontier—for UNM classes that eventually led to three degrees. She can buy her own burrito now ($4.59 for a breakfast one).
The habit rubbed off. Her mother, Linda Smouse, was in her forties when she became a student for the first time. She spent hours with a Frontier study group, finally getting an RN degree at 49.
It doesn’t stop there. The Coutures’ daughter Aurora, 15, and son Sagan, 8, go to the Frontier with their parents.
“They love it,” their mother says. “But we never eat in the breakup room. Bad mojo.”
A defining moment in Gordy Andersen’s life happened, he says, inside the Frontier.
In 1981, Andersen was a punk rocker who worked in the UNM mail room, then just across Central Avenue. He had tattoos and a mohawk and played guitar in band called Jerry’s Kidz.
Today, at 53, he is the manager of shipping and receiving at the UNM Health Sciences Center. His hair is shoulder-length now, rock music remains his soul mate and he still eats the same thing at the Frontier: two eggs scrambled, bacon, wheat toast ($5.59). For a hangover, he recommends a 12-ounce, fresh-squeezed OJ ($2.50).
Thirty-some years ago the front room was populated mostly by what Andersen calls “Frontier philosophers. You know, aging beats like Gus Blaisdell, who had the Living Batch bookstore.”
One day a large fellow with a droopy mustache, a Bowie knife on his belt and a bad attitude came in. “He’d been in before,” Anderson says. “He was always talking real loud about the swords and knives he had out in his van. He clearly was a psychopath. The guy didn’t like the way I looked. He threatened me. ‘Hey, faggot!’ He kept trying to get me to look at him. ‘Why don’t you go sit in another room, faggot?’ ”
Then suddenly three cops came in and hauled him out, Andersen remembers. “Apparently, they had outstanding warrants on him.”
As a kid, Andersen says he was hassled constantly by the police. “You know, they would come to a park where we would hang out in the Heights and they’d pour out our beer and dump out our stash. I hated them. I really had a chip on my shoulder about cops.”
That chip fell away the afternoon the police came to his rescue at the Frontier. “I suddenly saw cops differently. For me, it was a maturing incident.”
The pull of the place has never gone away for Andersen. “In the band I’m in now [Black Maria], we say, ‘OK, we’re going to the Frontier to have a meeting.’ We sit there and write up a set list.”
For a brief time, Andersen was part of the band ALLUCANEAT. “Damien Wilson played guitar. Damien called the Frontier ‘Mom’s.’ He’d say, ‘Let’s go to Mom’s.’ You knew it was like going back home. It was comforting. Still is.”