Jon Tevlin
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“This is kind of a funny story,” said Joe Minjares, the virtual mayor of Chicago Avenue S.

Minjares was sitting outside Pepitos restaurant, the place he bought in 1971 when he was a 25-year-old, just out of the Army. Minjares paused to shake hands with a small child and receive a kiss on the cheek from a customer.

“Good to see you, baby,” Minjares said.

Minjares’s story was about acting in a video a year or so ago, a training commercial for people who use medical inhalers. The director told Minjares to take a hit off the inhaler, sit down on a bed, and cough. Minjares, the consummate actor, did as he was told, coughing up a storm on his first take.

“That was great,” said the director.

Minjares laughed at his own joke, then adjusted the tube in his nose that was connected to a portable oxygen tank on his lap. His timing was impeccable, but the punch line was sadly self-deprecating. Minjares was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis about six years ago, the effects of which have progressed rapidly in recent months. The cough was as real as it gets.

Minjares, a Renaissance man who started as the owner of one of the first Mexican restaurants in Minneapolis and later become an actor, stand-up comic and writer of sitcoms and plays, has been told he’s too sick to work. At 71, he is hopeful that he qualifies for a lung transplant, but admits even that would buy him five years at most.

“My doctor said if I got the transplant, I’d spend the rest of my life fighting rejection,” Minjares said with a laugh. “Well, I’ve had a life of fighting rejection on the comedy stage. I’ve been booed off the stage and rejected for parts my whole life.”

Yet he’s kept a restaurant afloat for more than 40 years, with the help of four generations of family members. And he’s acted and written for scores of television series and movies. He’s done small parts on shows from “NYPD Blue” to “Seinfeld,” written for comedian Tom Arnold, and written plays about growing up on the Jewish North Side and another based on his family’s journey from Mexico to Minnesota.

In fact, Minjares not only opened for Seinfeld on stage, he fed him dinner at Pepitos. He counts Louie Anderson and Lizz Winstead among his friends. Cher and Janet Jackson are among the stars who have visited him at the restaurant, and last week the members of the rock band Soundgarden were at the Parkway Theater next door, which Minjares bought several years ago.

Minjares said that his low energy and need for oxygen now keep him home most days. He tapped his oxygen tank. “This machine is my new mother,” he said. “I’m living on its umbilical cord. My life is basically a bunch of two-hour adventures. It’s hard to fight the depression.”

His creativity hasn’t ebbed, nor has his sense of humor. “If I do any more acting, I guess I’d be the sick guy, the dying guy,” Minjares said.

“Joe and I were newbies in the comedy scene together and suffered the slings and arrows of developing in the Twin Cities at the Comedy Cabaret and The Comedy Gallery,” Winstead said in an e-mail. “But [we] also braved the soul-crushing comedy scene in Los Angeles. Joe is so funny, an incredible writer and actor and an inspiration. I love Joe and his spirit, his humor and fight for the underdog. You will never meet a more authentic guy.”

Joey Minjares, Joe’s son, is keeping the restaurant going while his dad hopes for recovery. He’s watched his once-energetic father get weaker over the past weeks. “We’re worried about him,” Joey said. “He’s always had the energy of a 12-year-old, now he can hardly walk from this table to the door.”

Joey said keeping a restaurant going for decades was a minor miracle. His dad has been instrumental in keeping the neighborhood vibrant, fighting a porn theater next door years ago and then buying the Parkway. His family has also served free Thanksgiving dinner to thousands of people over the years with little fanfare.

“He’s never been one to take credit,” Joey said.

Minjares looked at his oxygen monitor, showing his breathing was just above 90 percent of his lung capacity. “I look at it sometimes and it’s 60, and I say, I’m dying,” Minjares said. “Does it scare me? The only thing that bothers me is having my family have to watch.

“The hardest thing I ever did was put this oxygen tube in my nose,” he said. “I’m a vain guy. I always want to look good.

“It has happened so quickly my family hasn’t digested it yet.”

His mother, uncle and other family members have died, taking part of the family history and recipes with them, he said, getting emotional. He constantly worries about the future of Pepitos, and acknowledges that part of its success has been his own outsized personality.

“It’s kind of held hands with this thing I’ve got, know what I mean?” Minjares said.

His first movie was a part in “Patti Rocks”, filmed locally. When they finished shooting, a cast member said, “Next time I see you, you will be 13 feet tall.”

“That’s what drove me,” Minjares said. “I wanted to be the best, I wanted people to say, ‘There’s Joe, there’s a Mexican.’

“People would rather follow one guy with a blowtorch than a hundred people with candles,” Minjares said. “I always wanted to be the guy with the blowtorch.”

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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