It was the busiest Saturday night in at least a decade at the Tampico restaurant downtown - so busy that several customers even pitched in to help wash dishes and run the cash register.

But John Loumis, the man who for the past 42 years has run what may have been Salt Lake City's first Mexican restaurant, wouldn't call those helpers customers.They, and countless others who came to eat one last meal of Mexican food before the restaurant closed permanently on Saturday night, are considered friends by the 72-year-old Loumis and his wife, Lucy.

Sitting in the clay-tile lobby, Loumis greeted many of his customers by name. Some, like the Denver art teacher who last ate at Tampico 28 years ago as a Westminster College student, had to refresh his memory.

"It was the place to come for a good meal - and a good price for a college kid," said Don Budy, who was in Salt Lake City for a convention and had decided to look up his former college hangout.

Budy was surprised to see the sign that said Saturday was the final day for the Regent Street restaurant that had opened about 11/2 years before Loumis took it over in 1946.

Loumis bought the two buildings that house Tampico in 1968. He agreed to sell the buildings to the Newspaper Agency Corp. after unsuccessful attempts to turn Tampico over to his son, John Jr., or to locate a buyer for the restaurant.

NAC, which provides advertising, printing and circulation services for the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune, plans to demolish the buildings and use the area as a parking lot for newspaper delivery trucks.

Loumis is not sentimental about his decision, saying that his retirement to a small cattle ranch in Bluffdale is long overdue. For the past 10 years or so, business has declined as new restaurants throughout the Salt Lake area lured diners away from downtown.

Loyal customers continued to come to the small, stucco-front restaurant through the years, and many made sure they were there Saturday, even if it meant driving from Provo or Ogden.

Dave Eldridge of Ogden said he and his wife, Bonnie, had been steady customers for the past 30 years despite the long drive for a simple reason - the food. "It won't be the same. Now where are we going to go for good Mexican food?" Eldridge asked.

Doug Barton, whose son and daughter were pitching in to help the regular staff handle the overflow crowd Saturday night, jokingly confronted Loumis with the same question as he waited for a seat.

"I'm mad at you and Lucy for doing this to me," he said. "Where are we going to eat?"

"Lucy will give you some recipes," Loumis answered. He had earlier confessed to not being a very good cook himself and said he depended on his wife and employees to come up with the menu.

"Recipes? Nobody does it like Tampico. There are a lot of substitutes, but only one original," Barton said. His brother was the first in the family to try the restaurant, back in 1946.

Barton avoided the restaurant, fearing the spicy dishes would upset his already troubled stomach. But after one meal, he said, the stomach problems disappeared. Since then, he's been a regular.

Barton's son, Matt, was behind the counter ringing up the many meals sold Saturday. His daughter, Becky, recently hired as a waitress at Tampico, was washing some of the many dishes dirtied Saturday.

"Now that's friends," Loumis said.