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This Polarizing West Texas Mexican Restaurant Is More Confident Than Ever in Its Purpose

Author: Texasmonthly.com

 This Polarizing West Texas Mexican Restaurant Is More Confident Than Ever in Its Purpose

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After coming across the Instagram page for the Local, a contemporary Mexican restaurant and bar in Abilene, I was determined to visit. It didn’t look like the typical rustic mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant I’m accustomed to seeing in West Texas. The social media posts showed a sleek establishment, which piqued my curiosity.

But several issues prevented me from stopping by right away. First there was the COVID-19 pandemic. Later, travel plans collapsed. Then owners and spouses Justin and Alex Russell and their business partner–executive chef, Cody Enriquez, temporarily closed the restaurant to work through staffing issues.

I was beginning to think the universe didn’t want me to eat there. Then news came that the Local would reopen in early November. I was determined to take advantage of the opportunity. I’m thrilled I did. What I found at the Local is an innovative restaurant that braids together history, creativity, thoughtfulness, ambition, and top-notch culinary execution.

But I also discovered that the restaurant is just as known around town for ruffling feathers as it is for its food. While the Local offers little in the way of the abundantly sauced, cheese-obscured Tex-Mex the owners grew up eating, it still has a couple nods to the region’s culinary traditions.

For example, the Taco Americano is Enriquez’s take on the crunchy taco. It begins with a freshly fried, house-made corn tortilla, which is then filled with ground beef, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, and sour cream and dusted with cotija. More in line with the chef’s culinary sensibilities are the chimichanga egg rolls: chubby fried vessels packed with mesquite-smoked brisket from Sharon’s Barbeque and Catering, owned by Alex Russell’s grandmother.

Another twist on a classic are the signature wonton tacos—a customer favorite—which are composed of fried wonton wrappers folded into pyramids filled with juicy, twelve-hour-marinated shredded chicken. They’re covered in a bright, creamy avocado ranch, finely grated cotija, and a burst of sesame seeds. Popular Videos Previous Next more For Enriquez, the menu is the manifestation of his desire to give Abilene something it hasn’t experienced without isolating potential customers.

The 33-year-old chef wants folks to know they don’t have to drive four hours to have such an experience. “It’s okay to be different,” Enriquez told me. “I give it to you all, as long as you’re willing to open your mind about it.” He’s fond of telling people that when they’re tired of eating the omnipresent cheap (in price point and, perhaps, quality) Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes, “come to Cousin Cody’s house.

I’ll take care you.” The Local was initially envisioned as a taqueria. “We wanted to be all about the tacos,” Alex Russell says. And the tacos certainly stand out: they manage to be both imaginative and accessible. The thick strip of bacon in the Texas 3 Step taco is the backbone of a delectable trio that includes chicken-thigh meat, jalapeños, and swaths of cilantro pesto.

The pork shoulder in the smoky taco al pastor is seasoned with a marinade that eschews the typical achiote. The St. Croix taco is packed with brambles of marinated grilled chicken-thigh meat topped with mango pico de gallo, cotija, chives, and radishes. The flour and corn tortillas are made in-house.

Currently, the corn tortillas are made from masa harina, but they hide their commodity provenance well, lacking the cloying sweetness of industrial tortillas. Improvement might be on the horizon, though, as Enriquez is experimenting with nixtamalization. Flour tortillas weren’t offered when the restaurant opened, because Enriquez doesn’t like the way certain flour tortillas obscure the flavors of the fillings.

“I pushed that boulder up that hill for as long as I could,” he says. But customers wanted the option. The interior of the restaurant mixes vintage touches with industrial elements. It offers hints of the building’s past as Busch Jewelers, which was in operation for 73 years before closing in 2017.

The narrow windows that once displayed necklaces and earrings now give passersby a clear look at the dining room. Forest-green, reddish-brown, and off-white tiles on the mosaic floor replicate the jewelry store’s original flooring. At the rear of the dining room, stairs lead to the mezzanine. Originally, Alex Russell wanted to transform the upper level into a day care for employees and customers, but regulations and licensing proved too costly.

The tables upstairs and on the ground floor are filled with ranch workers, military families, and other residents speaking in English and Spanish. The bar is overseen by Abilene service-industry veteran Jerron Johnson, who holds such eyebrow-raising stock as Uruapan brand charanda, a Mexican rum made in Michoacán.

It’s not the kind of spirit one would expect in a small West Texas restaurant, but the Local and its owners are full of surprises. Their stories reflect obstacles any type of pioneer might go through when breaking new ground. But even the Russells, who are Abilene natives, did not anticipate the reactions their eatery would elicit. Chef Cody Enriquez and co-owner Alex Russell at The Local.

Photograph by José R. Ralat Alex Russell wanted to go into politics after graduating from Texas Tech University. But her grandmother, Sharon Allen Riley, asked her to get back into the family business of food. Russell had grown up in her family’s Abilene restaurants, including her grandmother’s barbecue joint and steakhouse, Lytle Land & Cattle.

“I was hosting when I was nine years old and waiting tables not long after that,” she says. Russell returned home after college to become the general manager of the two restaurants. She worked with relatives, including her father, daily and, as she describes it, fell in love with the job. Politics would have to wait. After two years of working with her family, Russell opened her own marketing agency.

She became the youngest member of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce board and joined the Abilene Young Professionals Steering Committee. She managed the 2017 campaign for current mayor Anthony Williams, and she ran an unsuccessful campaign for a city council seat. Navigating civic life was exciting and revelatory for Russell.

“I was really enthralled with the energy coming up in Abilene,” she says. She saw the beginnings of a promising revitalization and got involved. However, Abilene wasn’t keen to change. “I was naive to our deep political roots and my privilege,” she says. A small-business owner like herself was expected to stick to entrepreneurship and not meddle in politics.

In the middle of her city council campaign, Russell learned she was pregnant. “So I had even more conviction to make Abilene what I thought it was growing up and realized it wasn’t when I came back,” she explains. Her statement isn’t a condemnation of Abilene, but an observation about the city she loves and to which she is committed.

Her point of view would be integral to how she approached effecting change. Russell and her husband, Justin, established JAR Land & Investments to purchase lots and properties to attract and promote business development in Abilene. One site was the building that housed Busch Jewelers. Russell was at the coffee shop across the street when she saw the store owners and a realtor walk toward the building.

She figured it was about to be put up for sale, so she ran across the street to make an offer—and closed the deal. The building never made it to market. At first the Russells didn’t know what they would put into the space, but one thing was certain: “We said if we can make this work, we can really revitalize our downtown,” Russell recalls. While surveying residents and business owners about their wants and needs for downtown, everything became clear.

Folks wanted more food options. Russell hadn’t previously considered going back into the family business. “I just jumped in,” she says. The restaurant, they decided, would specialize in tacos. The couple partnered with Enriquez, who also grew up in Abilene, to open the Local. Enriquez reached into his Mexican heritage, his West Texas upbringing, and his French training in kitchens from Hawaii to Louisiana to present a menu that is familiar yet unexpected.

The Huevos Hash Skillet subs breakfast potatoes for cubed sweet potatoes paired with chorizo. The dinner menu includes pasta in a smoky poblano alfredo sauce and wedges of New York strip steak shimmering with nutty salsa macha. Then there are the secret menu items, a hundred of which Enriquez developed over the Local’s three years in business.

One example is the Big Red taco, an homage to the Barbacoa & Big Red Festival in San Antonio, stacked with beef and bacon and drizzled with house-made Big Red barbecue sauce. While the trio was in the final stages of opening the Local, Russell enrolled in Dyess Air Force Base’s honorary commanders program, which helps service members and their families acclimate to life in Abilene.

One family she assisted was moving from Japan, and the wife of the airman was an executive at Apple who hailed from San Francisco. Russell knew she would need special attention for a smooth transition. “She was young, she was brilliant, and she was just dumped in Abilene from Japan,” Russell says.

Russell showed her around the city, and she could see the confusion in the young woman’s eyes. She assured her there were great things to come. “I said, ‘This is what we have for now, but just give me a few months,’ ” Russell recalls. WhenRussell was finally able to welcome her into the Local in November 2019, the service member’s wife was stunned and ecstatic. Then, not long after the restaurant opened, the Local planned a drag night.

Not everyone was happy about it, according to Russell. Other local business owners threatened to have the fire department shut down the restaurant to prevent the show. So Russell called the fire marshal, an acquaintance of hers, to ask if the fire department, which had endorsed her candidacy for the city council, would really close down the Local because of a drag show.

The response, Russell said, was that there was pressure to stop the shindig, but as long as the capacity regulation was followed, all would be fine. The restaurant was at capacity within thirty minutes, and the event was a rousing success. It seemed like the Russells and Enriquez had avoided a public-relations boondoggle.

The drag show returned in June 2020, with a headline in the Abilene Reporter-News reading “Brunch at The Local on Saturday turned out to be a real drag.” The article described “laughter” and “delight.” Russell believed the community climate was changing. But the hullabaloo over drag queens in downtown Abilene paled in comparison to what happened in October 2020, when the Biden campaign bus (sans Joe Biden and Kamala Harris) rolled into town.

The campaign was holding a rally at Vera Hall Minter Park across the street from the Local, and it asked if the restaurant would cater. Russell, who says she can’t recall having a political affiliation at the time, didn’t hesitate to feed people. “The next thing I know, the local news is reporting that I’ve invited Joe Biden to Abilene, Texas,” Russell recalls. Protesters blocked the entrance to the restaurant.

Trump flags were raised. Inside were the Russells, their toddler son, the staff, and many of the staff’s children. Russell says she later approached the staff in tears, attempting to console them and to tell them, above all else, that the Local is a place for families. “I grew up in the back of house,” Russell says.

“I was doing my homework next to the staff making the [jalapeño] poppers and the bread and the coleslaw. [Cooks] raised me. So that’s important for my son and for everyone else’s kids in there, too.” Nevertheless, it was obvious to Russell that a fracture had formed between the restaurant and the Abilene community.

Russell took to social media to defend her team and explain her decision, framing it as hospitality in action. “I’m never going to say no to feeding people,” she wrote. Her engagement worked: “It really turned the tide for us,” Russell says. The restaurant thrived. Indeed, families fill the tables at the Local just as often as ladies’ brunch groups and curious first-timers of all ages. The month-long closure this fall for retraining and refocusing the menu invigorated the Russells, Enriquez, and the staff.

Russell explains it’s been hard to maintain conviction in her hometown, but perseverance in the face of opposition has allowed the Local to refine its identity and what it offers Abilene. “We made the Local to be [what] we needed when we were younger, with someone in Abilene to say, ‘Hey, you can be here; you don’t have to leave your family, don’t have to leave your roots; you don’t have to leave your comfort zone,’ ” Russell says.

At the Local, a person is appreciated for who they are. “We’ve never been more confident in ourselves,” she says. The Local 250 Cypress, Abilene Phone: 325-232-6463 Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 10–3, 4–midnight

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