Three local restaurants have been serving Abilene for nearly nine decades
Drive around just about any area of Abilene and you’ll likely see a new restaurant in some phase of construction, to go along with all the others that have opened in recent years. But many Abilenians have the addresses of the city’s three oldest restaurants committed to memory and stop by as often as they can. El Fenix Cafe, Farolito Restaurant and Dixie Pig Restaurant all are approaching 90 years in business.
A connection they all share, besides tasty food and longevity, is an early business boost from soldiers who were stationed at Camp Barkeley, southwest of Abilene, during World War II.
The Dixie Pig’s location, which is the same as it is today, had the advantage of being at the intersection of two major highways in the 1940s. At the time, South 14th Street was Texas Highway 158 and Butternut Street was U.S. Highway 83/84.
In his book, “Abilene Stories,” local historian and author Jay Moore noted that the Dixie Pig was one of the first restaurants that travelers from the west and south would see as they entered Abilene. The establishment of Camp Barkeley, with its eventual 50,000 soldiers, brought an influx of business.
“With the Barkeley buses turning the corner at Butternut and 14th,” Moore wrote, “soldiers frequently filled every booth and sat at every counter stool of the Dixie Pig waiting for a lift back to the base.”
The two early-day Mexican restaurants also enjoyed the business that the Army camp brought them. At the time, El Fenix was in its original location at the intersection of Washington Street and Treadaway Boulevard. It wasn’t quite as convenient for the Barkeley soldiers as the Dixie Pig, but plenty of hungry soldiers found their way there, recalled Olivia Velez, who along with her husband, Robert, owns El Fenix Cafe and all of Burro Alley where the restaurant now is located.
“My dad said we always had soldiers,” from the Army camp, Velez said.
During that era, El Fenix was located in the home of Domingo and Maria Luisa Garcia, Velez’ parents, The empty house at 434 Washington St. still stands, dilapidated now except for the bright “El Fenix” sign, with a red rose, painted on the side facing Treadaway.
Farolito Restaurant, located at 209 Cottonwood Street just off Treadaway, and Dixie Pig are in their original locations. El Fenix maintains its historic connections with its recipes, the same ones the original El Fenix diners enjoyed.
Newcomers to Abilene can get a little taste of the city’s history and a big taste of food that has stood the test of time at these three historic restaurants.
209 Cottonwood St.
In 1932, Cristobal and Barbara Herrera opened a Mexican restaurant on Abilene’s east side, only to see it close not long afterward. Cristobal left for El Paso to earn money, leaving the family behind in the house he built. Once Cristobal had earned enough money to support his family and reopen Farolito Restaurant, he returned to Abilene.
“Since 1936,” said Mark Herrera, Cristobal and Barbara’s grandson and owner of Farolito Restaurant. “We’ve been open ever since.”
In case visitors are wondering who Farolito was, a painting on a wall explains that “farolito” wasn’t a person at all but rather the Spanish word for a small lantern. The painting, which a family friend re-created from a similar depiction in a magazine, shows a young boy lighting a candle inside the lantern, with the words, “Lupito, Light the Farolito.”
The aged painting adds to the authentic atmosphere at the restaurant. The food is authentic, too, and that’s the main reason people still go to Farolito Restaurant.
“Still grandma’s same recipes,” Mark said.
Guests, at least first-time visitors, should allow a little extra time for taking in the atmosphere. Display cases tell visitors that the previous owner, Sam Herrera, Mark’s father, was interested in the Old West. Wanted posters, antique weapons, badges and other Western artifacts fill the cases.
One of the wanted posters is for The Sundance Kid, the alias for Harry Longabaugh (although the last name is spelled “Longbaugh” on the wanted poster). He got his nickname when he served 18 months in jail in Sundance, Cook County, Wyoming. The poster described the Sundance Kid, played by Robert Redford in the movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” as “American, weight 165 to 170 lbs, build rather slim, nose rather long, occupation, cowboy, rustler.” The reward for his capture dead or alive was $6,500.
Aurelio “Sam” Herrera was a deputy sheriff who died April 28, 2016, at age 76. A newspaper clipping with the photo of the handsome man with dark hair and mustache is among the artifacts in the restaurant. The clipping bears an inscription signed by family members, ending with the words, “We know you are always watching over us and you always will.”
Indeed, it seems that Sam, his parents, and all previous Herrera family members are watching over the restaurant, their spirits and influence still felt. An antique meat cleaver, butcher block, and mixing bowls used by Mark’s grandparents add to the feeling that the original Herrera family is still present.
Mark’s grandfather hoisted the heavy meat cleaver to cut into half-sides of beef and other meats on the butcher block. His grandmother mixed her recipes in the bowls. For a full taste of the historic setting, walk into the back and see the door to the old private club, which now serves as a meeting and party room. It’s the home of a monthly meeting for local criminal defense attorneys.
“They still come back here and have their meeting,” Mark said.
Farolito has been family owned from the beginning, with Mark as the third generation owner. His mother helps out part time, as do other relatives. Mark’s grandson, Guadalupe “Lupe” Hererra, 19, is the youngest family member there now, but it is doubtful he will take over the management as a career.
Lupe graduated in 2018 from Abilene High School and is enrolled at the Abilene campus of Cisco College. He is looking at perhaps becoming a firefighter or getting an associate degree in a trade – just not the restaurant trade.
Whoever the future owners are, whether one of Mark’s five daughters or someone outside the family, they had better push the current employees to write down the recipes. Right now, the only place they are on file is in Mark’s brain.
“Everything’s up here,” he said, tapping the side of his head.
3241 S 1st St. (Burro Alley)
While Abilene’s three oldest restaurants all share a history, only one had to stare down the threat of a lawsuit from a restaurant chain that some called a bully.
El Fenix Cafe stands alone in that experience, one that the owners, Robert and Olivia Velez, wish hadn’t happened. But it did, and little El Fenix Cafe came out the winner against all odds.
El Fenix opened in the home of Olivia’s parents, Domingo and Maria Luisa Garcia, at 434 Washington St. in 1937. The restaurant was in the front dining room and the family lived in the back area, with its three bedrooms. It was crowded, Olivia recalled.
“There was a bunch of us,” she said.
As the children grew up and left home, emptied bedrooms were converted into more dining space for customers. In 1996, a second location opened in Burro Alley at the corner of South 1st and Willis streets. And that’s what caught the attention of the El Fenix Mexican Restaurant chain in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
That El Fenix dates to 1918. When the owners learned that the little Abilene family restaurant of the same name planned to open a second location, it took action. The larger El Fenix had threatened a suit over trademark infringement previously but took no action. This time, apparently, the owners were worried that the Abilene folks were starting their own chain. For a while, it looked like the Abilene El Fenix would have to change its name to Olivia’s. But, thanks in part to the services of the late attorney J. Donald Bowen, nothing came of the threat and the Abilene El Fenix is thriving today.
Three years after opening a second restaurant in Burro Alley, Olivia and Robert closed the original at 434 Washington St., where it intersects with Treadaway Boulevard. Trying to maintain two restaurants proved to be too much for the couple to handle, with the Burro Alley location winning out.
“This one was booming,” Olivia said.
And it still is. Today, the couple owns all of Burro Alley and leases its quaint shops to small businesses. A patio offers outdoor dining with its 12 tables. The restaurant might not be recognizable to early-day patrons. The original space, with all white walls, had been home to other restaurants. As the years passed, Olivia and Robert expanded into adjoining spaces. As time permitted, the couple painted the walls and decorated the rooms to provide an authentic festive Mexican atmosphere.
A mural by Ruben Ortiz and paintings by Olivia and Robert’s daughter, who lives in Hawaii, add authenticity to the restaurant’s atmosphere. A favorite of Olivia’s is a framed intricate jigsaw puzzle that her daughter put together when she was about 10, an early indication of her artistic instincts.
Colorful Mexican flags, strands of lights, little sombreros, pinatas and other traditional Mexican decorations hang from the ceilings. Olivia wanted the restaurant to have the look and feel of a traditional Mexican establishment.
Olivia isn’t sure who will take over the restaurant when the day comes that she and Robert decide to retire. One of their two sons, Robert Jr., is the kitchen manager and his girlfriend, Jessica Martinez, runs the register and manages the wait staff. Robert Jr. would be the logical successor, and Olivia is hopeful that will happen someday. For now, she and Robert work every day at the restaurant, making sure her parents’ recipes still taste like they did back in 1937.
“I’ve kept them as authentic as I can,” Olivia said.
DIXIE PIG RESTAURANT
!401 Butternut St.
A dandified pig, decked out in a red coat with tails, black trousers with a gray stripe, black bow tie, blue-gray vest, top hat, and cane livens the sign above the Dixie Pig Restaurant at 1401 Butternut St.
A sign on the front door lets diners know that this historic restaurant operates the old-fashioned way: “No credit or debit cards.”
The Dixie Pig can lay claim to being Abilene’s oldest restaurant still in existence, dating to July 5, 1931. That would make it a year older than Farolito, which originally opened in 1932 and has been in continuous operation since 1936. El Fenix opened in 1937.
The Dixie Pig originated as a sandwich and soda stand, owned by Charles and Charity Langford. In 1941, despite the trials of the Great Depression, the Langfords had earned enough money from sales of their sodas and sandwiches to replace their original Dixie Pig with a larger building at the corner of South Fourteenth and Butternut. A story in the Abilene Reporter-News dated June 16, 1946, carried the headline, “New Building for Dixie Pig Complete.” It noted that, “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Langford, owners, were unusually happy to make that announcement” because of construction delays “in these post-war months.”
The story also noted that the concrete and brick veneer construction “is designed along ultra-modern lines.” Another headline in the newspaper from 1953 read, “Coffee Drinkers, Tub O’ Malt Fans Vie This Summer.” The story explained that the owners, the Langfords, said it was a toss up as to which treat customers favored. A Tub O’ Malt, the article explained, was a “luscious big drink, made of malt, milk, and ice cream.”
Over the years, the restaurant has changed hands several times. Current owners are Barbara and Ronnie Bradshaw. An article by Scott Kirk in the Reporter-News in July 2016 noted some changes that have been made at the restaurant. The owners downsized operating hours to 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Sundays. The article also noted the lack of modern technology like the “No credit or debit cards” sign indicates.
“Pictures on the wall of the restaurant taken 60 years ago could have been taken yesterday,” Kirk observed.
The menu still reflects the diner style of the Dixie Pig with West Texas favorites like bacon and eggs, pancakes, hot steak sandwich, catfish and cream pie. And, of course, a Pig Sandwich.
By Loretta Fulton