Tracy Miller walks through her restaurant. It’s 9 a.m., hours before staff will arrive, which means the only other sound is our footsteps causing the 100-year-old wooden floors to groan.
She wants to make it clear that she didn’t grow up wanting to run something like this. Running a quiet, cleanly luxurious restaurant on Elm Street is not the dream she scrawled into the margins her fifth-grade yearbook. She didn’t lean over her grandmother’s chicken-fried steak (she grew up in Dallas), watching a wooden spoon stir earthy roux, and dream of being an iconic chef. She doesn’t have those memories, she says, and that’s fine.
Here’s the rub: Every cook, whether they have the Food Network-ready elevator pitch on their chef origins or not, carries a food memory that is coded into their DNA. The most memorable meals, those honest and true ones that make you forget you have a phone, are always local. They’re situated in your very bloodstream like a long-ago spell. All you have to do is conjure the memory.
For chef Tracy Miller, it's chicken salad.
She beams as she recalls it. It was one of her favorite things to do with her mom: drive to NorthPark and have a fancy lunch together at the Mermaid Bar. Miller remembers every bite of that chicken salad sandwich — she could probably make it with a blindfold on. It’s the dish that kicked things off in her early days of catering on Elm Street. The space at 2936 Elm St. was raw — she prepped catering gigs inside the historic Boyd Hotel, where an ad for "tonic for women" hid behind the wall on century-old brick. She catered until she couldn’t take it anymore.
Dinner was an intimidating task to imagine, but she centered herself with dishes that she knew and loved, simple, delicious-to-anyone dishes like steak frites, tomato soup and a cheeseburger. She was less inspired by her environment than the spark that she felt from her travels: A cheeseburger at a diner in Union Square is a vivid sense-memory. A simple, griddled cheeseburger with the all fixings you know.
It’s this burger that she serves at Local today. It’s dressed up a little, like those chicken salad days at Mermaid Bar, with heritage Kobe-style beef and grilled Vidalia onions with melted Gruyere cheese. Some ingredients are local, some are not. Her restaurant's name has never been an indication of where her food's from — it's where the memory is from. The cheeseburger basket is the same burger she’s been serving for 15 years, and it’s as good as it ever was. She pan-sears the beef patty like you’d make them at home when, for example, there’s a polar vortex outside.
Miller's cheeseburger is one of the most expensive — and most unpretentious — cheeseburgers in Dallas. Ask for medium rare and you're likely to find clear, coppery rivulets of juices that run when you slice through the patty. Panko-breaded tater tots are crisp, made better in the tangy, sweet homemade ketchup. Aside from a few unnoticeable tweaks, it's gone unchanged as Local nears its 20th anniversary of service.
These days, Miller says she’s thinking about doing a few social media posts to bolster the restaurant. The pressure to change is constant. Who else has a grilled cheese and tomato soup on their tasting menu? Things are from where they're from at Local, and that's the way it goes. In other words, Tracy Miller's story isn't based on a lifelong love and expertise of good cheeseburgers, but that’s exactly what she’s serving now.
Local, 2936 Elm St. (Deep Ellum)