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Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen: Enchiladas y Mas, Mas, Mas!

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By Nola McKey
Show me a Mexican-food menu, and I’ll go for the enchiladas every time. So it is no surprise that I was drawn to Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, a restaurant on Houston’s West Side that serves 18 kinds of enchiladas, each representing a different region of Texas or Mexico.

I’m not sure when my fascination with enchiladas began, but I know it wasn’t in my childhood. My only exposure to enchiladas back then was the canned version my father sometimes heated up on occasional forays into the kitchen. As a result, I grew up in southeast Texas thinking I didn’t like Mexican food.

Once I discovered the real thing, I was hooked, especially when it came to the succulent, sauce-covered bundles on the ubiquitous combination plate. Check out the menu at Sylvia’s; I guarantee you’ll find a fix with your name on it.

The enchilada lineup at this bustling, fashionable restaurant is so extensive that it’s divided into sections—Tex-Mex, New Tex-Mex, and Mexican Style—with individual entrées named for towns like Donna and San Miguel de Allende. The Donna-beef enchiladas topped with Sylvia’s signature chile gravy-evokes images of the Rio Grande Valley, while the San Miguel is an enticing version of enchiladas suizas, the interior-Mexican dish that pairs chicken with a creamy tomatillo sauce.

My favorite? I’m still deciding, but the Sarita enchiladas (enchiladas de calabacitas) are definitely in the running. These combine queso with squash, corn, tomatoes, onions, and garlic-vegetables found in the traditional Mexican dish calabacitas, and have a light cream sauce with a hint of cilantro.

If you’re watching your diet, try the Crystal City enchiladas. With a filling of fresh spinach sautéed with onion and garlic and topped with a mildly spicy tomatillo sauce, they’re low-fat but still luscious. When I dined at Sylvia’s recently, one of my friends ordered these and pronounced them out-of-this-world. “You’d never know they’re low-fat,” she said. “The sauce has such a full, rich flavor.”

Although enchiladas are the main draw here, other house favorites include carne guisada, chiles rellenos, fajitas, and flautas, plus killer guacamole that comes three ways (try the pica mole, if you like jalapeños). No matter which entrée you choose, keep dessert in mind. I recommend the flan (the warm caramel sauce complements the silky custard perfectly), but don’t discount Sylvia’s tres leches, which comes in two versions: original and chocolate. Like everything else at Sylvia’s, the desserts are made fresh daily.

“Fresh” is a word you hear a lot at Sylvia’s. Owner Sylvia Casares-Copeland, who grew up cooking Tex-Mex dishes in her native Brownsville and later earned a degree in home economics from the University of Texas at Austin, takes pride in making her food “the old-fashioned way, just like my grandmother.” She says, “At the restaurant, we don’t take any shortcuts—we start each dish with fresh ingredients, including all of our gravies and sauces. Some of them take 12 hours to prepare, but making them every day is the only way to assure that they have the full, authentic flavor.”

Sylvia’s border heritage influences the restaurant in other ways, too. “The Tex-Mex of the Valley is a simpler style of cooking,” she says. “For example, many Mexican restaurants smother their food with cheese, which overpowers the other flavors. We don’t use as much cheese; for us, it’s more like a garnish.”

The restaurateur does subscribe to one departure from her culinary roots: She doesn’t cook with lard. “Some people think you have to use lard or bacon drippings in refried beans,” she says, “but we use vegetable oil in all our dishes, except for tamales. You need lard in the masa, or it just doesn’t have the right texture.”

Sylvia’s remarks reflect not just her heritage but years of experience in the food industry. She worked in the test kitchens of Uncle Ben’s Rice for more than a decade and spent eight years in industrial food sales before becoming intrigued with the restaurant business.

“When I opened my first location in 1998, there were probably 800 Mexican restaurants in Houston,” says Sylvia. “I chose the enchilada approach partly to make mine different from all the rest. Plus, I liked to eat enchiladas, and I knew they were difficult to make unless you really knew what you were doing.”

The biggest difficulty for Sylvia proved to be customers not being able to find her restaurant, which was even farther out on Westheimer than the current location at Westheimer and Dairy Ashford. She finally rented a billboard across from the site and asked her brother Oscar Casares (UT professor, author, and former creative director of Austin’s GSD&M) to help her come up with the right copy. The result: a huge arrow pointing to the restaurant and the words “The best enchiladas in Houston are also the hardest to find.” It wasn’t long before customers began arriving and the restaurant’s troubles were over, at least until the clientele outgrew the building.

Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen moved into its current setting-a vibrant, inviting space in a busy shopping center-six years ago. Sylvia’s husband, contractor Jones Copeland, chose the colors for the walls-pink, cornflower blue, mango-and installed cheerful Mexican tile throughout the restaurant. Wide archways make the interior feel spacious and relaxing. Sylvia’s collections of colorful dishes, antique bowls, and Mexican tea sets fill shelves and adorn nichos. Family members’ portraits hang on the walls of the main dining area, while images of aristocratic-looking ancestors are displayed in the party room, where Sylvia teaches cooking classes on the weekend-everything from South Texas sweets to chiles rellenos.

Woman does not live by enchiladas alone, so I signed up for Sylvia’s chiles rellenos class. It was great fun, but the hands-on experience convinced me that chiles rellenos in a good restaurant are worth every penny. My classmate Stuart Umlauf of Livingston, however, was truly inspired. “I had tried to make chiles rellenos many times and ruined more poblanos than I’d eaten,” he says, “but since the class, I’ve made them twice for friends, and they were a big hit.”

Sylvia’s business continues to grow, and the momentum has generated opportunities. The restaurant was recently featured on Food Network, and Sylvia has just released a cooking DVD titled Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen Presents: Hot Tamales. “I did this one first,” she says, “because people were clamoring for it; they wanted to be able to make tamales for Christmas.”

What’s next for Sylvia and her restaurant? Expect Sylvia to make more TV appearances and DVDs, but don’t be surprised if she also adds another enchilada to the menu. I’m thinking the Victoria…or the Uvalde…. With all of Texas and Mexico as inspiration, the possibilities are endless.

Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen is at 12637 Westheimer, #140 (just west of the intersection of Westheimer and Dairy Ashford), in Houston. The menu features 18 kinds of enchiladas, plus a full range of other Mexican-food specialties. Hours: Mon-Thu 11-9, Fri 11-10, Sat 8 a.m.-10 p.m., and Sun 8-3. Breakfast served 8-noon on weekends. Reservations recommended for weekend evenings, especially for large groups. Call 281/679-8300; Full-service catering also available; call 281/546-9403.

Sylvia’s Cooking Classes

Sylvia began offering cooking classes at her restaurant in late 2005. Upcoming classes include South Texas Sweets & Holiday Desserts, Nov. 3; Chiles Rellenos, Nov. 17; Tamales 101 (a series of 5 classes), Dec. 1, 4, 8, 11, and 15. (Several enchilada classes will be offered in 2008.) Most classes take place on Sat., last 3 hours, involve hands-on preparation, and cost $50-$65. All include a full meal at the end of the class. Contact the restaurant for details, or to make reservations. (Some classes fill up fast.)

The first in a series of cooking DVDs, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen Presents: Hot Tamales, is available at the restaurant, through its Web site, and at Central Market in Houston. The DVD, which includes an attractive recipe booklet, sells for $19.95, plus tax.

Read 20113 times Last modified on Friday, 13 July 2012 13:06

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