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Cuisine Confidential: Sylvia Casares

Written by Lori Moffatt.

Sylvia-by-A-Tony-Bullard

In our third installment of Cuisine Confidential, Lori Moffatt visits with Houston’s “Enchilada Queen,” restaurateur Sylvia Casares, about the importance of fat and salt, the benefits of a good billboard, lemon-based margaritas, and where to get great enchiladas in Brownsville.

Texas Highways magazine Cuisine ConfidentialHouston restaurateur Sylvia Casares, whose first Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen opened its doors almost 20 years ago, and whose third restaurant (called simply Sylvia’s) opened in August, has built her career around the enchilada. In fact, while the Sylvia’s trio offers a full gamut of Mexican and Tex-Mex specialties (think traditional tortilla soup, grilled-meat platters known as parrilladas, nachos, even tamales by the dozen over the holidays), the backbone of her menus remains the enchilada.

Mentioned in this interview

Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen has two locations in Houston: 6401 Woodway Dr. (713/334-7295) and 12637 Westheimer (281/679-8300). Sylvia’s is at 1140 Eldridge Pkwy. in Houston (832/230-3842).

Ibiza Food and Wine Bar is at 2450 Louisiana #200 in Houston. Call 713/524-0004.

Backstreet Café is at 1103 S. Shepherd Dr. in Houston. Call 713/521-2239.

La Michoacana Meat Market has numerous locations throughout Texas.

The Auslander Restaurant and Biergarten is at 323 E. Main St. in Fredericksburg. Call 830/997-7714.

Café Amiga is at 644 Palm Blvd. in Brownsville. Call 956/541-1172.

The Vermillion is at 115 Paredes Line Rd. in Brownsville. Call 956/542-9893.

A look at the dozen or so enchilada varieties served at Sylvia’s restaurants—most named for Mexican states, Texas towns, and landmarks such as the Laguna Madre—underscores why Sylvia Casares has embraced her nickname as “the Enchilada Queen.” Stuffed with chicken, beef, pork, crab, spinach, calabacitas, shrimp, and/or various cheeses, Sylvia’s enchiladas represent Mexican cooking at its most authentic and diverse.

“It didn’t take too long to figure out what people liked,” says Sylvia. “And people like enchiladas.”

Lori: Tell me a little bit about your path to becoming a restaurateur and chef.

Sylvia: I tell everybody that it started while I was growing up in Brownsville. I was influenced by my grandmother’s and my mother’s cooking, but they didn’t have recipes that I ever saw. It was all done by memory. I watched them, though, and I memorized the flavor profile. I learned to cook when I was 10, 11, 12, or so; I would cook for my parents. My mother worked outside the home, and I liked to have food ready for them.

Lori: But you came to the restaurant world via food science, right?

Sylvia: Yes. I majored in home economics at UT Austin, and I was supposed to be a schoolteacher. Instead, I got a job offer working for Uncle Ben’s, testing rice recipes. I ended up in the new-product development lab, working as a food scientist. I was developing formulas for new products they wanted to introduce. Looking back on it now, that is where I learned to understand a recipe from a palate standpoint, and how to make something have a full flavor.

Lori: The secret is fat, right?

Sylvia: Well, fat is important, but I’d say “balance” is the key, a balance of fat, spices, texture, even salt. Salt is a flavor enhancer, and finding the right ratio is really important.

Lori: Why did you leave Uncle Ben’s?

Sylvia: Well, after about 10 years, I started thinking about doing something different. I went to work for Kraft as a street rep, selling products to mom-and-pops. I represented a gourmet frozen-soup line, and then I went over to Sara Lee and represented pastries. But at some point I thought, “I’m in my early 40s. I gotta plant some roots.”

Lori: What did you do next?

Sylvia: I had been fascinated by the restaurant business, and I happened to find out about this Mexican-food restaurant for sale in Rosenberg. The owners weren’t getting along, and I made an offer, and they accepted it. It lasted almost three years, and then my own partnership blew up. And so I came to Houston. I found a little restaurant on Westheimer, and after about a year-and-a-half of barely breaking even, I was on the verge of selling. It had no parking, no bar, and was hard to see from the street. At the last minute, I didn’t sell. Instead, I renamed it Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, redecorated, and put up a little billboard that said, “The best enchiladas in Houston are also the hardest to find.”

Lori: That’s great! And it worked!

Sylvia-Casares-6x4-300dpi-4714-by-Mark-LipczynkiSylvia: Yes. In 2001, we moved to a bigger spot on Westheimer; and in 2009 I opened my second location on Woodway. I had always wanted to cook fajitas on mesquite, like we do in South Texas, so we did a wood grill. Of course, that was in the middle of the recession, when poople weren’t eating out as much. But we eventually turned a corner. In August of this year, I opened Sylvia’s. We dropped the “Enchilada Kitchen” name to focus more on grilled meats.

Lori: Tell me about your drinks. Are you a margarita lover?

Sylvia: Actually, I’m not a margarita drinker; I’m more of a tequila sipper. But our margaritas are very popular. They’re lemon-based instead of lime-based, and they have a good amount of tequila. When I do drink a margarita, my favorite is The Perfect. It’s sweetened with Splenda.

Lori: Where do you like to go out to eat in Houston?

Sylvia: One of my favorites is Ibiza. The chef has roots in Louisiana, and they’ve got it going on. The service, the flavors, the atmosphere; it’s all fabulous. I like the Backstreet Café for salads and pasta, and I like to go to La Michoacana market for their little street tacos, and also for their sweet breads. Although I have to look away; I’m trying to watch my figure!

Lori: What about vacation recommendations in Texas? Can you ever tear yourself away from Houston?

Sylvia: To tell the truth, I haven’t seen as much of Texas as I would like. I would love to go to Big Bend; it’s on my list. I did go to Fredericksburg recently. I loved it. It’s so beautiful. The bread, the bakeries are out of this world. We had a good meal at the Auslander. But I go to Brownsville all the time. I see friends, family.

Lori: Do you have any favorite restaurants in Brownsville?

Sylvia: Two restaurants come to mind. The first is a place called Café Amiga. They have fantastic flour tortillas and really delicious frijoles guisados. They’re not refried beans, but similar. I love the flavor and texture. And a place called The Vermillion. It’s amazing. It’s been around since 1934. They have great tacos and enchiladas. But mostly I make the rounds and eat the sweet breads. Bread is my Achilles heel. Of my favorite foods, bread is right up there with enchiladas.

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