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The Enchilada Empress

Sylvia Casares keeps the crowds happy with her Tex-Mex classics.

See more photos from the busy kitchen at Sylvia's in our slideshow.

There is something immensely satisfying about wrapping a hot flour tortilla around the queso flameado at Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen. Something deeply Texan and deeply mystical about how well the salty, stretchy, creamy cheese — dotted, if you've ordered correctly, with tender pieces of beef fajita meat — melds with the lard-laced tortillas, freckled black from the skillet and thick in your hands. It's like the gods of Tex-Mex are smiling beatifically down with each salty, fatty bite.

I've been eating like this since I was a kid, and I've yet to tire of simple indulgences like these. I've been eating at Sylvia's nearly as long, and I have yet to tire of Sylvia Casares's straightforward South Texas cooking either.

The Refugio enchiladas are a classic.
Troy Fields
The Refugio enchiladas are a classic.

Location Info

Map

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

6401 Woodway Drive
Houston, TX 77057

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Galleria

Details

11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays, noon to 9 p.m. Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sundays.
Queso flameado: $9
Queso de campo: $9
Caldo de fidello: $8
Refugio enchiladas: $11
La Kineña enchiladas: $13
Mexico City enchiladas: $12.50
The Hebbronville: $19


READ MORE:
A Long Time Coming: Reviewing Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen
Savory South Texas: Tex-Mex at Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen


Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen
6401 Woodway, 713-334-7295.

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In that time, Casares herself — once a food scientist working for Uncle Ben's Rice — has become a one-woman enchilada empress in Houston, offering a wildly popular series of cooking classes in addition to writing cookbooks: Hot Tamales! came out in 2007, and another is on its way soon. She's even ventured into the budding food truck scene in Houston along with her grillmaster, Michael Warren. Casares is often found in the bright teal truck, dubbed No Borders, along with Warren.

Since 1998, of course, Casares has run the flagship Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen way out west, surviving and succeeding in an often male-dominated field. That original location of the enchilada empire at Westheimer and Dairy Ashford was a regular haunt for me, growing up in West Houston, but I was loathe to make the drive as an adult, faced with growing gas prices and tiresome traffic.

When, in 2009, Casares decided to open a second location of her restaurant on Woodway, closer into town, it was a godsend. And being located directly across from the campus of Second Baptist, it makes for a pretty easy drive from inside the Loop — just a straight shot through the lush landscape of Memorial Park, down a short stretch of oak-canopied Woodway and you're there.

_____________________

On a recent Friday night, Sylvia's was doing a steady stream of business. I hadn't expected such a busy evening and didn't make reservations, so my friends and I ended up sitting underneath the giant map mural in the colorful bar area. The map spotlights several South Texan and Mexican towns, big to small, and my friend Rafael pointed to a tiny peninsula along Texas's southern curve away from the Gulf of Mexico.

"That's where I'm from!" he said. We investigated the menu to see if any of the items were named after his town; they were not. But it didn't matter, as he quickly lit upon the Mexico City enchiladas — chicken with salsa verde and sour cream — while his wife and I pored over the vast menu of items. I don't remember the menu at Sylvia's being this big as a kid, and the choices were a little overwhelming. I finally settled on a classic — the Refugio enchiladas with cheese, chili gravy and onions — and ordered a margarita while we waited on our appetizers.

Sylvia's bar does everything except house margaritas very well, The Perfect being my favorite (although it's really difficult to go wrong with añejo Patrón and Grand Marnier). The house margs here are overly sour and taste of canned lime juice and cheap well tequila. It's a shame you can't grab a good, simple $6.50 house margarita here; that should be a given, especially at a Houston institution like this.

Thoughts of subpar cocktails vanished, however, when our queso de campo arrived. If you're having a hard time choosing between queso and guacamole, this is the best of both worlds: a square of grilled, country-style white cheese — mild and just a bit salty — served along with fresh flour tortillas and a heaping scoop of guacamole. Cut a sliver of cheese off, wrap it in a tortilla and top with tomato-studded guacamole. Repeat until finished. If you're anything like our table was that night, you'll complete this routine in less than two minutes.

We'd barely finished when our entrées arrived on Sylvia's custom wood-and-steel plates. We got enchiladas all around, each tucked into the stylized plates that resemble modern comals. They're awfully pleasant to look at, and I appreciate the modern aesthetic, but I have two nitpicks with the plates: They are too elongated to fit well on a four-top, especially a four-top full of people. And the two separate metal trays keep your enchiladas sequestered from the rice and refried beans. Sopping up the remaining chili gravy with your rice, mixing the cheese with the beans: These are time-honored Tex-Mex traditions. Sylvia's inhibits this natural inclination, perhaps in an effort to bring a more elegant air to the place. The prices certainly reflect this, if that's the reason.

Nevertheless, the enchiladas are as good here as they've ever been. Sylvia's chili gravy is thin and yet still complex, coating the cheese enchiladas with a richness that's unexpected given the anemic texture. Yet it all works, bright sparks of chile de árbol and dusky hues of cumin all coming together in a frantic rush of flavor. On top of the soft cheese and beneath the eye-watering snap of raw white onions, this is South Texas Tex-Mex at its finest and most genuine.

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35 comments
ftexas
ftexas

Once was enough.

Tumbler_the_Government_Man
Tumbler_the_Government_Man

Isn't that what you are supposed to feed your pet out of? The Press has absolutely -0- credibility when it comes to restaurant reviews. I am sorry. No.

Ok to be fair. These aren't the worst enchiladas. That title would belong to a place in El Paso called Moes. They use flavorless boiled breast meat chicken filler and cream of mushroom soup gravy. Yeech.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Hmm. Having eaten enchiladas my entire life, I've certainly had some wretched ones. Sylvia's isn't remotely within that category. I really have to wonder about a lot of these comments and their undoubtedly dubious provenance...

Bbhacl
Bbhacl

fyi, marg's should only use well gold teqila, using silver or triple distilled tequila has no taste. furthermore Patron is a Paul Mitchel product and isn't a well made tequila. Grand Marnire is the core of a good Marg.

Jeffk
Jeffk

She serves the most bland enchilada sauce (gravy); no depth of flavor, low heat index, not enough cumin. The best thing they do is breakfast at the Dairy Ashord location. But enchiladas, sorry, ou can get better tex mex at Goode Company.

Pura Vida
Pura Vida

It's spelled "fideo". Arabic has nothing to do with the spelling. في الحقيقه (fahrealz), dude.

Ed T.
Ed T.

Katharine - one minor nit to pick. The location on Westheimer and Dairy Ashford is actually Sylvia's *second* location - she actually started in a strip center on Westheimer and Windchase (it was one of the "A-list" lunch places for a group I worked with, when I was at the former Chevron facility on Hayes Rd.)

~EdT.

MatthewsDD
MatthewsDD

As Mai's is to Vietnamese, Sylvia's is to Tex-Mex.

AA
AA

So Mai's has really bad Vietnamese food?

August948
August948

Since Mai's is pretty mediocre compared to most Vietnamese places along Bellaire, that doesn't say much for Sylvia's.

the_birds
the_birds

I think the "Fidello" on Sylvia's menu is spelling error. Its always been "Fideo" like it says on the red and yellow box of Vermicelli, not pronounced "Fi-da-yo," but "Fi-da-o." We grew up on the stuff and I've known what the box looked like since I was 5.

I wiki'ed it too and there is only an entry for Fideo.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I've seen both sopa de fideo and sopa de fidello in the past. Fideo are the noodles themselves, which have an interesting history on their own (brought over to Spain by Arabs and adapted further from there). The word comes from the Arabic for noodle -- fidawsh -- and when a word gets adapted like that over the years, there are so many different spellings that result from the adaptation. I love culinary linguistics. :D

LW
LW

Oh good, I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who had an unimpressive meal here. I'd ordered one of the plates that had four kinds of enchiladas and all of them were pretty blah. I can't remember which enchilada it was, but one had red sauce that tasted like lightly salted water. Just salted water, no other flavorings. I thought it might've been a fluke, but haven't been willing to pay the prices for another shot at mediocrity.

ypman
ypman

I personally have never had a bad meal at Sylvia's. Having spent quite a bit of time in the south Texas Valley it is one of the few places in Houston I can find authentic Tex-Mex. I sometimes believe on these boards once an establishment becomes popular, it also becomes popular to bash them.

ShitThowingMonkey
ShitThowingMonkey

I am hereby calling for a vote to never use the phrase "authentic tex mex" again.

Rexster1505
Rexster1505

Everyone get ready for Ms Caceres (sp) vitriolic reply like the one she did in the Chronicle a few weeks back. It's everybody's fault but hers

A377614
A377614

With so many better options in Houston, Sylvia's overpriced and mediocre food is pretty far down my list.

TQro
TQro

Homemade fideo is easy and awesome. My kids regularly ask for it in their thermos' for lunch. Sometimes with an addition like shredded chx, ground beef, stew meat, whole pinto beans, or potato chunks... and sometimes just plain fideo.

Feldman
Feldman

I kinda like Sylvia's. If friends wanted to go, I wouldn't say no. Their top shelf margaritas are really nice, stay away from the house 'ritas though.

AA
AA

Absolutely without a doubt the highest price to pay for the worst enchiladas ever.

Beelargus
Beelargus

Have to agree with most comments here. I'm a native Texan. Been eating this kind of food all of my life. I just don't get it. Each time I've tried Sylvia's, I was seriously let down. Also, the worst margarita I've ever had --- it was like lemon Crystal Light.

Rexster1505
Rexster1505

High priced, over valued, overrated. They'll nickel and dime you for everything. I emailed them after our last "visit" Never got an answer.

Fatty FatBastard
Fatty FatBastard

Laredo's serves Fidello tacos. An interesting mix to say the least.

VatoGato
VatoGato

never been a fan her west location sucks

Larry D
Larry D

Tried this place several times, never figured out the high praise. A bit pricey for average enchiladas. Nothing special.

ShitThowingMonkey
ShitThowingMonkey

Can't get into this place -- never had anything besides enchiladas in three visits, but the enchiladas are more expensive and just not as good as a few other places.

GinaLee
GinaLee

I'm salivating now! Where can we find Sylvia's cookbook? I've been searching for years for a great Tex-mex one. Thanks!

E. Nassar
E. Nassar

For an excellent Tex-Mex book, pick up Robb Walsh's. It's a fantastic and fun read with solid recipes and history.

Hogarth
Hogarth

I think lard is what you first think of when you see tortillas that have that appearance of being made with lard. They very well be made with vegetable oil, but they use alot so it looks "lard-laced."

I'm sure it's an honest mistake.

Nate
Nate

Sylvia says "1.) We do not and have never cooked with lard."http://www.29-95.com/restauran...

But the tortillas are "lard-laced"? Huh.

Now I want some cheese enchiladas. Mmmmmm.

E. Nassar
E. Nassar

hmmmm....never cooked with lard at a tex-mex joint?? What a shame. I doubt I'll visit Sylvia's any time soon then.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

See Hogarth's comment above. He hit the nail on the head.

Nate
Nate

Lard laced definitely sounds more appetizing then vegetable oil laced. At least to me. Then again, some people are freaked out by lard...

 
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