The Enchilada Empress
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.
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.
To my right, Rafael was already halfway finished with his chicken enchiladas, covered in an emerald-green salsa verde. "These are just like my mother used to make," he said happily. A tangy pop of sour cream worked its magic alongside the citrus-tinged salsa verde to liven up the chicken, and I could see why he was eating so quickly.
His wife's La Kineña enchiladas were less inspiring — overly salted beef fajita meat being the main culprit — but none of us had any problems polishing off our plates. And on the car ride home, Rafael continued his happy raving about our dinner: "That's the way South Texas food should taste," he proclaimed.
And then, after a few thoughtful seconds: "I haven't had Tex-Mex food that good since I moved to Houston."
A Tuesday evening proved much quieter, with only a few tables in the butter-colored dining room. My boyfriend and I grabbed a table facing the bright-blue, Puebla-style "kitchen" that serves as the centerpiece of the room and ordered that wonderful queso flameado.
Eric hails from another South Texas town, Victoria. And he was just as quick as Rafael to find an old favorite dotting the menu here. When I couldn't choose between the tortilla soup and the fidello, he could barely wait for me to finish my deliberation: "The fidello!" he nearly shouted. Then, quieter, with a sheepish smile, "Yeah, you have to get the fidello."
This old comfort food classic is what Eric calls a "utilitarian meal," made with chicken and thin noodles — although it could just as easily be made with ground beef. It's the South Texas version of chicken noodle soup, and Sylvia's take on it, just barely jazzed up with sweet tomatoes, is an excellent homage to a foodstuff that so many grew up on. It could have used less salt, however, which is a bit of a recurring complaint with the kitchen here.
I didn't have that complaint with The Hebbronville — three mesquite-grilled quail served with spicy poblano grits and corn on the cob — although the birds came out rather haphazardly slung around on one of the greased-up wood-and-steel plates, ruining what could have been a beautiful presentation. Presentation, however, wasn't going to dampen my enjoyment of one of my own childhood comfort foods, as memories of grilling freshly killed quail with my father on weekend summer nights came flooding instantly back with each bite of the tender, dark meat. I alternated between bites of the mesquite-grilled corn — almost identical to the wonderful elote that the No Borders truck serves — and nibbling around the birds' tiny bones, stripping each one of all its flesh.
Eric and I spent most of the meal doing this, trading old childhood memories of growing up Texan and eating the foods that come along with that heritage. He playfully teased that his Refugio enchiladas didn't taste exactly like his mother's, but "like something one of our neighbors would have cooked."
"One of the neighbors you liked?" I asked.
"Of course," he said. "It's a good thing. There's something so familiar about the chili gravy. Not familiar enough to taste exactly like home, but still so close."
This capturing of a memory, of a childhood, of a distinct geographic region within a familiar and well-loved genre, is what keeps people coming back to Sylvia's. It's what has kept them coming back since 1998, and — I suspect — is what will keep them coming back to the new location for years to come.
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