Chef Chat, Part 1: Sylvia Casares of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

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We met with Sylvia Casares, founder of Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, to discuss how she gambled her life savings to realize her dream of a mesquite grill.

EOW: As I understand it, you used to have a corporate job and then took the leap into becoming a restaurant owner. Tell me how that happened.

Casares: I did have a corporate job in the food industry. I worked at Uncle Ben's Rice as a food scientist, where I worked on developing new products. There I learned about spices and flavors and the scientific process of developing full-flavored recipes. I did this for about 10 years, but then I couldn't see myself in a food lab for the rest of my life. So then I moved into food sales. The whole time I was selling, I was talking to owners and trying to learn the business, which began to really fascinate me. The one thing I learned in all my years of traveling is that there is a high percentage of restaurants selling just average food... So I thought, "What would happen if I served above-average food?"

Then one day I found a restaurant that was for sale in Rosenberg, and so I went for it. I took out my life savings and part of my 401(k) and gambled it all. I quit my job and put every dime that I had into this restaurant. Luckily, one of the existing partners stayed and helped me learn how to manage a restaurant. It wasn't until 1998 that I moved to Houston and opened a tiny little restaurant off Westheimer near Eldridge. I soon realized that it was a really bad location, and I was barely meeting my expenses. So I changed the name to Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen, redecorated to make it home, and added a bunch of enchilada recipes. In 2001, I moved down the street to Westheimer and Dairy Ashford. Then about a year ago, I opened up this [Woodway] location.

EOW: You went through a lot of trouble to ensure this location had a mesquite grill in the kitchen. Why was that?

Casares: Well, I grew up in Brownsville along the border. Mesquite is plentiful down there, and I'm sure most of the mesquite we're burning here is from South Texas. So anyone grilling meats over wood in South Texas is most likely using mesquite. I had always wanted a wood grill, even when I opened my Westheimer [near Dairy Ashford] location, but I just didn't know how to go about it. So about a year and a half before opening this [Woodway near Voss] location, I hired a grill master [Michael Warren], who knows a lot about grilling. Together, he helped me design the grill and find the best company to make construct the grill. Grilling is a whole other world. I know a lot about enchiladas and cooking sauces, but grilling meat is another area. So he really helped me get my dream together and take the restaurant to the next level.

EOW: How will you combine the enchiladas and mesquite-grilled meats?

Casares: An example is something that's called the King Ranch. It comes with grilled beef or chicken fajita with my signature sauce for the restaurant, the chili gravy. I might also try something off the menu like a cabrito enchilada or a grilled quail enchilada.

Come back tomorrow to learn what pearls of wisdom Sylvia has to offer to those of you dreaming of your own restaurant.

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