This week, we became acquainted with a woman who plunked down all her life savings on a restaurant at the tender age of 40. We heard about how she kept her restaurant alive in spite of a bad location, and her philosophy of creating a recipe that focuses on flavor. Sylvia Casares also opened her heart to us, and shared some very personal feelings about being shot in the stomach and coming close to death.
Two short months after her ordeal, Houston's own "Enchilada Queen" was back at work. You'll find her at the Woodway location on most days, serving of the best made-from-scratch Tex-Mex food in the city.
"Alison Cook wrote that it's a place where you can take people from out of town," Casares told me, "And I thought that was such a great compliment." Indeed, actress/singer Jennifer Lopez ordered Sylvia's food for her entire entourage after her concert in August, and Food Network star Tyler Florence stopped by for her cabrito asado last week during his book tour.
We started with a cup of her classic tortilla soup, the one with the red broth that she says has a following of its own. "We use fresh guajillo chiles to flavor the broth, which makes it a bright red color." Chock-full of crispy tortilla strips, chunks of avocado, corn and cheese, the soup was fantastic. The red guajillo added this spicy zing of flavor, a fast burn that tingled on the lips and made them burn in a good way. The melted droplets of cheese and avocado gave it this creaminess, while the tortilla and corn gave it the crisp we've all come to associate with tortilla soup. It was a "wow" for me. I literally cleaned the bowl.
"That's what I mean by building the flavor," remarked Casares. "The fresh red chilis give the broth this added dimension of flavor that you can't get by just throwing fresh chiles in the broth."
Sylvia is affectionately called "Houston's Enchilada Queen," so a tasting would be nothing without a sampling of her enchiladas. She has 14 on her menu, which correspond to north of the border and south of the border flavors. She let me sample the "Sylvia's Culinary Tour" from her menu -- in essence, a tasting of four petite enchiladas from each region.
The North of the Border tasting is what I've come to associate with the word "enchilada." Melted yellow cheese over Sylvia's signature chili gravy with fillings of beef or cheese were classic Tex-Mex through and through. The chili gravy was smooth and not too salty, subtly nuanced with the fresh chiles that are integral to her recipe. The surprise favorite, however, was the enchilada she calls "Sarita." Stuffed with chunks of calabacita, a type of Mexican squash, and corn, the vegetables were cooked with a creamy queso and topped with a light cream sauce, and it was simply delicious.
The South of the Border tasting was comprised of enchiladas that were named after the city that inspired them: Mexico City, Morelia, Hidalgo and Puebla. Each enchilada had its own personality and taste, respectively, a chicken enchilada topped with sour cream, red enchiladas topped with topped with queso fresco and guajillo chile red sauce, pork enchiladas topped with verde sauce, and chicken enchiladas topped with mole poblano. Of these, my favorite was the mole poblano, with an oh-so-smooth, dark brown sauce that was made slightly sweet with chocolate.
To follow, we tried her house specialty Tampiquena, a beef fajita steak served with a choice of enchilada (we had the pork with green tomatillo sauce), beans, rice, and rajas poblanas in a cream cheese sauce.
To describe her beef fajitas accurately, I'll use her words: "About a year after I moved to my current Westheimer location, a really good customer pulled me aside and said, 'You know, Sylvia, your enchiladas are here [holds hands high] but your fajitas are here [holds hands low].'
"After that," Casares said, "it took me about close to two years to figure out how to do them. Not just do them, but do them really well. And produce a flavorful, fork-tender, really good fajita. My goal was that they taste like beef. Because you can marinate them, but they'll pick up flavors that are not beef, that are not compatible, in my mind, with beef. My goal was that it had to taste like a steak or like beef. I didn't want any off flavors. I didn't want lime, I didn't want sweetness."
And that's exactly how it tasted.
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I left Sylvia's emotionally moved by her powerful story, inspired by her faith and her personal strength of character and impressed by her food. Here is Tex-Mex made with recipes passed down through traditions, with ingredients that celebrate North and South of the Border, and looks and tastes like your grandmother would make it. It didn't leave a heavy feel in my stomach, like you often get when you eat overly processed foods or Tex-Mex that is heavy in cheese and all the things that are bad for you.
I left thinking about the flavor of the chiles in the tortilla soup, about the smoothness of the mole poblano, about the smoky yet tender fajita, and ultimately, about the amazing woman who wanted to open a restaurant because she "loves feeding people." May she continue to do so for a long time.