Sylvia’s Hat Trick
Houston’s Enchilada Queen, Sylvia Casares, is about to open yet another eatery!
by Marene Gustin
See also: Try Hosting a Tamalada Party!
Known as Houston’s Enchilada Queen, Sylvia Casares has two very popular Tex-Mex restaurants on the west side of town, a food truck, and now she’s about to open a third brick-and-mortar eatery. “I promise to stop at three!” she says. “Otherwise I will need therapy.”
The new restaurant will be at 1140 Eldridge Parkway, in the Energy Corridor. Casares says she has some customers already in the area, and she does food deliveries there. “I wasn’t looking for another location,” she says, “but the landlord and the location are great, so I just jumped at it.” The space has housed two previous restaurants, including a Sharky’s American Grill, but Casares thinks her experience and large customer base will make the new Sylvia’s successful.
After graduating from University of Texas-Austin with a degree in home economics, the Brownsville native worked for 10 years with Uncle Ben’s food corporation as a food scientist and did a stint in restaurant sales before opening her first hole-in-the-wall eatery in 1998. It was so popular that in 2001 she moved into the current Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen at 12637 Westheimer Road, a 6,000 sq. ft. space that seats 200. Casares parlayed her popular menu into a cookbook, a DVD on tamale making, Tex-Mex cooking classes, a second Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen on Woodway Drive, and finally the No Borders food truck.
Fans are crazy for her 18 varieties of enchiladas, the freshly fried tortilla chips she serves, and her specialty—sauces. She makes her signature gravy from real dried chiles, not powder, and it takes 12 hours. Her delicious chile con queso simmers for five hours on the stovetop.
But she serves up more than just enchiladas, which is why she’s calling the new restaurant just Sylvia’s “so people don’t think that’s all we have,” she says.
In fact, lately she’s been upping the ante on her fajitas. After tinkering with the meats and grilling methods, she now thinks they’re as good as her enchiladas. She loves a kitchen challenge, and she’s very excited about opening the new restaurant, which will have a mesquite grill for the fajitas.
The 5,000 sq. ft. space will look a lot like the Woodway location, she says, but will also display some of the antique tea sets that fill the Westheimer location. A waiter once brought her a tea set back from Mexico, and before long everyone was giving them to her. She now
has hundreds of them, from tiny, doll-like ceramic sets to large hand-painted functional ones. When we spoke in March for this article, she was shopping antique stores in The Heights for furniture she could use in the new restaurant to showcase her tea sets.
Casares expects to be spending a lot of time at the new location when it opens, at least until everything is up and running.
Managing three restaurants and a food truck sounds like a lot of work, but Casares says she has learned to delegate since her tragic incident in 2012 when she suffered a gunshot wound in an altercation with her ex-boyfriend. “I found really good people to help manage the restaurants during my recovery,” she says. “I don’t have to do everything myself.”
Two years later she is back and better than ever, happy, and ready to expand her Tex-Mex empire. Viva la Sylvia!
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.
Try Hosting a Tamalada Party
Gather your friends and family to help
by Sylvia Casares
Tamale making is a labor-intensive project. The best way to make tamales is with a group of family and friends, grandmas, and grandkids, too.
First is the filling, be it pork, beef, chicken, venison, spinach, cheese, black beans, or refried beans. It should already be cooked, shredded, and cooled.
Gather all the ingredients, dry and wet measuring cups, a very large bowl to mix the masa, tamale steamer, and lots of 3-inch plastic spackling tools to spread the masa, which you can buy in any paint store.
Next, trim corn husks to a uniform size, about 6 inches wide by 7 inches long, tapering to a triangular shape, and soak in warm water. Mix all the dry ingredients thoroughly first, making sure you do not have pockets of ingredients. This process will save time and energy when you knead the dough.
In a large pot over low heat, add lard, chicken broth, water, and chili sauce. Make sure the liquids do not get too hot, or you will burn yourself when you add them to the dry ingredients. Mix the liquid into the dry ingredients slowly. This is a roll-up-your-sleeves time, so just dig in.
After the dough has been kneaded, select one person to portion out the dough and to roll it into small balls, slightly smaller than a golf ball. This is another way to control the size of the tamale.
Gather Family and/or Friends
Now is the time for all hands on deck. Turn up the music, grab a beverage of your choice, and start an assembly line.
Do not spread dough from the point, start about 4 inches from the point, so you can fold this part up. Spread out the balls of dough with the spatula. Dip the spatula in water to keep the dough from sticking to it. Add the filling, and fold in thirds, then tuck the end under, and turn the seam side down.
Stack the tamales in a wagon-wheel design inside the tamale steamer. Don’t pack them in too tightly because you want the steam to roll around and through the stack. Remember, you are only cooking the dough, because the filling has already been cooked. Steam for 90 minutes.
For the last 17 years, Sylvia Casares has owned and been the executive chef of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. She manages a kitchen staff of 30 and a front-of-house staff of 30.
Casares’ expertise is in recipe development, which requires a combination of cuisine knowledge, cooking knowledge, and a passion for excellence. “Making people really happy with my food is where I derive joy and personal satisfaction,” she says. She later branched into conducting cooking classes.
Sign up for one of the bi-monthly cooking classes at eventbrite.com/o/sylvia-casares-2689793672.