When UT alumna Sylvia Casares was a little girl growing up in Brownsville, she sat at the small table in her parents’ kitchen, waiting for her mother’s comida casera, home-cooked food, and watching as she pulled piping-hot tortillas straight from the stove. Decades later, Casares is Houston’s “Enchilada Queen.”
Casares has three Houston locations of her restaurant, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. It placed in USA Today’s 2013 national list of “Top 10 Mexican Restaurants” and has been in the Houston Chronicle’s list of top 100 restaurants in the city for five years running, beating out more than 8,000 businesses. Casares will talk about her business success and newly released cookbook, “The Enchilada Queen Cookbook,” at 12 p.m. on Nov. 14 on campus as part of the Center for Mexican American Studies PlaticArte series.
“Food has always been my world,” Casares said. “I love to cook, I love to meet people [and] I love to make people happy with my food.”
In 1998, Casares started the first Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen in Houston after selling her shares in a smaller restaurant she’d owned alongside her ex-husband in Rosenberg, a small town outside Houston. By then, Casares said, she knew people loved her enchiladas, so she fully embraced her niche in Mexican-border cuisine.
“When I went to Houston it was like being with the big boys, it was little town to big city,” Casares said. “I found I was really struggling. Eventually the restaurant got so successful, [but] it took a tremendous amount of courage and patience.”
Juan Baquaix, director of operations for the restaurants, has worked for Casares for nearly eight years.
“When I started working with her, she was at the restaurant when I got there and she would be working when I got off the clock,” Baquaix said. “She goes after her dreams and gets things done.”
The made-from-scratch, fresh taste of Casares’ food is an homage to her love of south Texas food and to her Rio Grande Valley youth. She strengthens this feeling of home by hand-picking the antiques and family photographs that decorate her restaurants.
“A lot of the recipes from my restaurant, for my enchiladas, fajitas, soups and everything, are a style of cooking like the Mexican food that I was raised on,” Casares said. “It’s a home style, the home flavor of south Texas.”
A dear friend of 10 years and a loyal customer for more, Annette James first stepped foot into Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen after receiving a coupon in the mail nearly 17 years ago. As a Corpus Christi native, James had been searching for the perfect south Texas flavor.
“I sat down and ordered, and it was what I had been missing,” James said. “[Casares] would go around to each table at her restaurant and talk to customers, get to know them, get their opinion, and that’s how I met her.”
Since December 2005, Casares has shared her culinary knowledge through cooking classes at her restaurants on weekends. After years of her students relentlessly asking when she was gong to write a cookbook, Casares said she realized she needed to document her recipes and pass them on to homesick Texans. Casares is currently traveling to book signings and is focused on promoting her first cookbook.
“My recipes are very precise — whether it’s rice, beans, fajitas or enchiladas — [because] Mexican food of the valley of south Texas tastes different than when you get up to Houston, Austin or Dallas,” Casares said. “I want everybody to have a copy of [‘The Enchilada Queen Cookbook’], and I want people that want to know how to cook this kind of food to have the right recipes.”
This story has been updated since its initial publication. Casares has taught cooking classes since December 2005, not December 2015.