Sylvia Casares, Houston’s “Enchilada Queen,” grew her restaurant Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen from a tiny eatery into an establishment of the city’s food scene. Casares detailed her path to throne.
Q: For those that aren’t familiar with you or your restaurant, could you briefly introduce who you are and what it is you do?
I’m the owner and founder of Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. I’ve been in business in Houston since January of ’98. My moniker is “Enchilada Queen,” which was given to me about 15 years by a magazine here in Houston because of the notoriety of my enchiladas. Early in my career, I figured out that that’s what people most loved in my restaurant. People lined up for them.
Q: What is your relationship with Houston, are you from here and if not what brought you here?
I grew up in Brownsville. I left there at 18. I went off to college at UT Austin and then my first job was in Houston. That’s how I ended up here in 1976. I was supposed to be a teacher and I had a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics and because of that I got offered a job to work at a food lab, Uncle Ben’s Rice, which was headquartered here in Houston at the time. That’s how I started my food career, in 1976, in the food laboratories of Uncle Ben’s Rice. Interestingly enough, they were also like half a mile from my very first little restaurant.
Sometimes I think wow. It’s just interesting how it all turned out. Here I thought I’d be a teacher and then of course, about 12 years ago, I started a cooking school. Oftentimes when I teach, I tell my students it took me forever but I finally made it to the classroom. I made the full circle.
Q: What led you to open your own restaurant?
I stayed 10 years working in the food labs, recipe developing, taste testing, running taste panels and then I got moved into the new product development lab as a food scientist so then I was helping develop new products. I settled in there but after around seven or eight years I started thinking that I didn’t really want that to be my lifelong career. It was secure but I had this uneasiness that I belonged somewhere else. I changed careers in 1986 and I started selling food to restaurants. I did that for eight years and then I was in my early 40s and I looked around and I noticed most of my peers were younger, like 10 years younger. I was the oldest one there and I thought in 10 years they’re not going to want me. So, I decided I needed to go for something I had more control over and I developed a high interest in opening a restaurant.
In all the years I called on restaurants, what I noticed was most restaurants served average food and could do really well. So I thought I could do that and I could make great food. Little did I know how little I knew. I didn’t know a thing. I thought I knew but I didn’t know a thing. There were some things that I knew and understood that were very instrumental in helping me survive through the rough years but I knew like five percent of what was needed and it was by God’s amazing grace that I was able to make it through each bad economic cycle and all kinds of problems that I’ve encountered along the way.
Q: What are some of your favorite menu items?
A: For sure, my cheese enchiladas, which has my chili gravy. That is the one sauce that I do of all the many sauces that I do that is most different from the majority of mexican restaurants. I just love my cheese enchiladas. They’re just sort of a comfort food. I love my fideo. Hmm, what else do I love? My flour tortillas, my refried beans. All of that is like home food.
Q: How do you think the city’s food scene differs from others?
It’s extremely diverse. There’s a lot of competition. It’s wide open.
Q: Looking back on the early years of your business, what’s it like knowing you’re restaurants are now an establishment of the city’s food scene?
A: It’s very satisfying. Very satisfying. But,I have to tell you that there are probably a solid 15 years of my life that I didn’t go to the movies, I never shopped, I rarely took a vacation. I had the WIT attitude. Whatever it takes.
Q: When you think of Houston what’s the first word that comes to mind?
Q: When you think of Texas, what’s the first word that comes to mind?