The Owner of Houston’s Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen Shares Her Secrets
Sylvia Casares was born in Brownsville, Texas, one of the southernmost cities in the United States, as the third child of four and the only daughter to Everardo and Severa Casares. Her parents are both Texan-born, so Sylvia is a proud third-generation Texan. Her father served in the Army during WWII and worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a cattle inspector for 35 years and her mother was a store clerk. One of her brothers, Idoluis, is a Vietnam War veteran with two Purple Heart medals, and another brother, Oscar, is a successful author and a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin. Oscar wrote the forward to Sylvia’s recently released critically acclaimed cookbook, The Enchilada Queen.
There are much more than enchiladas in this book. Fajitas, tamales, salsas, guacamoles, sauces, and more delight the pages of this beautiful recipe must-have. There is the signature secret to her enchiladas that she calls her “Texas Two-Step Technique,” where the sauce begins the flavor-building of each and every enchilada prepared in her restaurant. Every tortilla is dipped in this sauce hours before it is passed through hot oil, filled, topped with sauce, then rolled and baked. Each tortilla is tastefully touched three times before it is brought to the table! The Enchilada Queen Cookbook has been in Amazon's Best 10 of the Month pick for Cooking, Food, and Wine, and Publishers Weekly dubbed it “the only Tex-Mex cookbook you’ll ever need.”
Sylvia’s professional culinary career began in 1976 at Uncle Ben’s Rice, where she worked as a Research Home Economist and spent three years in the test kitchens conducting sensory evaluation taste panels, recipe testing, and assisting in recipe development. Then, a promotion to the product development labs led to a seven-year stint in flavor development, the scientific method of developing a prototype or formula and measuring acutely to ensure consistency. After 10 years at Uncle Ben’s, Sylvia decided to make a career change to food service sales, and the next eight years provided extensive exposure to and interaction with chefs and restaurant owners. Sylvia noticed that most Tex-Mex restaurants were serving dishes that lacked the authentic flavors of her childhood. She felt that she could exceed “average” with her acute sense of taste and educated palate.
Photo by Alex Martinez; cover designed by Olga Grlic
In 1995, she took the plunge and bought a small existing restaurant in Rosenberg, Texas, southwest of Houston. She renamed it Camino Real and spent the next two years honing her restaurateur skills. In 1998, she opened her first eponymous restaurant, Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, and the rest, as they say, is history. She currently has a triad of super successful Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen locations in Houston. Sylvia sources ingredients from local suppliers, and the menu is divided by dish origin. Enchilada sauce flavors are either south of the border (Mexican) or north (Texan) classic flavors, and the grill uses local mesquite wood, a south Texas cooking tradition.
“When you prepare my dishes for your family and friends, you’ll see what I mean about the generations of love passed down in these recipes,” she says.
Read on for Sylvia’s take on healthy cooking and eating.
The Daily Meal: Do you see a trend with diners seeking better-for-you options on the menu?
Sylvia Casares: Today, I believe diners are, for the most part, more informed about nutrition and good value in their food consumption. There is a perception that Tex-Mex food is less than healthy, but it really depends on the ingredients, how you prepare it, and what you order in a restaurant. I am an example of keeping my weight the same all of these years by eating well and with exercise. Also, I always strive to provide a great value or to exceed the expectations of my customers at every meal, offering many healthy choices at my restaurants.
How do you define healthy eating?
I define healthy eating as a balanced diet with all food groups and cooking from scratch with basic, raw ingredients.
What is your secret to cooking healthier without sacrificing flavor?
The secret to cooking healthier is using raw, fresh ingredients and not using convenience products for saving time or money. There is always a price to pay with flavor when you cut corners. That is a universal law!
What is your favorite dish on your own menu and why?
My favorite dish is my chile gravy in a cheese enchilada. This is an enchilada I grew up eating in Brownsville, and it is true comfort food for me. This gravy is one of my signature sauces, and it is exploding with flavor!
What is your culinary mantra?
My culinary mantra is to use only fresh ingredients and to never cut corners to save time or money. Follow the recipe as it was originally created — cook like my mother and grandmother did. I strive for true authenticity and quality by strictly sticking to this mantra.
What else is going on in your world?
Right now it is all about the cookbook, and I am blessed with an amazing team who helped create it, which includes St Martin's Press; Dedie Leahy, my agent; and Dotty Griffith, my writer.