Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tex-Mex Revelation - Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen


Houston is a great city for Mexican food. From the humble taco truck to elegant fine dining establishments, Houston has the entire spectrum of Mexican food experiences covered. And everyone has their favorites.

We've been hearing buzz about a little place way out Westheimer, Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen. So we made the trek out to see what all the fuss is about.

Sylvia's has an unassuming strip center location, in an older strip center well beyond the Beltway. But don't be fooled by the modest exterior; open the door and you're transported to the border, where the nights are hot and the food is hotter.

Sylvia Casares is the name behind Sylvia's, and she was recognized as one of the top Latino chefs working in the United States by the Spanish-language magazine Siempre Mujer. She's brought the food from her native Lower Rio Grande Valley to Houston, and created dishes that span Anglo and Mexican culture. Those who view Tex-Mex cuisine as some sort of inferior stepchild to other Mexican cuisines need only to sample Sylvia's cooking to have the attitudes adjusted.

As with most Mexican establishments, you start with chips and salsa. Sylvia's chips are fresh and warm, and the salsa is a thin, housemade and savory. We had to remind ourselves to save room for the enchiladas.

As one would guess from the name, Sylvia's specialty is enchiladas, and there is a wide range to choose from -- no less than 18 different styles.

Sylvia helpfully offers two different sampler platters, each with four different petite enchiladas. For this first visit, we selected her North of the Border sampler.

First we sampled the Refugio - a basic cheese enchilada made with blended cheddar cheeses and topped with chili gravy. It was a good enchilada; smooth and spicy with a moderate amount of heat from the gravy.

Next came the Lubbock - a ground beef enchilada with Sylvia's Signature Gravy, a meatier take on regular chili gravy. Carnivores will love this enchilada; there is plenty of beef both inside and out, and the seasonings are masterfully balanced to provide heat that does not overpower.

Cheese enchiladas and beef enchiladas are Tex-Mex staples. After this things get creative.

We dove into the Laguna Madre - fresh crab enchiladas topped with a creamy seafood sauce. This delicious enchilada was stuffed with plenty of juicy lump crab meat, and the creamy sauce had a bit of a kick to it. If you're a seafood lover, this enchilada is one you can't miss.

Finally came the most unusual enchilada - the Sarita. A vegetarian enchilada filled with a combination of calabacita (summer squash) corn, and mild cheese, topped with a light cream sauce. The fresh flavor of the vegetables combined with the rich, savory cream sauce and the result was one of the best enchiladas we can remember tasting.

Sylvia's was busy on the night we visited, but service was professional, prompt and friendly. Prices are a touch higher than one might expect for Tex-Mex dishes, but we feel that the quality more than makes up for the extra $2-3 per plate.

All in all, we think that Sylvia's is one of Houston's best Mexican restaurants, and if you've not visited, you're missing out on a meal that any lover of Mexican food will enjoy.

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen: 12637 Westheimer Road, Houston, 77077, 281-679-8300

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