Small-town Tex-Mex diners are a breed apart. They are community-centered and, in turn, community-supported. Sylvia’s Mexican Restaurant in Stockdale is no exception. It wasn’t in Sylvia Quintanilla’s plans to own a restaurant. She left her job at a lumber company in Victoria to care for her ailing mother in her hometown of Stockdale, about 45 miles southeast of San Antonio. Neither Quintanilla nor her family members had restaurant experience. “My family were all builders, plumbers, electricians,” Quintanilla tells me during a phone conversation. When she moved back to Stockdale, she didn’t want a job that would keep her away from her mother for long stretches of time.
Quintanilla noticed an old vacant restaurant, a former chicken shack, and knowing there wasn’t a spot in town for residents to eat and hang out, she changed her direction. “I saw this little building was up for sale,” Quintanilla recalls. “So I told my mom I can invest in it and we can make it into a restaurant.” She bought it and opened her namesake diner that same year, 1990. Thirty-two years later, Sylvia’s Mexican Restaurant is the definition of a locals’ gathering place, dishing up comforting Texas favorites.
The cotton-candy-pink building has a gravel parking lot and, like many classic Tex-Mex joints, has one door as the entrance and another as the exit. Inside, wooden chairs tuck under laminate-topped tables. The decor is simple and nostalgic: memorabilia, angel figurines, framed colloquialisms, newspaper clippings, and photos of the Quintanilla family. Most of the folks in those pictures have worked at the restaurant at one point or another.
“Everybody was here—my baby brothers, all my brothers, all my sisters helped for years in this restaurant,” Quintanilla says. Although her mother never worked in the restaurant, she provided many of the recipes. “I learned a lot from her before she passed away,” Quintanilla says. “She was with me for the first ten years of the restaurant.”
The town has been there for Quintanilla from day one. “There have been customers with me for thirty-two years, and every morning of every day they’re eating the same taco,” she says. Stockdale city manager Banks Akin opts for a potato and breakfast sausage taco every morning. The colleagues who join him regularly are fans of the “suicides,” breakfast tacos packed with a little of everything. The name references the practice of mixing all the sodas at a fountain.
The hefty tacos are stuffed with beans, soft potatoes, scrambled eggs, breakfast sausage, bacon, and melted American cheese clinging to everything. It’s only the second time I’ve come across suicide tacos. (The first was at Hi-Ho Restaurant in Corpus Christi.) Most taquerias and restaurants label their all-in-one tacos as “trash tacos” or “trash can tacos.” Quintanilla wasn’t keen on that term when she added the dish to the menu in 1995, at the behest of regulars who ordered the works in flour tortillas. “I said, ‘[Trash tacos] doesn’t sound too good, and I don’t want to call them that.’”
It was my favorite of the several tacos I ordered. Not only was it impressive in appearance, with large spots of char on the tortilla, but the beans did a great job of holding the many components together while adding a touch of salt. It hit the spot. Another favorite was the the carne guisada taco. The fresh, squishy flour tortilla was filled with a thick blanket of gravy studded with nuggets of beef. It’s the most popular taco at Sylvia’s. The Tex-Mex stew is a rural and South Texas favorite rarely found north of Austin. When the dish is listed on a menu, I don’t hesitate to order it, and it rarely has failed me. I also enjoyed the bean and cheese breakfast taco, which featured creamy refried beans, a brilliant orange blanket of American cheese, and a sprinkle of chopped raw white onions adding a pleasant sweetness.
I didn’t enjoy the onions in the carne asada taco as much—they were too sweet. The industrial masa harina tortilla didn’t help. Nevertheless, the grilled steak was well seasoned and slightly chewy—just the way I like it. It would have been better in a flour tortilla, the most popular of the two house-made tortilla options. Tuesday through Thursday, the kitchen staff at Sylvia’s makes about nine hundred flour tortillas, and Friday through Sunday, production more than doubles to two thousand.
A buddy and I arrived just before the lunch rush. As we worked our way through the tacos, the restaurant began to fill with the soft rumble of customers. Originally, the dining space accommodated 45 customers. Today the capacity is triple that, after three additions to the building. It’s common, when the servers are overwhelmed, for customers to help themselves to drinks. “No one complains,” Quintanilla says. “This is a place to feel comfortable.”
During the height of the pandemic, when Sylvia’s operated exclusively as a drive-through for one year, business increased. “The drive-through was killing it,” Quintanilla says with excited relief. “I had to hire another hand in the kitchen because that’s how busy we were.” She is aware that her business was one of the lucky few to have performed better than it did pre-pandemic.
As we spoke, Quintanilla surprised me with the news that she’s almost ready to retire. She admits the decision was difficult. She has enjoyed the years of working the register and visiting with customers, both regulars and newcomers like me. “People come all the way from Corpus Christi to eat here, but I think I’ve done my part and, you know, it’s time for me to go on,” she says.
The restaurant isn’t officially on the market yet, but Quintanilla says she doesn’t want relatives to take over because they might constantly ask for her help. “I don’t want to be called with, ‘Hey, how did you do this? Hey, how did you do that?’” she explains with a laugh. She wants interested buyers to know that her recipes won’t be part of the deal (unless one of her cooks purchases the diner) and that owning a restaurant requires diligence.“It’s a little gold mine, but you’re going to have to be here every day, just like me,” she says. “You have to be here to oversee everything.” When someone eventually takes over the establishment, I hope they make it as warm and welcoming as the joint is right now.