My first visit to Sylvia’s Restaurant in Brownsville didn’t start as planned. “No,” said the waitress when I requested two breakfast tacos. “I’ll let you eat one,” she said in Spanish. “If you’re still hungry after that, you can have one more.” She denied me my second taco that Sunday morning because the breakfast tacos—called tortillas de harina on the menu, as they are commonly referred to across the Lower Rio Grande Valley—are huge. I had opted for the barbacoa: silky strands of beef broken up by knots of shimmering fat, wrapped in a thin, flaky tortilla as big as a fan and freckled from time on the flattop.
But this isn’t a story about Sylvia’s barbacoa taco, as glorious as it is. This is about the U.S.-Mexico borderlands favorite of machacado con huevo a la Mexicana, a salt beef that’s been dried, pulverized, and reconstituted with scrambled eggs, then spiced up with pico de gallo. The combination, which I tried on a later visit, is substantial, with shredded bits of meat and flattened scrambled eggs topped with the balanced heat of diced tomato, onion, and jalapeño. The even hand that crafted the filling inside the flour tortilla—so flavorful you’d be forgiven for eating only that—wasn’t applied to the exuberant decor, however.
The restaurant’s interior is awash in nothing but Dallas Cowboys memorabilia. A flag hanging above the cash register/hostess stand declares: “You’re in Cowboys Country.” Brown-paper lights resembling footballs—stitching and all—hang in front of it. Just under the counter, a novelty street sign affixed to the blue wood-paneled siding lets you know you’re on Cowboys Avenue. There are autographed glossies. There are professionally framed team and player photos. There are teddy bears in uniform, statuettes, decorative magnets, and even fuzzy dice.
“I’ve been a Dallas Cowboys fan since I was a kid,” says current owner Norma Almanza, who took over in 2001. “One day I decided to change every single thing that [the previous owner] had left, and I started putting up Cowboys memorabilia everywhere. Some people sometimes bring in a thing or two.” Almanza’s favorite gift is a photo of Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, and Tony Romo. “A customer came in one day and told me that he wanted to give me something in appreciation for taking care of his mom,” she says. “His mom would walk from I don’t know where—it was quite a ways from the restaurant. She would eat, and then I would give her a ride back. He was so happy and appreciative.” The Cowboys adoration actually starts before you walk in. The building is painted silver and a big dark-blue star decorates space between two windows listing specialties like caldo and seafood. Almanza has turned Sylvia’s into one of the best restaurants on Southmost Boulevard, a three-and-a-half mile stretch of road that, as its name indicates, skirts the river-marked border with our sister country—there are myriad restaurants of incredible caliber in the vicinity.
Texas Monthly readers might recognize Southmost as the home of Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que, a local institution that’s likely the last place in the state to prepare traditional pit-cooked cow head barbacoa. Open since 1955, the weekends-only restaurant has made our barbecue and taco lists. Vera’s is unlike any other dining establishment on Southmost. The same can be said for Sylvia’s Restaurant. That’s what it takes to make it for as long as both have.
Oh, and about that first visit: the waitress was right. One taco was and remains enough—just make sure that taco is the machacado con huevo a la Mexicana.