Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen
Sylvia Casares decided to work through tough times, and in the end, it was the right choice. After opening her establishment in January 1998, she had little success and considered selling her eatery. “I wasn’t making any money,” she says. “But I slept on it and decided to fight.”
The chef redecorated the restaurant and reorganized the menu, lumping all the enchiladas into two categories: north of the border and south of the border. The most prominent difference was a name change: Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen.
“That’s what people were giving me compliments on,” Casares says. “I renamed it so that they’d know what we were good at.”
And Houstonians do know, as the kitchen boasts 18 different enchilada varieties, all made from select ingredients.
“Some recipes are still the originals, while others I’ve tweaked a bit,” she says. “I know it’s a cliché but I use fresh ingredients, not powders,” Casares says. “I think a lot of places do the powder of out convenience. We do it the old fashioned way.”
Casares’ culinary skills stand out amongst the pack thanks to a prior career in food preparation. “I’ve figured out how to prepare home recipes in commercial quantities,” Casares says. “I’ve applied my professional and ethnic background. It’s basically 30 or 40 years invested in this.”
Before achieving success with Sylvia’s, Casares worked for two decades in the food research and development industry. She has a degree in home economics with a concentration in food and nutrition, and worked for Uncle Ben’s tasting recipes and developing and testing products.
“It was a big jump, going from corporate America to owning a restaurant,” Casares says. “But I had known how to cook from my time as a kid in Brownsville. I used to joke that I ate Mexican food every day for 18 years.”
In her younger days, Casares planned to become a teacher. Through her success at Sylvia’s she offers cooking classes in a dining room adjacent to the restaurant. Subjects include desserts, meatless enchiladas, breakfasts, tamales, and soups and stews.
“They love it,” she says of her students. “We all have a great time. I love what I do and I think it comes across in teaching. I’ve taken everything I ever learned in life to do this.”
2450 Louisiana St.
Whether it’s going toe-to-toe with Chef Mario Batali on “Iron Chef America” or pleasing 400 guests, Ibiza’s Charles Clark is up to the challenge. “It’s actually more difficult to please the 400 guests,” Clark says with a smile. “That’s a lot of people to make happy, but we find a way. Houstonians are well-traveled, but they know there’s great food [in the city].”
His culinary training and experience took him from his hometown of DeQuincy, La., to Spain and Morocco, before bringing him in Houston. Clark waited tables throughout his life while assisting chefs with their menus. “I would point out different items and give them suggestions,” he explains. Before long, his employers realized his suggestions were right on the mark.” That’s when it clicked for me,” Clarks says. “I thought I didn’t have to work my way all the way up.” He enrolled in the Art Institute of Houston’s culinary school. After graduating, he set up shop in the Bayou City.
In 2001, he opened Ibiza — the convergence of his Iberian and Cajun influences — and dazzled Houstonian’s palates with incredible infusions of eclectic creations from down-home ingredients. His popularity grew in Houston, and it wasn’t long before he hit the national scene.
While attending the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., Clark met with individuals from the Food Network. After hearing Clark speak about his passion for the culinary arts, they asked him to submit his menus.
“I got a call asking if I wanted to go on Iron Chef,” he says. During his appearance, he chose to compete against Iron Chef Batali, who was undefeated. Following their battle, which featured halibut as the theme ingredient, Batali told Clark, “You got me.” “He had not lost up to that point, but he thought I beat him,” Clark says. However, the judges sided with Batali in one of the closest battles ever in Kitchen Stadium — Batali won by a single point.
Even so, Clark continues to be a winner in Houston’s fine dining scene.
Mark’s American Cuisine
1658 Westheimer Rd.
Mark Cox risked a lot for love. He came to the Houston area to be near the woman of his dreams. His story has a happy ending — he married the woman and Houstonians have since fallen in love with him. Dining at Mark’s American Cuisine can be a religious experience. The restaurant is tucked inside an old church and the menu selection is nothing short of divine. Although Mark’s is at the forefront of the Houston fine dining experience, the original goal wasn’t to take the city by storm. “My main goal was to be under the radar, produce great food, make a living and be happy,” Cox says. Ten years and four major renovations later, Mark’s American Cuisine is a dining destination for Houstonians and visitors to the Bayou City. “There’s a special element to our location,” Cox says. “It’s an 81-year-old building, so there’s lots of history. But, there’s also lots of warmth. It’s a comfortable environment that feels like a big living room.” By consistently meeting and exceeding customers’ high standards, Cox has entrenched himself as one of the top chefs around. “We opened up to be a neighborhood place, built on good food and service,” he explains. “We pay attention to all of the details — on the menu, in our presentation and even the upkeep and maintenance schedule of the building. I think all of that makes a difference.” Before he was established in Houston, Cox says he didn’t plan to stay in the city. Instead, he has spent years winning the approval of critics and clientele. He has garnered dozens of awards for food, service, atmosphere and more. “I’m very honored by all the accolades from Houstonians,” he says. “We take the awards we’ve earned very seriously and we strive to provide an excellent dining experience for everyone. We’ve been here almost 11 years now and we’re improving with age.”
933 Studemont St.
If Lance Fegen doesn’t appear on any “Best Chefs” list, that’s fine with him. “I’d rather be known for being a good dad, a good husband, or friend,” says the New Jersey native. “That’s what means the most to me.” Even so, Houston’s “Best Chefs” lists aren’t complete without his name.
Fegen was pleasing palates before he ever began his formal training. “My mother is Italian and growing up in New Jersey, we had the big family gatherings a few times a week,” Fegen says. “The kids would roll the meatballs and help out in the garden. It wasn’t unusual for 30 to 40 people to be in the house.” While other high school bachelors took their dates to movies or out to eat, Fegen cooked romantic dinners to win over his dates. “That was my move,” he says.
Fegen, a co-proprietor at Glass Wall, now wins over patrons with a menu and ambiance that reflects Fegen’s live-for-the-moment attitude. The menu changes monthly and food is ordered on a daily basis. “It’s just my personality,” he says. “I have a lot of fun in my life. When I learned to put being a good person, father and husband first, work got a lot easier.”
While Fegen admits his personality could ruffle feathers, he is at peace with his ability to live the lifestyle of his choice while pleasing discerning diners. “We do things a little bit differently, but it works. We are open five nights a week, [and we don’t slack off],” he says. “We still make time for surfing, fishing or whatever. But, when we are here, it’s all business.”
And for Glass Wall patrons, Fegen’s business is their pleasure.
Chef GianCarlo Ferrera’s passion for culinary excellence upholds Arcodoro’s reputation for exquisite, authentic Italian food. “It was my passion for food [that led to this career path],” Ferrera says. “I was always helping my mother in the kitchen when I was 10 or 12. We used to cook Sunday lunch for everybody.” Raised in Italy before attending the culinary school at Centro Professionale Alberghiero in Salerno, Ferrera has 22 years of professional experience. Stops and training in Tampa Bay, Germany and Ireland, have led to his success and popularity. Ferrera caught his break in 2003, after a meal at Dallas’ Pomodoro Ristoranti Italiani. “[I was told] they needed a chef in Houston,” he recalls. “I called the owner and after a couple of meetings, I decided to come to Houston.”
The move planted the Italian squarely into Houston’s fine dining scene. Located in the Galleria area, Arcodoro impresses patrons with an expansive setting accented by natural light and aromas of pizzas baking in wood-burning ovens. “The thing that makes me feel good is when people tell me they had a wonderful meal, or that they’ve never had an experience like that before,” Ferrera says. “That makes me feel so happy.”
Ferrera spends most of his time pleasing customers with extraordinary, seasonal dishes in the cozy confines of a lavish patio and dining room. Entrees such as carnaroli rice simmered with squid ink, baked scampi and thyme exhibit Arcodoro’s Sardinian influence. Ferrera’s dishes, presented with incredible attention to detail, must be seen to be believed. “I cook for passion, not because it’s a job,” Ferrera says. “I cook with my mind and heart. It’s very important and that’s why I love this job.”
Café Red Onion
When starting at the bottom of a restaurant’s hierarchy, there’s no place to go but up. That was the case for Café Red Onion’s Rafael Galindo. He started his journey as an 18-year-old dishwasher. Twenty-five years later, he is the chef and owner of a Houston restaurant empire featuring regional Latin American dishes.
For Galindo, a hectic day is a good day. “To me, the crazier the day, the better I thrive. I rise to the challenge under unbelievable high pressure; and I love it,” he says.
While Houston has more than its fair share of Mexican and Tex-Mex establishments, Galindo satisfies patrons with dishes from his home country of Honduras. His Central and South American fare with Caribbean influences is sure to please Tex-Mex enthusiasts. Diners who like Latin flavors are sure to enjoy his unique combinations like pork and plantains, a truly tropical flair.
In addition to combining tastes, Galindo combines enticing textures. Tender chicken breasts are stuffed into pablano peppers. Then the whole dish is covered in a crunchy corn and fruit relish. Or, for a more tropical flavor, chicken breasts are coated in pistachio nuts, and served over black beans with a fruit berry relish.
Houstonians don’t have to go far for a tropical get-away. Galindo’s Caribbean décor, Latin flavor fusions and cool, refreshing drinks create a tropical paradise. From the chips and pineapple salsa to the decadent tres leches, Galindo’s guests are wowed night after night.
807 Taft St.
For Gravitas’ Jason Gould, there’s no place like home — whether it’s Houston, London, New York or Melbourne, Australia.
When he arrived in the Bayou City five years ago, he already had nearly 20 years of culinary experience under his belt. “I ended up in the United States by pure luck or divine intervention, whatever you want to call it,” says the Australian. “I trained in London and other places around Europe for 10 years and decided to go to New York.”
Hoping to find work, Gould actually moved out of Manhattan on Sept. 10, 2001. “I was going to go looking for a new job the next day. After the tragedies [of Sept. 11], I helped feed rescue workers around the city,” he says.
Having family in the Houston area, he relocated to here and has become entrenched in the culinary scene. Gould spent three years at Aries before opening Gravitas with Aries’ owner Scott Tycer two-and-a-half years ago. With a menu featuring an eclectic spin on steaks, seafood and even calf liver, Gould’s culinary artwork cannot be ignored.
Touting what he calls rustic American cuisine, Gravitas has fine dining in a casual atmosphere. As the eatery continues to grow in popularity, Gould plans to keep it in the forefront of Houstonian’s minds through a constantly evolving menu. SideBar, the lounge at Gravitas, features has an extensive drink list with top-shelf liquors and great section of wines and imported beers. Gould’s offerings in a chic, trendy setting have captured the hearts — and tastes — of diners across the city and state.
Gould says the Bayou City is a haven for fine and casual dining establishments.
“They say that in Houston, you can go out to eat every night for three years and not eat at the same place twice,” he says. However, with Gould at the helm, Gravitas is a stop Houstonians will want to make time and time again.
9595 Six Pines Drive, Ste. 900
The Woodlands, TX 77380
At Jasper’s, Chef Kent Rathbun adds a personal touch to dining experiences not visible in food or presentation. “I think customer service is a dying art,” Rathbun says. “People will go to a restaurant with OK food if there’s really great customer service.” However, Rathbun is quick to add he does not settle for OK food. That determination has garnered local and national praise for Jasper’s in The Woodlands, as well as his establishments in the Austin and Dallas areas.
The chef earned national accolades after his apprenticeship at La Bonne Auberge, a five-star restaurant in Kansas City, Mo. Since then, Rathbun has exhibited his expertise at the world famous James Beard House in New York and at President George W. Bush’s 2001 Inaugural Ball. For the last four years, he has participated in the Taste of the NFL, the pre-Super Bowl culinary extravaganza. His experience also includes working in kitchens in New Orleans and Bangkok, Thailand. He uses all his experience to blend American, Cajun and Pacific Rim tastes with other Southwestern and Mediterranean influences.
Since opening his first restaurant in 1999, Rathbun has made his unique dining experience stand out, both on the plate and in the ambience. His travels include tours with top designers to see the latest in culinary decor. “I think in terms of design, Jasper’s can stand up to anything in Houston,” Rathbun says.
Recently, Rathbun completed an episode of “Iron Chef America,” which will air Feb. 24 on the Food Network. The chef says it was vital to come out with a good showing, which he felt he did, but not before working up a sweat. “The kitchen is very hot. Pretty much every piece of equipment is on full blast,” Rathbun says. “It was an experience unlike anything else.”
From training to his national television experience, Rathbun feels the time has paid off, as Jasper’s “gourmet backyard cuisine” has become a top draw for Houstonians and tourists. “I think Jasper’s offers a level of sophistication [at a price] that’s very palatable,” Rathbun says. “When I conceived Jasper’s, I wanted it to be a place where people could come a couple times a week and eat their favorite meal over and over.”
When Houstonians asked, “Why can’t we have Italian food in Houston like they have in Italy?” Marcos Wiles answered with Da Marco Cucina e Vino. The Italian-born Wiles was never formally trained in the culinary arts. However, he honed his craft under the tutelage of legendary Houston restauranteur Tony Vallone.
“I learned a lot from Tony and working with him was a great experience. I also spent my summers in Italy,” Wiles says. “When I opened Da Marco, I wanted to open a place that would be successful in Italy, but located in Houston.”
Wiles has not had to worry about success. His innovative creations, exquisite service and indulgent dishes make him one of the best chefs in the United States.
By taking advantage of a world market, Wiles says he is able to provide patrons with authentic Italian food; products and preparation techniques in his Houston kitchen can be found in Italian kitchens. While New York and Los Angeles are usually at the forefront of the country’s fine dining locales, Wiles says Houston establishments can hold their own against those cities.
“There’s a lot of prestige with being in those cities. But there’s a lot of great places outside of there,” Wiles explains. Although Wiles could take his expertise to either coast, he insists on staying in the Bayou City. “This is a great city to raise a family,” he says. “New York is considered the ‘Capital of the World,’ and Los Angeles has all the celebrities, but neither city offers what Houston has.” As Wiles continues to impress Da Marco’s regular diners and win over newcomers, he has plans for another establishment specializing in coastal seafood.
“The menu will feature specialties from the Italian Adriatic and Mediterranean coasts,” Wiles says. “We will keep the same simple approach that we use in our kitchen.”
Whenever he decides it is time to open his new venture, Houstonians can be sure they will be treated to the same innovative indulgences they’ve come to expect from Wiles.