Chef Cariño Cortez In Her San Antonio Restaurant Viva Villa Taquería

Chef Cariño Cortez In Her San Antonio Restaurant Viva Villa Taquería

On a recent trip through south Texas we spent a long day in San Antonio on the trail of the last chili queen. We ranged across town stopping into diners, cafes and taquerias to see if we could find a woman on the range with a big kettle of chili burbling and a crowd of customers hunched over bowls of Texas Red.

In an 1897 San Antonio Express article chili queens are referred to as “stunning creatures, with the rich, brown skin of the tropics and the languorous grace and bewitching black eyes of Spanish donnas.”

Walking into Viva Villa Taquería, chef Cariño Cortez’s modern taco emporium, we feel certain that we’re about to hit paydirt. The Cortezes are the first family of Mexican food in the greatest city in the US for tacos, tortillas, tamales and any other dish associated with Estados Unidos Mexicanos. That includes San Antonio chili, a cornerstone of Tex Mex, and one of the greatest dishes to ever come out of the Lone Star.

But there is no chili to be found.

Chef Cortez stops by the bar to chat and we inquire as to whether she is a chili queen; she laughs and briefly runs down the family empire (Mi Tierra, La Margarita and Pico de Gallo are all Cortez strongholds) and tells us about the butcher department that’s in the basement underneath Mi Tierra. We’d give anything to tour that facility.

We content ourselves with tacos but are left out of sorts by our inability to discover a big bowl of San Antonio chili.

After returning to New Orleans we did a little research and found Pete Cortez Jr’s recipe for the landmark dish. We haven’t tackled it yet but include it for historical perspective on a foodway that is vanishing: Texas chili.

1 pound beef (shoulder cut preferred)

1/2 cup lard (or oil), or as needed

3 tablespoons flour

1 to 1 1/2 cups red Chile Purée, or to taste (recipe follows)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (comino)

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1/2 tablespoon garlic purée (blend fresh garlic cloves with a little water to make a mixture that will pour)

2-3 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon pepper, or to taste

1 cup cooked beans (optional)

Garnishes:

Chopped white onion, to taste

Shredded yellow “Texas-style” cheddar cheese, to taste

Crackers, bolillos, flour or corn tortillas, as needed

Chile Purée:

12 chiles ancho (dried chile pods), seeds and membranes removed

Instructions: Cut meat into small (1/2- to 3/4-inch) cubes; do not trim off too much of the fat. Heat lard or vegetable oil in a medium-size skillet over medium-high heat, then add meat and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until well browned. Add flour and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes. Add prepared chile purée to taste, cumin, bay leaf, oregano, puréed garlic, and salt and pepper. Stir in about 1 to 11/2 cups water, and cook over low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. (If making the chili to serve the following day, or for a “soupier” consistency, use a little more water.) Add cooked beans, if using.

Chef Modesto Salazar is also credited for this recipe

recipe courtesy San Antonio Express

ed note: this is the first part of a series where we’ll be exploring San Antonio on the trail of the elusive chili queen

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