Chilling With the Chili Queens
Ana Fernandez and the Chili Queens are shedding new light into a growing buzz at the Alamo Street Eat Bar near downtown San Antonio.
The Alamo Street Eat bar was once a simple outdoor bar patio, but the current owners have reinvented the location to cater to the locals with a bit of a twist. They reconstructed the property with outdoor outlets to allow four food trucks to set up shop on their property, serving up a variety of food and beer choices, and including tables to lounge as well. Their goal was to choose the best food trucks that would appeal to the locals not only in taste, but originality. Fernandez had just started her business this year when she was offered the opportunity to be a permanent fixture at the location.
As you walk across the parking lot and inch closer towards the back end of the lot, there stands a simple white truck with a label outlined in black reading the “Chili Queens” across the top right front corner. On a recent weekday, the crowd was slow and steady with no one in line. The menu posted on a fold out chalkboard outside the truck advertised the Frito pie dish at $7.00, which included homemade chili mixed with Frito chips, shredded cheese, a dollop of sour cream and a small garnish of cilantro as a finishing touch. At the very first bite of the Frito Pie, you can immediately taste the homemade spices and the heat behind the dish. It is spicy and tasty which compliments well with the many Texas craft beers the bar offers on tap.
As a tour boat driver along the riverwalk downtown, Fernandez learned of the original Chili Queens, who used to serve the locals in the main plaza of town back in the 1800’s. She said she was inspired to perhaps one day incorporate the history of their homemade authentic dishes with a modern day twist that would still manage to pay homage to the Chili Queen legacy.
“If I hadn’t gone to art school, I would have gone to culinary school because I love cooking”, she said.
Fernandez learned how to cook by watching her mother and grandmother making everything from scratch and using homemade recipes. She had always dreamed of opening her own restaurant one day, and the food truck business allowed her to make that dream a reality on a limited budget without the challenges and financial cost of having her own restaurant to maintain.
The food truck business for all the vendors is an opportunity to live out their cooking dreams and advertise their food on a small budget. It allows each vendor to be creative and experiment with different ways of improving business and creating their own signature dishes. Fernandez’s most recent creation is the featured “bomb” special which includes brisket, chili, and cheese topped with an over-easy fried egg served between two toasty burger buns. It may not appeal to those looking to run a marathon anytime soon, but the taste factor is what she strives to achieve with her creativity.
But Fernandez’s creativity extends beyond food. She has been painting for over 20 years, and her passion for art influences her cooking style appeal. She battles the ability to keep enough energy going to succeed at both her passions, and said she sometimes works 60 hours a week with no time off. In fact, she has an art exhibit coming up this month in Austin that requires her to submit at least five paintings to showcase. The demand for her landscape paintings of cars and houses is becoming as popular as the art of her Chili recipe. It can be a struggle to keep the balance, but she has accepted the challenges and strives to do even more in the future.
“I love working with Ana because it’s more of a friendship and we balance each other out with our personalities,” said Rene Pena, who works as Fernandez’s assistant. Pena is looking to go to culinary school in hopes of getting into restaurant management as her passion for cooking leads her to her future career. She got the Chili Queen job by responding to Fernandez’s ad on Craigslist, and the rest is history.
When asked what she wanted people to think of when they hear the name Chili Queens, Fernandez smiled and said that she would like people to remember the original Chili Queen, who began in the 1800′s and continued until the 1940′s; she feels that it’s important for people to remember and pay homage to the women who did this for so long.
Fernandez has been able to utilize social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook as well as word of mouth to get people to try her authentic chili dishes. There have already been a couple of local articles in the San Antonio paper about her, and even an upcoming special to air on the travel channel which will feature her truck. Fernandez has even toyed with the idea of taking the food truck on a road tour.