Throwback Thursday: Origins of Chili Queens, how women helped create Tex-Mex food

SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Chili Queens was a group of women who brought flavor and spice to the San Antonio food scene for nearly 100 years.

“We're known for great Tex-Mex food and margaritas but there's actually a lot of history to it,” said Carino Cortez, third generation of La Familia Cortez.

The history can be traced directly to the Chili Queens, an enterprising group of women who drew crowds to taste their delicious food at Plaza de Armas and other downtown locations.

The Chili Queens started to set up their stands in the 1850s. The food they made is considered to be one of the first transitions from traditional Mexican food to what we know now as Tex-Mex.

“These families used to have these kettles over open wood fires, and each one had a different kind of chili con carne,” said Cortez.

The chili con carne became the most popular dish, but different dishes such as mole and other chili-based stews were cooked from sunrise to sunset.

A traditional custom would be for the daughters of the families to go out to the crowds and convince farmers, city workers or military members to come to their food stands over the others.

“People always remember Chili Queens as being very enchanting, fiery, feisty,” said Cortez.

In the 1900s, the Chili Queens moved to Market Square and introduced different tastes and ingredients to their food. The Chili Queens began to use cheddar cheese, which led to another San Antonio food staple.

“When you have the classic cheese enchiladas in San Antonio, which you can't really find amazing ones anywhere else, that's really where it started,” said Cortez.

The Chili Queens stands closed in the early 1940s due to changes in the city’s health codes, but the tradition started by these pioneering women continues today with food trucks tasting events across the Alamo City.

“We have all these vendors that come on the weekends and Market Square and they sell their different specialties,” said Cortez. “We still see that same cultural tradition carried over today.”

About the Authors:

RJ Marquez is co-host of KSAT News Now and reports for Good Morning San Antonio. He's been at KSAT since 2010 and covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms, including his Spurs newsletter. RJ has reported stories for KSAT Explains.

Valerie Gomez is the lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. Before starting at KSAT in 2017, she worked as a video editor for KENS 5 and KVUE in Austin. She graduated from Texas State University in 2013 with a bachelor's in mass communication and is a product of SAISD and the South Side of San Antonio. She loves Jeff Goldblum.