Walking through the front doors into Sylvia’s Grand Amis cafe' at 807 Hutchins avenue in Ballinger is like walking into a café in a French or Italian village. Having traveled extensively in Europe over the years, the little café with a big heart gives me the feeling that I’ve walked back in time. The furniture is brightly colored and inspirational messages are written in chalk along chalkboards mounted to the wall around the dining room. The entrance to the café is set back 12’ from the sidewalk and that’s where the experience and inspirational messages begin, “Someone else is happy with less than what you have.”
Sylvia and Victor Amezcua originally opened Sylvia’s in Ballinger at the “Y” in 2009. They moved the café to its current location on Hutchins in 2013. Sylvia is a self-taught chef and credits her mother-in-law, Carmen, with teaching her the intricacies of cooking, “She taught me a lot about cooking because she’d cook for my uncles and it was always big meals.”
Amezcua says that the plan for the café design and ambience came from Europe, “We went to France, Germany, Belgium and Spain. We visited a lot of the little towns and cafés and brought a little bit from all of them and put it here.”
The restaurant name is French for, “Great Friends,” and that is the signature of the café: friendship and great food. The food isn’t standard Mexican-American food; most of it is Italian and French. The food is authentic, as Amezcua points out, “I make all of my own pastas, soups, dressings, marinara sauce and other sauces here. I don’t buy them premade.” The kitchen has a spice rack that would impress even the most finicky European chef. It’s a simple kitchen, the same as the ones you find in those small cafés dotted across central southern Europe. Amezcua has one stove where she prepares her soups and sauces, but she’s blended the kitchen with technology by using Nuwave infrared cookers, “I use those because the food comes out perfect.”
When the café first opened, it was mainly friends that came in for a meal, “It all started with my church. A lot of my friends would come in here and have a meal. I really enjoyed that, and still do.”
Entering the café feels like you’ve walked into Amezcua’s home. It has an intimate ambience that is inviting and soothing. But, with incredible food that is a sampling of Europe, the dishes are anything but simple. The daily specials range from “Creamy chicken in white wine sauce,” to Butter Garlic Chicken Breast. Other specials have included “Baked crack chicken”, Zucchini Parmesan, Roasted pork tenderloin with cauliflower rice and chicken gnocchi. The specials run the gamut of flavor from both European and Mexican culture. Chicken with mustard cream sauce, Sriracha green beans, French onion chicken, sausage pasta soup and quite possibly the best Chicken Marsala that you will find this side of the Atlantic. The soups alone are worth stopping in the café for a meal. The Zuppa Tuscana tastes like it was made in a Tuscan grandmother’s home. Other scratch-made soups have been Ginger Carrot soup, French Onion Soup (real French Onion Soup), sausage-tomato tortellini soup and some of the most fantastic Leek-Tomato Soup that will ever pass between your gums. The daily lunch specials are written on a chalkboard with the price. The price includes tax so you know exactly how much your meal is going to cost you. While the meals might have European flare, they have wallet-friendly prices, usually not costing more than $10-$12. That is money well-spent considering that everything is homemade. Once you eat Amezcua’s tender homemade pasta, you’ll never again look at dried pasta in a package on a store shelf without cringing.
Most of the specials are chicken but they also include pork or beef from time to time. The reason being is that Amezcua focuses on healthy food, in healthy portions, “This restaurant doesn’t not serve any fried food. It’s all baked. I don’t even serve bacon. People with diabetes eat here and I’ve had doctors suggest to their patients that they eat here. We want to serve good, healthy food that people enjoy. The proper portions go in-line with the healthy food.” It’s a nice alternative to the “super size me” generation type restaurant fare, where they want to stuff as much food in you as possible, for the cheapest price possible. Amezcua says that her customers make it all worthwhile, “It’s satisfying to see people eating here and enjoying themselves. To my husband and I, this restaurant is like home.”
The menu isn’t extensive and that’s because it’s kept simple for a reason, “I’ve noticed that people don’t like too many choices. We keep it simple.” But, the dishes that they make are executed to perfection.
One of the favorite items that they serve at the café is Strawberry-Spinach salad, “You can get chicken on it as well.” Don’t forget the homemade dressing that Amezcua makes in her kitchen each day.
The inspiration for her food comes from a place where most great endeavors begin, “The inspiration comes from my dreams. Sometimes I’ll wake up after having dreamt about a food and that will be the special for that day.”
The Amezcua family found their way here when their son joined the Air Force, “We lived in Phoenix when our son joined the Air Force. He was stationed at Dyess Air Force base so we moved to Abilene. We lived in Abilene for about 6 months and sold our home to our son. My husband was a truck driver and drove through Ballinger on one of his trips. He told me about the town and we decided to move here and we’ve been here ever since.” The Amezcuas also have 2 adult daughters, Patricia and Amanda, who live in Austin, “One thing my husband and I enjoy is that our kids don’t have to worry about us. We’re both retired and in good health and we’ve both been blessed.”
Being right on the main highway through town, Amezcua can watch the world go by outside of her front window, “Being here, watching everything go by, makes me feel safe, it makes me feel at home. I love it. I love it when my friends and customers come in and it’s a great, peaceful feeling.” It’s obvious that the restaurant is an extension of Amezcua’s own warm personality and her compassion for others.
Another popular item at that café are the crepes, made from scratch and served with fresh whipped cream and various fresh fruits. Amezcua is also studying other foods such as Indian food and Thai food, and will eventually add some of those foods to the menu.
The question of how a restaurant that serves such great, homemade food, can serve it at the inexpensive prices that they do is easily answered by Amezcua, “It works because we own the place. We don’t have to pay rent or a lease.”
The care for her customers doesn’t end when they get up from the table. On a small table in a corner of the room sit 2 metal pails with wooden rabbits behind them. Amezcua says that the pails have a unique purpose, “One pail has pieces of paper with inspirational quotes handwritten on each one The other pail is also filled with inspirational quotes, but there is a catch: The way it works is that you take a piece of paper with a quote from one pail and then you write an inspirational quote of your own on another piece of paper and put it in the other pail.”
Those 2 pails sum up Sylvia’s Gran Amis perfectly, people helping people. The food is great; it’s healthy; it’s properly portioned but most of all, it’s made with genuine warmth, care and compassion for others.
Sylvia’s Gran Amis is open Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. The phone number is 325-284-3666. They also have a Facebook page with their daily specials: https://www.facebook.com/Sylvias.Ballinger.TX/