The Chili Queens of San Antonio
The queens stood in the glare of the lanterns night after night and helped to make San Antonio famous as a quaint and romantic city.
Frank H. Bushick
Chili is for lovers. The spices in chili con carne will not only enflame the passions of your palette, if the stories of old are to be believed, it will also ignite your romantic passions. Of course, the stories of chili being serve up as an aphrodisiac are always set during sultry and star-lit nights in old San Antonio. Mariachi music purrs on the puff of a breeze. The allure of dark-eye beauties move in and out of lantern light, laughing and flirting with customers over steaming dishes of tamales and enchiladas, and fiery bowls of chili con carne. William Sydney Porter, writing under the pen name O. Henry, captured the romance of an evening spent with these enchantresses, known as the Chili Queens, in his short story, “The Enchanted Kiss.”
Their nightly encampment upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land. Then the caterers numbered hundred; the patrons thousands. Drawn by the coquettish señoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night. Travelers, rancheros, family parties, gay gasconading rounders, sight-seers and prowlers of polyglot, owlish San Antone mingled there at the center of the city’s fun and frolic. The popping of corks, pistols and questions; the glitter of eyes, jewels and daggers; the ring of laughter and coin—these were the order of the night.
The order of the night was not only to flirt with “coquettish señoritas,” it was also to consume “delectable chili con carne . . . a compound full of singular savor and a fiery zest.”
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Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, didn’t share Porter’s passion for chili. During a visit to San Antonio in the 1890s, he wrote, “upon one of the plazas Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like punted fire-brick from Hades—chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles.” His distaste for chili not withstanding, Crane too was smitten by the seduction of spending an evening with the Chili Queens: “In the soft atmosphere of the southern night, the cheap glass bottles upon the stands shine like crystal and lamps glow with a tender radiance. A hum of conversation ascends from the strolling visitors who are at their social shrine.”
By the time Porter and Crane were passing through San Antonio, the Chili Queens were in their heyday. But their origin remains a mystery. Some say it reaches back to 1731, when the Canary Islanders (or Isleños) first immigrated to San Antonio de Béxar. They settled in what is today known as La Villita, along the banks of the San Antonio River, not far from the Alamo. Their cuisine contained copious amounts of ground cumin—comino molido—garlic, onions, and chilies. In Béxar, the Isleños women reportedly made a “spicy stew” with these ingredients and chunks of beef, cooked outdoors in traditional copper kettles and served in earthenware dishes, resembling Moroccan tagines, which was then shared with soldiers and visitors at sundown.
Others, however, believe the first Chili Queen was sixteen-year-old Jesusita de la Torres. According to San Antonio: An Authoritative Guide to the City and Its Environs, in 1813, with the encouragement of her Creole husband, Louis St. Clare, Jesusita placed “a crude table and benches . . . outdoors upon the plaza . . . and served fiery Spanish food. . . . Thus, according to tradition, was born the portable outdoor Mexican restaurant later known as the chile stand.” The Guide went on to say that years later, “other women remembered the success of the eating place under the stars and continued the custom in San Antonio—where, until very recently, chile stands were a feature of the city’s Mexican quarter.”
Whatever the genesis of the Chili Queens, by the early 1860s chili stands were becoming an established feature in San Antonio. In 1862 a rowdy group of Confederate soldiers got into an altercation in Military Plaza and upset a number of food stands. Tamales were mentioned by name in the official damage report, along with “stews,” a common descriptor at the time of chili con carne. By 1895 the Chili Queens were fully operational, setting up large wooden planks, some ten feet long, on sawhorses and covering them with red and white-checkered oilcloth or other vibrantly colored tablecloths. These makeshift tables were decorated with vases of paper flowers and lit by laundry lamps. To lure customers, Chili Queens hired musicians to perform at their stands. Customers sat on benches and ate picnic style. “Life-giving chili,” as Porter called it, was prepared at home and carted or wagoned to a plaza where it percolated in earthen cazuelas or cast-iron pots over mesquite cook fires. It was served in red clay bowls. Condiments of oregano and chopped onions were placed in clay dishes along the tables. A bowl of chili con carne, tortillas—frijoles on the side, if you wanted beans—and water or coffee sold for ten cents. Tamales and enchiladas were also available.
Lively and colorful conversation with the Queen of the stand was free of charge. Virtually all were young and pretty. As such, they “liked to joke, banter, and flirt with customers,” who were mostly male. But nothing hotter than chili passed between these young women and their male patrons. According to one historian, “they were well chaperoned by family members who guarded their virtue.” This isn’t to say the Chili Queens didn’t use their beauty to earn more in tips than the price of the meal. The Wisconsin Stevens Point Daily Journal reported that an anonymous tourist paid for his meal with a five dollar bill, expecting change in return. The Queen feigned trouble counting out the change, to which the tourist said, “‘You needn’t mind that if—’” Before he could finish his sentence, she responded: “‘You mean you want to make me a present?’ She tucks the bill in her bosom, and gives the tourist a fond look . . . and squeezes his hand in bidding him goodby.”
The tourist was a northerner, arriving in San Antonio by rail, which had connected the Alamo City with the wider United States in the 1880s. Exotic stories of the Chili Queens appeared in Midwestern newspapers, like the Stevens Point Daily Journal, leading to a surge in tourism. The Mexican Quarter became one of the most popular and exiting late night destination in the country. And chili con carne and the Chili Queens were at the center of it all. “When the northern tourist used to strike the town,” the Wisconsin paper reported, “the first things the patriotic citizen who was doing the honors [of showing the tourist around] would proudly steer him up against would be the Alamo plaza chili stand, with its attendant divinity, the far famed chili queen. . . . This was in the late eighties, the palmy days of the chili queens, when their fame had spread to the larger northern cities. Some very musical verse about them had appeared in the magazines, and in the newspaper sketches they were idolized as stunning creatures, with the rich, brown skin of the tropics and the languorous grace and bewitching black eyes of Spanish donnas.”
Alamo Plaza wasn’t the only place where a tourist, or a local, could find the Chili Queens. Chili stands were first located in the Laredito barrio area, situated on the edge of the red light district. In time, chili stands dominated Market Square, Military Plaza, as well as Alamo Plaza. Then later, according to Frank Bushick, after “Mayor [Brian] Callaghan spoiled [Military Plaza] by erecting in the middle of it a city hall copied from a German castle,” Haymarket Plaza and Milam Park became popular sites for chili stands.
Most of the Chili Queens were of Hispanic descent—Martha, a celebrated Queen, Rosa, Jovita, and Josefina, just to name a few. But not all Chili Queens were Tejanas. There was at least one of German descent and one of Irish descent. And “the acknowledged queen of all the queens was a blonde American girl, Sadie,” who is described by one writer as ravishing, vivacious, and with an “aptitude at repartee.”
Throughout the years, chili stands came and went, closed by the city only to reopen due to public outcry. But by 1939, in the face of increasing regulations, the number of stands began a steady decline. By 1943 the reign of the Chili Queens came to a sudden end when city officials claimed dishwashing was unsanitary.
Thinking back on the glory days of the Chili Queens a reporter for the San Antonio Express wrote:
The rule of the chili queens presiding over the chili stands on the plazas was absolute.
Their tables were patronized by people of all walks of life. The banker touched elbows with the newsboy. The doctor sat by the farmer, the lawyer, judge and Sheriff sat next to the barber, the policeman and the porter.
Generally the chili queen reserved a seat near the center of the inner circle or bench for the newspaper reporter and the hackman, who were her particular protégés. The bootblack also belonged to the inner circle, to which sometimes the musician, the actor and the gambler was admitted, but most of the patrons, and especially the politicians, had to take seats on the outer edge of the table.
And Madame Garza’s stand “was frequented by pimps, gamblers, and courtesans, as well as the best people,” giving folks from both sides of the tracks an opportunity to build community over a bowl of chili.
And who couldn’t love that?
Frank H. Bushick, Glamorous Days in Old San Antonio: A Never-to-Be-Forgotten City (San Antonio: The Naylor Company, 1934).
W. C. Jameson, Chili from the Southwest: Fixin’s, Flavors, and Folklore (Lanham: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005).
Frank W. Jennings, “Popular Chili Queens Grace San Antonio Plazas,” Journal of Life and Culture in San Antonio.
William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), “The Enchanted Kiss,” The Metropolitan Magazine (February 1904)
The San Antonio Express, as quoted by Mark Pusateri, “Chili Queens at the Alamo,” Texas History email, October 13, 2022.
San Antonio: An Authoritative Guide to the City and Its Environs (n.p.: Clegg Company, 1938).
Stevens Point Daily Journal, November 3, 1897, as quoted in Robb Walsh, The Chili Cookbook.
Robb Walsh, The Chili Cookbook (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2015).