Mama Margie is a real San Antonio woman full of recipes, history and warmth

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SSince 1993, the smiling face of the cartoon Mama Margie has warmly greeted San Anton residents looking for a quick bite to start their day or exuberant after-hours crowds looking for comfort food to end the night. The 89-cent bean and cheese signs of the early 2000s looked like a “Welcome Home” sign on Military Drive and the feel of free fries and salsa for all is like a token push from grandma who never think you’ve had enough to eat. Being around the real Mama Margie, real name Margarita Abonce, also feels a lot like home.

Yes, she is real. The “Mama Margie” caricatures have been a staple of San Antonio iconography, inspiring costumes and merchandise, since the 1990s. Although the logo looks a lot like Abonce, it fails to capture the vibrant woman of 76 years old who sits in front of me, sparkling and smiling in her Sunday best. Her earrings swing back and forth, highlighting each of her laughs, and there are plenty as she introduces me to her daughter Claudia Silva and granddaughter Jocelyn Silva. Although her outfit is the opposite of the work outfit she wears in the logo, her lipstick-rimmed smile matches.

“I never leave home without lipstick or my perfume,” she tells me.

Margarita Abonce always stops by her local Mama Margie’s, where tours turn into celebrity sightings.

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

The Making of Mama Margie


AAfter a few seconds of chatting with the local icon, I understand why her motherly nature was Mike Stehling’s inspiration for his solo concept following his split from Taco Cabana, which he founded with his brother Felix in San Antonio in the 1970s.

Abonce tells me that she came to the United States from Allende, Coahuila, Mexico when she was a few months before she turned 15. She started cooking at age 10 to help her mother raise her siblings. Creating meals for his family – and eventually the town – to gather together has been a proud feeling for Abonce ever since. When she arrived in the United States, she looked for a few job opportunities, such as babysitting and working in various taquerias. As a mother, she looked for a job that would allow her to work in the morning and leave in time to spend the afternoon with her husband, Jose Luis Abonce, and their eight children: Teresa A. Carielo, Jose Luis Abonce Jr., Angeles A Pena, Miguel Abonce, Carlos Abonce, Rumy Abonce, Claudia Silva and Bibiana A. Morales.

A friend connected her with the Stehling brothers in the 1970s. The sibling entrepreneurs were about to launch Taco Cabana and were looking for a cook who could create a menu of California-inspired Mexican cuisine. Abonce told the brothers that she didn’t know much about California cuisine, but she could do magic with $20. As part of the hiring process, she cooked a meal for the Stehling family. It was a Mexican plate with enchiladas, a crispy taco, rice and beans that won him the job and cemented his place in San Antonio food history.

On September 21, 1978, Abonce was part of the founding team that opened Taco Cabana on San Pedro and Hildebrand. After nine years, the brothers decided to separate. By then, Taco Cabana had grown to six or seven locations, Abonce says. She calls Mike a “partner” and a “right hand”, with whom she had a closer relationship. The couple remain close friends. She also decided to leave Taco Cabana and help Mike Stehling with his new restaurant. Abonce said she was initially surprised that Mike Stehling wanted to base the concept of her new restaurant on her image.

“Because all employees always look to you for advice,” Abonce tells him.

She laughs remembering the first time she saw the cartoon version of herself sandwiched by “Mama” and “Margies” on the sign at the first location at the corner of Zarazamora and SW Military Drive.

Margarita Abonce first helped open Taco Cabana's in San Antonio in the 1970s.

Margarita Abonce first helped open Taco Cabana’s in San Antonio in the 1970s.

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

“I feel happy because I’ve helped a lot of people,” she said in tears. “I’m still involved, I think emotionally, because everyone still calls me.”

After helping the brand move its current Southside location to 7335 Zarzamora Street and adding the Wurzbach outpost, Abonce retired at 62. Now 76, she says she is still in restaurants. We visit the Wurzbach Mama Margie’s and while the young employees don’t realize that the original Mama Margie is standing in front of them, some of the staff stop to say “hi”.

Claudia Silva says the family recently celebrated an anniversary on the location’s patio. When the employees discovered the real mom Margie was in the house, they stopped by her table to meet her. Some asked him to bless their uniforms with his signature.

“I’m proud of my mother,” says Claudia Silva. “I always show it.”

While Claudia Silva always snaps a photo of her mom’s kitchen to post on social media, she says Abonce isn’t flashy about being San Antonio’s “mom.” Also, being a mother figure to the town is inherent to Abonce, it was never something she did for praise. All three generations become emotional as they reflect on the years Abonce spent in his role. As a restaurant chef, she provided opportunities for countless newcomers to San Antonio who shared her same journey from Mexico.

Margarita Abonce with her daughter Claudia Silva (left) and granddaughter Jocelyn Silva (right) outside Mama Margie's location in Wurzbach.

Margarita Abonce with her daughter Claudia Silva (left) and granddaughter Jocelyn Silva (right) outside Mama Margie’s location in Wurzbach.

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

Hay comida en la casa

AAt home, the family is concentrated around Abonce. If she’s not playing the lottery with her friends, she cooks for her family. Before the pandemic, gatherings totaled 80 people, including his 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Abonce takes care of all the cooking, so the family only has to bring their appetites and drinks.

Christmas at the Abonce means adding more places to the table. The group steps in to make chorizo ​​and egg tacos, champurrado, and pan dulce to donate to the homeless.

We’re not talking about love languages, but it’s clear that acts of service are Abonce’s way of showing her warmth. She beams thinking about the food she cooked for her siblings growing up, like a trial-and-error recipe for entomatadas. Or the time she spent teaching Silva how to make carne guisada. Or his favorite, tamales at Christmas. She makes a list of types of tamal she can’t wait to make: beans and jalapeno, chicken, etc. For the record, she doesn’t approve of ketchup on tamales.

“I love to cook, I love it,” she says.

Felix Stehling, the owner of Taco Cabana, and Margie Abonce, the restaurant chain's kitchen manager in a photo dated April 29, 1986. Stehling, who ran the chain with several of his siblings, made it public later, then was retired from the business in 1994. Abonce went to work for several of Stehling's siblings at Mama Margie's, a restaurant with two locations named after her.  File photo.
Felix Stehling, the owner of Taco Cabana, and Margie Abonce, the restaurant chain’s kitchen manager in a photo dated April 29, 1986. Stehling, who ran the chain with several of his siblings, made it public later, then was retired from the business in 1994. Abonce went to work for several of Stehling’s siblings at Mama Margie’s, a restaurant with two locations named after her. File photo.SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS FILE PH

A lasting legacy

Mama Margie’s always uses her recipes, so it’s easy for her to trust the restaurant to do the cooking on the rare occasions when she doesn’t prepare food. She likes the carne guisada with yellow cheese. Claudia Silva opts for chicken fajita quesadillas on corn tortillas. Jocelyn Silva says “you can’t go wrong” with bean and cheese tacos.

As we gather at the Wurzbach location over the feast of tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, sides, and queso (or “quesito” as the family calls it), Abonce chooses a side of the table that gives her a full view of the dining room.

“Never turn your back on the enemy,” she jokes.

Although retired from her role at the restaurant, Abonce keeps a watchful eye on the operation as we eat. She sips her drip coffee, which she says is the best in San Antonio, while watching customers replenish condiments at the salsa bar and employee bus tables. It is maternal guidance that has created a nearly 30-year tradition in San Antonio.

“Inside the restaurant, it has always been a family. Its employees have always been treated like family,” says Claudia Silva. “Yet they are still a priority.”

Abonce says family members living in Chicago have tried to convince her to move and live there in the past. Aunts, uncles, and cousins ​​told her she could make more money because Mexican food was more expensive there. She doesn’t know how it would have happened, but she’s convinced she belongs here.

“But I love San Antonio,” she says. “I want to tell you stories you wouldn’t even believe, but the only thing I know is that I’m loved.”

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