General

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

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

sSince 1993, the smiling face of the cartoon Mama Margie has welcomed San Antonians looking for a quick bite to start their day or boisterous after-hours crowds in need of comfort food to end the night. The 89 cent bean and cheese plates from the early 2000s were like a “welcome home” sign on Military Drive and the free chips and salsa feeling is like a token push from the grandma who never thinks you’ve had enough had food. Being around the real Mama Margie, real name Margarita Abonce, also feels very much 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. While the logo looks a lot like Abonce, it falls short of capturing the vivacious, 76-year-old sitting in front of me, sparkly and smiling in her Sunday outfit. Her earrings wave back and forth highlighting each of her smiles, and there are many when she introduces me to her daughter Claudia Silva and granddaughter Jocelyn Silva. Although her outfit is the opposite of the work clothes she wears in the logo, her red lipstick smile matches it.

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

Margarita Abonce still stops by her local Mama Margie’s, where visits turn into celebrity spotting.

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

Making Mama Margie


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

Abonce tells me she came to the US from Allende, Coahuila, Mexico when she was shy of turning 15 for a few months. She started cooking at the age of 10 to help her mother raise her siblings. Since then, it’s been a sense of pride for Abonce to cook meals for her family — and ultimately the city — to get together. When she arrived in the US, she bought a few jobs such as babysitting and working at various taquerias. As a mother, she sought work that would allow her to work in the mornings and be off in time to spend the afternoons 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 introduced her to the Stehling brothers in the 1970s. About to launch Taco Cabana, the siblings were looking for a chef who could create a Mexican menu inspired by California. Abonce told the brothers she didn’t know much about cooking in California, but she could make magic with $20. As a step in the hiring process, she cooked a meal for the Stehling family. It was a Mexican plate of enchiladas, a crunchy taco, rice, and beans that landed her the job and cemented her 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. At that point, Taco Cabana had grown to six or seven locations, Abonce says. She calls Mike a “partner” and “right-hand man” with whom she had a closer relationship. The couple remain good friends. She also decided to leave Taco Cabana and help Mike Stehling in his new restaurant. Abonce said he was initially surprised that Mike Stehling wanted to base the concept of his new restaurant on her image.

“Because all employees are always looking to you for advice,” Abonce tells her.

She laughs when she thinks back to the first time she saw the cartoon version of herself sandwiched between “Mama” and “Margies” on the sign at the first location on the corner of Zarazamora and SW Military Drive.

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

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

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

“I feel happy because I’ve helped a lot of people,” she says through tears. “I’m still involved, I think emotionally, because everyone from there is still calling me.”

After helping the brand move its current Southside location to 7335 Zarzamora Street and add the Wurzbach outpost, Abonce retired at age 62. She is now 76 and says she is still in the restaurants. We visit the Wurzbach Mama Margie’s and while younger staff don’t realize the original Mama Margie is in front of them, some of the staff stop to say ‘hello’.

Claudia Silva says the family recently celebrated a birthday on the site’s terrace. When employees found out that the real Mama Margie was in the house, they stopped at her table to meet her. Some asked her to bless their uniforms with her signature.

“I am proud of my mother,” says Claudia Silva. “I always show her off.”

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

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

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

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

Hay comida en la casa

At house, family centers around Abonce. When she’s not playing lottery with her friends, she cooks for her family. Before the pandemic, there were a total of 80 people, including her 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Abonce takes care of all the cooking, so all the family needs to bring is their appetite and drinks.

Christmas at Abonce’s house means adding more chairs to the table. The group helps make chorizo ​​and egg tacos, champurrado and pan dulce to give to homeless people.

We’re not talking love languages, but it’s clear that Abonce shows her warmth through service. She glows when she thinks of the food she cooked for her siblings growing up, like a recipe for entomatadas with trial and error. Or the time she spends teaching Silva how to make carne guisada. Or her favorite, tamales at Christmas. She rattles off a list of tamal types she’d like to make: beans and jalapeno, chicken, and more. For the record, she doesn’t approve of ketchup on tamales.

“I love cooking, I love it,” she says.

Felix Stehling, the owner of Taco Cabana, and Margie Abonce, the restaurant chain's kitchen director in a photo taken April 29, 1986. Stehling, who ran the chain with several of his siblings, later made it public and was then relaxed from the company 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 director in a photo taken April 29, 1986. Stehling, who ran the chain with several of his siblings, later made it public and was then relaxed from the company 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