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

Since 1993, the smiling face of the cartoon Mama Margie has warmly welcomed San Antonians searching for a quick bite to start their day or rambunctious after-hours crowds in need of comfort food to end the night. The 89-cent bean and cheese signs of the early 2000s were like a “welcome home” sign on Military Drive and the free-for-all chips and salsa feel are like a symbolic push from the grandma who never thinks you’ve had enough to eat. Being around the true Mama Margie, real name Margarita Abonce, feels a lot like home, too.

Yes, she’s real. The caricatures of “Mama Margie” 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 in capturing the vibrant, 76-year-old that sits before me, sparkling and smiling in her Sunday best. Her drop earrings swing back-and-forth, emphasizing each of her laughs, and there are a lot as she introduces me to her daughter Claudia Silva and granddaughter Jocelyn Silva. Though her outfit is the complete opposite of the work attire she’s wearing in the logo, her red lipstick-rimmed smile matches.

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

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

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

The making of Mama Margie


HASfter a few seconds of chatting with the local icon, I can see why her motherly nature was the inspiration Mike Stehling drew upon for his solo concept after separating from Taco Cabana, which he founded with his brother Felix in San Antonio in the 1970s.

Abonce tells me that she came to the US from Allende, Coahuila, Mexico, when she was a few months shy of turning 15. She started cooking at 10 years old to help her mother raise her siblings. Creating meals for her family — and eventually the city — to gather around has been a sense of pride for Abonce ever since. When she arrived in the US, she shopped a few job opportunities, like baby sitting and working at various taquerias. As a mom, she searched for work that would allow her to work 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 connected her with the Stehling brothers in the 1970s. The sibling entrepreneurs were on the brink of launching Taco Cabana and were looking for a cook who could create a Mexican food menu inspired by California. Abonce told the brothers she didn’t know much about California cooking, 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 with enchiladas, a crispy taco, rice, and beans that got her the job and cemented her spot 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,” who she had a closer relationship to. The pair remain close friends. She decided to also leave Taco Cabana and help Mike Stehling on his new restaurant. Abonce said she was initially surprised that Mike Stehling wanted to base the concept of his new restaurant on her image.

“Because all of the employees are always looking to you for advice,” Abonce says he told her.

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 across San Antonio in the 1970s.

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

Madalyn Mendoza, MySA.com

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

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

Claudia Silva says the family recently celebrated a birthday on the patio of the location. When employees found out the true Mama Margie was in the house, they stopped by her table to meet her. Some asked her to bless their uniforms with her signature.

“I’m proud of my mom,” Claudia Silva says. “I’m always showing 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 “mama.” Besides, being a motherly figure to the city is inherent to Abonce, it was never something she did for praise. The three generations get emotional when reflecting on the years Abonce spent in her role. As a restaurant leader, she provided opportunities for countless newcomers to San Antonio who shared her 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

HASt home, family centers around Abonce. If she’s not playing loteria with her friends, she’s cooking for her family. Before the pandemic, gatherings would total 80 people, including her 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Abonce handles all the cooking, so all the family has to bring is their appetites and drinks.

Christmas at the Abonce’s house means adding more seats to the table. The group pitches in to make chorizo ​​and egg tacos, champurrado, and pan dulce to give to houseless people.

We don’t talk about love languages, but it’s clear acts of service are how Abonce shows 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’s spent teaching Silva how to make carne guisada. Or her favorite, tamales during Christmas. She rattles off a list of tamal types that she looks forward to making: bean and jalapeno, chicken, and more. For the record, she does not 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 director in a photo dated April 29, 1986. Stehling, who ran the chain with several of his siblings, later took it public and then was eased out of the business in 1994. Abonce went to work for several of Stehling's siblings at Mama Margie's, a restaurant with two locations that are named after her.  Photo file.
Felix Stehling, the owner of Taco Cabana, and Margie Abonce, the restaurant chain’s kitchen director in a photo dated April 29, 1986. Stehling, who ran the chain with several of his siblings, later took it public and then was eased out of the business in 1994. Abonce went to work for several of Stehling’s siblings at Mama Margie’s, a restaurant with two locations that are named after her. Photo file.SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS FILE PH

A lasting legacy

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