“your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Oblique Strategy: Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them
I don’t eat Tex-Mex food very often. I’ve lived in Texas so long I’m, well… kinda over it. The only time I eat Tex-Mex is when someone is in from out of town. My son is here for the Dallas Marathon this weekend and he wanted some – so we go.
Every neighborhood in Dallas has its own Tex-Mex spot (and its Pho place, and its Barbeque joint, and its greasy burger dive…) and in ours it’s Amigos. I don’t know if Tex-Mex can be called “comfort food” because you can be pretty uncomfortable if you eat too much of it.
One big knock on Tex-Mex is that it isn’t authentic Mexican food. Well, of course it isn’t. Have you ever even been to Mexico? It’s a big, diverse place – there’s no reason that food from the high Sonoran desert would even resemble the seafood from the Yucatan. Mexico’s culinary style and history is more like France’s – very complex and diverse.
Tex-Mex is a regional American cuisine… which happens to be inspired by some of the cooking that came across the Rio Grande.
You can tell you are eating Tex-Mex by the ingredients – stuff that isn’t (or wasn’t) very common in Mexico. These ingredients are: beef, yellow cheese (like cheddar), wheat flour, black beans, canned vegetables (especially tomatoes), and cumin.
Cumin – the main and essential ingredient in Chili Powder – is an interesting example. It’s not a traditional Mexican spice – it’s Indian. Canary Islanders were brought to San Antonio by the Spanish to try to expand the colonization of Texas. The Canary Islanders brought with them a Berber flavor signature — Moroccan food. There was a lot of cumin, garlic and chili, and those flavors, which are really dominant in chili con carne, became the flavor signature of Tex-Mex. It’s very different from Mexican food. Food Critic Diana Kennedy is prone to say that Tex-Mex includes way too much cumin. But if you compare it to Arab food, you suddenly understand where that flavor signature comes from.
ESSENTIAL TEX-MEX FOODS
Nachos might’ve been invented in Mexico by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, but it was only because a bunch of Texan ladies flocked to his restaurant after-hours and asked for a snack. The versions you see around the country today, frequently doused with molten, yellow cheese, are very American.
CHILI CON CARNE
Considered by many to be the quintessential Tex-Mex dish, this tomatoey stew of ground or cubed beef, beans (if you’re not a tried-and-true Texan), spices, chili peppers, and other accoutrements is very much a gringo invention, created by Texan settlers out of widely available ingredients. Actually, it’s based on Northern Native American recipes. Not Mexican.
Derived from the Spanish word “faja” — meaning “strip” (which refers to the cut of beef they used) — fajitas are wholly a US creation (first mentioned in print in 1971) inspired and informed by the ingredients of Mexico, but not usually found in that country.
PRETTY MUCH ANY “MEXICAN” RESTAURANT FOOD IN AMERICA
Queso dip, chimichangas, the enchilada as we know it… you name it, it’s been Americanized. But that’s not to say that it isn’t still delicious.
THREE CITIES, THREE HISTORIES
When you look at the modern history of Tex-Mex, you get completely different stories from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Each one, of course, claims to be the place where Tex-Mex was invented, perfected, and popularized. They are all three right, and all three wrong.
San Antonio is the closest city to the border and the area that contributed the “Mex” part of the cuisine. It also added the “Combination Plate” to the menu.
An Illustrated History of Tex-Mex
How chili queens from San Antonio and the rise of the combo plate shaped Mexican food’s evolution across the border.
The cuisine grew out of the Rio Grande Valley but came into its own in San Antonio. “In the 1870s, chili queens in San Antonio started becoming nationally and internationally famous. That’s when Tex-Mex started getting on the map of Americans in earnest. From then on, every decade has had a monument to Tex-Mex.”
The growing fame of the chili queens helped San Antonio establish its enduring reputation as the capital of Tex-Mex cuisine.
Dallas seems to be the birthplace of the kings of Tex-Mex restaurant empires. Tex-Mex is primarily a restaurant cuisine, seldom made at home. Everyone in Dallas knows El Fenix, El Chico, and, more recently Mi Concina.
Miguel Martinez opened the first Mexican restaurant in Dallas, in 1918. When he opens “Martinez Café” (now El Fenix) he offers only Anglo-American dishes. He develops a new style integrating Mexican flare and offers these dishes to guests, asking for their feedback. Their input was instrumental in perfecting his culinary experimentation and Tex-Mex was born.
In 1928, Adelaida “Mama” Cuellar opened Cuellar’s Cafe in Kaufman. Four of her sons moved to Dallas in 1940 and opened the first El Chico. These two families laid the foundation for Dallas’ flavor profile.
Lard-laden combination plates changed forever once Mico Rodriguez and his partners opened the first Mi Cocina in the Preston Forest Shopping Center in 1991. Rodriguez refined the Tex-Mex experience by using quality ingredients such as expensive cheddar cheese and fresh jalapeños and cilantro.
Houston has an equal claim, including Ninfa’s and the development of the fajita.
The Houston Version of Things:
A six part series – a different history of Tex-Mex…