Texans have always loved Mexican food. This is not surprising if we consider that Texas was part of Mexico until 1836. After that time, Texas became part of the United States, but it never declared culinary independence from Mexico. Tex-Mex is one of the oldest cooking styles in the United States, and based on the number of restaurants that are opening every day from the Mexican border to the Canadian border it is safe to predict that it is here to stay. In recent years, new styles based on the same principles have been springing up, like Cal-Mex, New-Mex and Nuevo Tex-Mex as well as the more gourmet Southwestern cuisine.
The term Tex-Mex first appeared in print in the Forties referring to the language that is spoken on the border, which is called Spanglish today. It wasn’t until 1973 that Tex-Mex was used as a food term by The News, a Mexico City newspaper published in English, referring to the Mexican food served in the United States. It may have been intended as an insult, but the term was catchy and Americans loved it.
Tex-Mex restaurants have been around for a long time in the United States. This label implies that the food is a fusion of Texan and Mexican food. As this type of food gained popularity in the border states, cooks adapted the food to their tastes and to the ingredients available. The result was a new way of cooking which could be described as Mexican food adjusted to American tastes. The quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos and beans that appear in every Tex-Mex menu are versions of the Mexican classics using ingredients like processed American cheese, ground meat and spices that you would never find in an authentic Mexican restaurant. The menus read mostly like Mexican menus – chiles rellenos, tacos, sopa de tortilla, tamale – but the recipes and the ingredients used are definitely Texan. You will also find Tex-Mex creations like nachos, chile con queso, fajitas and chile con carne that are not even known south of the border.
The success of Tex-Mex restaurants is based on serving food that is spicy and colorful, full of flavor, fun to eat and not expensive. Tex-Mex is ice-cold beer cuisine, but tequila and Margaritas are also very popular drinks. It is interesting to see that even today there are many restaurants in Texas that deny they are Tex-Mex, although they serve the traditional foods identified with that cuisine. This is partly due to the fact that during the ‘70s some American chefs began to open restaurants featuring authentic Mexican cuisine, giving Tex-Mex a bad name as not being the real thing. It became a style of cooking that did not get any kind of respect. Some people equated Tex-Mex with junk food, while others considered it snack food. To make things worse, when healthy eating became a fad, Tex-Mex was considered too greasy and heavy, which led to a further decline.
In recent years, the food of Texas has been changing into a more creative and modern cuisine. Chefs like Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing have developed a Southwestern cuisine that uses traditional ingredients in a more sophisticated and lighter fashion. The latest addition to this more modern trend is Nuevo Tex-Mex. It focuses on fresh seasonal ingredients and products that are indigenous to Texas and Mexico. In the introduction to David Garrido’s book Nuevo Tex-Mex it is defined as Classic Tex-Mex using better, often more upscale ingredients like pheasant enchiladas or crabmeat quesadillas. Some things, however, will never change: a bowl of hot sauce and tortilla chips are the Texas equivalent to bread and butter. It is the first thing that is brought to the table, and even restaurants that label themselves as authentic Mexican have had to include this in their repertoire at the request of their customers, who consider it a must to munch on before the meal is brought to the table. After all, it was Tex-Mex that made picante sauce popular in the United States.
RECOMMENDED TEX-MEX RESTAURANTS IN TEXAS
Austin (area code 512)
Address: 2938 Guadalupe
Address: 2304 South 1st St
Rosie’s Tamale House No. 1
Address:13436 Texas 71 West
Address: o 1412 S. Congress Ave. o
Serrano’s Cafe & Cantina
Address: Symphony Sq., 1105 Red River St. Phone:(512) 322-9080
Beautiful setting in a small, historic complex saved by the Austin Symphony
Dallas (area code 214)
A.J. Gonzales’ Mexican Oven
Address: 703 McKinney Ave. (Record St.)
Phone: (214) 754-8070
JOE T. GARCIA’S
Address: 2201 N. Commerce St. (bet. N Main & 22nd Sts.)
Phone: (817) 626-4356
J. Pepe’s Tex-Mex Grill
Address: 3619 Greenville Avenue
Address: 5617 West Lovers Lane
Martin’s Cocina (vegetarian)
Address: 7726 Ferguson Rd.(Hasty St.)
Matt’s Rancho Martinez
Address: 6312 La Vista Dr. (Gaston Ave.)
El Paso (area code 915)
Address: Eastside at 10600 Montana at Yarbrough,
West side at 6232 N. Mesa near Sunland Park Drive
Address: Central at 226 Cincinnati (near UTEP)
West side at 4772 Doniphan (just south of Mesa and I-10)
Forti’s Mexican Elder Restaurant
Address: 321 Chelsea St.
Los Bandidos de Carlos & Mickey’s
Address: 1310 Magruder, just north of Montana,
Houston (area code 713)
Address: 6444 Westheimer (Hillcroft)
Address: 904 Westheimer (bet. Grant & Montrose)
Address: 4720 Almeda Rd. (Wentworth)
Address: 2555 Kirby Dr. (Westheimer)
San Antonio (area code 210)
Pico de Gallo
Address: 111 South Leona St (downtown)
Tomatillos Café and Cantina
Address: 3210 Broadway
Address: 120 Produce Row at Market Square
Home of the world famous “sizzling fajitas”.
Address: 430 E. Commerce
San Antonio’s largest Tex-Mex restaurant on the River Walk.
Mari Angeles Gallardo is a f&w writer for the El Paso Times and the Mexican magazine Paula.