Q: I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could. On my arrival, I encountered Tex-Mex food that certainly competed with the Mexican food I was brought up with in California. But a lack of culinary awareness has me wondering, what’s the difference between Tex-Mex and good old Mexican food?
Nick Saraceni, Aubrey
A: Welcome to Texas, Mr. Saraceni! The question you’ve posed is, on its face, a seemingly simple matter having to do with two delicious things. But like a dark and mysterious mole poblano, which can include upwards of thirty ingredients, the issue is actually much more complex than it appears at first blush.
To distinguish one cuisine from the other, a person must first be able to define each of them independently of one another, which is no simple task. For starters, Mexico is a very large country—the thirteenth largest in the world—comprising many distinct regions and cultures with many distinct foods, all of which can, of course, be rightfully classified as Mexican. Under that big savory umbrella, for example, you’ve got such variations as your norteña cuisine (cabrito, burritos, carne asada), your veracruzana cuisine (featuring seafood dishes such as pescado a la veracruzana and the paella-like arroz a la tumbada), and your oaxaqueña cuisine (which springs from a state known as the Land of the Seven Moles), to name just a mouth-watering few.
The differences among these many styles can be as profound as the difference between, say, the pit-smoked brisket you might find in Central Texas and the oven-baked carrot-and-onion-smothered brisket that you might be served in Brooklyn. So it’s important to not paint with too broad a brush when using the phrase “Mexican food.”
And then, too, there’s Texas, which if it were to become its own republic again would be the thirty-ninth largest country in the world—larger than France, Iran, Spain, or Ukraine. Like that of Mexico, the food of Texas is wide-ranging. For instance, there are the three B’s (beef, beans, biscuits) of the West Texas cowboy, the delectable seafoods of the coastal regions, the bacon-dripping-drenched delicacies of East Texas’s Southern-style traditions, and the German- and Czech-influenced offerings of
Central Texas. Kolaches, anyone? And, of course, there’s a whole bunch of Mexican cooking here.
The importance of Mexico’s impact on our state’s fare is complicated by the fact that Texas was, not so very long ago, part of Mexico, which renders Tex-Mex’s origins and status something akin to an enigma wrapped in a tortilla inside a banana leaf on a bed of Spanish rice—smothered in spicy chili con carne sauce. With a side of beans! Black beans!
So, when and where did Tex-Mex originate anyway? Back in 2003, the Texanist’s esteemed colleague Patricia Sharpe, who has been surveying the state’s gastronomical landscape for decades, was asked the same question you have asked of the Texanist, and she responded in this magazine with a brief yet insightful history lesson. “What I like to call classic Tex-Mex was born in Texas in the Mexican restaurants run by first- and second-generation immigrants during the first third of the twentieth century,” she wrote. “It peaked in a kind of golden age (the color of melted Velveeta, no doubt) that lasted roughly from World War II to the Vietnam War.”
The three things that really “put the Tex in Tex-Mex,” according to Pat, were yellow American cheese (again, think Velveeta), chili con carne, and the corn tortilla, particularly the deep-fried corn tortilla that allows for the existence of both the crispy taco and the nacho.
The precise value of this hybrid cuisine has been a topic of hot debate for a long time now. Is it just a lesser form of Mexican food, diluted to appeal to the Anglo palate? Is it a shameful example of cultural appropriation? Is it a delightful specimen of cultural appreciation? Or is it, perhaps, just another regional Mexican food, like the norteña, veracruzana, and oaxaqueña varieties mentioned above?
The English-born Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy apparently sparked this debate with her best-selling 1972 debut, The Cuisines of Mexico, a book credited with changing how Americans perceived Mexican cooking. Kennedy held a low opinion of Americanized takes on the beloved cuisine of her adopted home. “Far too many people know Mexican food as a ‘mixed plate’: a crisp taco filled with ground meat heavily flavored with an all-purpose chili powder; a soggy tamal covered with a sauce that turns up on everything—too sweet and too overpoweringly onioned—a few fried beans and something else that looks and tastes like all the rest,” Kennedy wrote. “Where is the wonderful play of texture, color, and flavor that makes up an authentic well-cooked Mexican meal?”
Burn! In case you missed it, the “mixed plate”—also sometimes known as the “combination plate” or the “Mexican Plate” or the “No. 1 Dinner” or the “El Jefe” or the “Deluxe Plate” or the “El Presidente”—that the grande dame of Mexican cooking dismissed so stridently happens to be nothing less than the Platonic ideal of classic Tex-Mex, though she cast it in as poor a light as possible and failed to even note that chips and salsa, more often than not, come gratis, just as the good Lord intended.
Kennedy also neglected to mention that such spreads, when prepared by a skilled hand, are a perfectly satisfactory choice. In fact, there are plenty of Texans who were raised on this sort of Tex-Mex who love it so much that they’ve been known to engage in a little reverse snobbery, looking askance at “weird” Mexican food that strikes them as insufficiently Texan and an existential threat to their beloved cuisine. “Nopales? No, thanks,” they’ll say.
But is this debate even really debatable anymore? In the half century since Kennedy wrote her book and in the nearly two decades since Pat wrote her article, Texas has changed a lot. The state is on the verge of having a Hispanic plurality, and the foods that Texans consume have evolved right alongside our demographics.
Today, Kennedy’s “wonderful play of texture, color, and flavor” is found all over Texas. There’s more cilantro, more prickly pear, more epazote, more types of chiles, more ingredients common to Mexico’s interior, and more innovation. Tex-Mex barbecue is on the rise. Birria and quesabirria are having a moment, and the Cal-Mex of your home state has even made inroads here, Mr. Saraceni. Adding to the fusion confusion—in the most delicious of ways—Asian tacos are now a thing in Texas. And Tex-Mex itself is changing too; these days, if one asks for some Tex-Mex, one is as likely to be handed oak-smoked brisket in a house-made tortilla topped with finely diced raw onion, a sprinkling of chopped cilantro, and a slathering of spicy salsa verde as one is a combo platter saturated with a bright yellow chili con Velveeta.
Recognizing the significance of these changes, as well as the importance of the Mexican and Mexican-adjacent and Mexican-inspired foods that Texans are consuming, Texas Monthly in 2019 hired a full-time taco editor, Dallas resident José R. Ralat. When consulted for this column, José kindly informed the Texanist that “Tex-Mex is Mexican food.” Better, he said, “Tex-Mex might also be described as one chapter in the great book of Mexican food.” The Texanist cannot argue with that.
And it’s high time everyone else stop arguing, too. Whether or not anyone noticed, the war ended, and everybody won. Texans’ love for authentic Tex-Mex hasn’t stopped authentic Mexican foods from becoming popular here, and Texans’ enthusiasm for authentic Mexican foods hasn’t displaced authentic Tex-Mex. It turns out that in an ever-evolving state like Texas, there’s plenty of room for Mexican foods of all the many tasty stripes. The Texanist advises that you try a little of everything and then eat more of the stuff you like.
Man, the Texanist tiene mucha hambre! Thanks for the letter, and buen provecho!
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “What’s the difference between Tex-Mex and good old Mexican food?” Subscribe today.