Combination Plates

Legendary restauranteur Felix Tijerina mixed Mexican food and Texas politics

Here are a few of the entries in the guest book that stands in Felix's foyer:

"My husband and I ate here regularly in the '50s. This is a nostalgia trip for me. The food is as delicious as I remember it."

"I have been coming here my whole life. This is my favorite restaurant. I came from New Braunfels four hours away."

Felix Tijerina knew the secret of success: Promise authenticity but deliver food Anglos actually eat.
Troy Fields
Felix Tijerina knew the secret of success: Promise authenticity but deliver food Anglos actually eat.
The restaurant that time forgot: Felix's Mexican plates taste exactly like they did 50 years ago.
Troy Fields
The restaurant that time forgot: Felix's Mexican plates taste exactly like they did 50 years ago.

"We have been coming here since the early '50s; we remember Mr. Felix."

If Felix's customers all appear to be over 60, across town at Molina's on Buffalo Speedway, most of the tables seem to be occupied by people under 12. I order the Mexico City Dinner ($8.55) because of the irony of the name. The first plate includes a beef taco, a bean tostada, a puffy taco with queso and an order of guacamole. The second plate is made up of cheese enchiladas in chili gravy, a tamale with chili con carne, and rice and beans. Pecan pralines are included in the price of the dinner, just like in the good old days. I can just imagine what the Mexican food snobs would have to say about puffy tacos and chili con carne.

Molina's combination plate is similar to Felix's, but the chili gravy has more bite and better body. It's made with ancho peppers and a lard-and-flour roux. Molina's was founded in 1941 by Raul Molina Sr., who is now in his nineties. His son, Raul Molina Jr., is semiretired as well. The operation is now run by the third generation of Molina family restaurateurs, including Raul the third.

The amazing thing about Molina's is all the kids eating here. Outside in the parking lot, I approach a family leaving the restaurant. Ken and Martha Johnson tell me they are from Bellaire as they secure their daughters, Caroline, eight, and Annabelle, six, in the backseat of a Honda minivan. I ask them why they chose Molina's for dinner.

"The kids like it. They eat their dinners," Martha Johnson tells me.

I ask her if she doesn't prefer other Mexican restaurants with spicier food and more modern dishes. "Yeah, but if we go somewhere where the food is spicy, the kids won't eat. And then when we get home, they say they're hungry and we have to feed them again," she says. She admits there's a nostalgia factor, too. "I grew up eating this kind of classic Tex-Mex. But the truth is, we don't like our food as hot as we used to, either."

From the "genuine Mexican food" of George Caldwell in 1907 to the claims you hear today, Mexican restaurants have always promised authenticity and have always delivered what sells. The real changes that have taken place are in the public's tastes. And understanding the way our tastes have changed can tell us a lot about where we're going and where we've been.

Texas is a bellwether for those who see American society entering an era of Hispanicization. According to some thinkers, as the Hispanic population increases, so does its influence on the American culture at large. To experience the evolution of Tex-Mex, from its bland beginnings in the Felix Tijerina generation to the hot and spicy version we eat today, is to experience American culture changing before your very taste buds.

When I take people to Felix or Molina's or the Original Mexican Cafe in Galveston and tell them this is an incredible opportunity to see what Tex-Mex tasted like 50 years ago, they look at me like I'm crazy. "So where do you go to get authentic Mexican food," a tablemate at Felix asked me after he tasted the beef tamales with bland chili and beans ($5.95).

It's hard for people to understand why they should want to eat old-fashioned Tex-Mex. Let me put it this way: You eat at these old Tex-Mex places for the same reason that you listen to scratchy old recordings of the Delta blues. It's not about the quality; it's about getting in touch with the roots of American culture.

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