By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Diana Kennedy's cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico drew a line in the sand between Mexican food and Tex-Mex; it also created a lot of confusion about what Mexican food really is. As the title suggests, Mexican cuisine is not a unified whole, but many different cooking styles. "Mole" in Puebla isn't the same as "mole" in Oaxaca, and in Merida, there isn't any mole at all. Some of these cuisines of Mexico don't even share the same language, nor do they stay neatly within the borders of the country. Mayan-descended Yucatecan cuisine has much in common with the cooking in Guatemala and Honduras. And northern Mexican ranchero cuisine has ties to the cooking of Texas and New Mexico.
When Tejanos argued that the food tasted the same on either side of the Rio Grande and that Mexican authenticity was an arbitrary distinction, the purists responded by substituting the term "interior Mexican" for "authentic Mexican." "Interior Mexican" refers to the corn-cultivating areas of the Mexican plateau and omits the northern desert.
23501 Cinco Ranch Blvd.
Katy, TX 77494
Region: Outside Houston
Taqueria Tacambaro is a truck parked in back of the Farmers Marketing Association at 2520 Airline Drive. Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. (713)461-1503. Lunch hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Happy hour: Monday through Thursday, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Dinner hours: Monday through Thursday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Matamoros Meat Market No. 4, 5526 Washington Avenue, (713)862-7792. Hours: 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Tacoal pastor: $1.25
Fajita quesadilla: $1.25
Nachos deluxe (large) : $12
Huachinango Azteca: $19
Carne asada tampiquena: $21
Matamoros Meat Market No.4
Barbacoa: $5.50 a pound
Carnitas: $5.99 a pound
Fajita combo plate: $4.50
After Kennedy's book came out, diners became fixated with the idea of authentic Mexican food, and "interior Mexican" restaurants began springing up everywhere. In Texas, they ranged from immigrant mom-and-pop joints located in former fast-food outlets to huge stone buildings that looked like they came straight from colonial Mexico. Kennedy herself consulted on the menu at San Angel, an interior Mexican restaurant at Westheimer and California that opened in 1972. Three years later San Angel's owners closed the establishment and moved to a larger space in Austin, where they founded Fonda San Miguel. Once again, Diana Kennedy was their menu consultant.
"We started out to be really purist; we wanted everything to be just like in Mexico," remembers owner Tom Gilliland. "But we ended up becoming realists. We had to make some concessions." Business was business, and Fonda San Miguel's competitors weren't bothering with Kennedy's strict definitions. "We began to see other restaurants that described themselves as "interior Mexican' opening up," Gilliland recalls. "But some of them were just inventing their own dishes, and then naming them after Mexican cities that didn't have anything to do with the food. Nobody complained about it because nobody knew any better.
"Diana made us commit to not serving chips and salsa, not only because it's not done in Mexico, but because the chips fill you up, and the hot sauce dulls your palate," Gilliland says. But patrons revolted. Chips and salsa, and later nachos, were eventually added to the menu by popular demand. "Texans have this fixation about chips and salsa," Gilliland says. "We had customers saying that unless we gave them chips and salsa, they weren't coming back. So we finally gave up and gave them their damn chips and hot sauce. We just didn't tell Diana right away."
Located on the south side of the Katy Freeway near Voss, Las Alamedas is an impressive stone building with pillars and old wooden benches. Inside, the stone floors, mission furniture and soaring high-beamed ceiling make the place look like a Spanish colonial hacienda in old Mexico. The owners are related to the owner of the famous Las Alamedas restaurant in Mexico City. In the most recent Zagat survey, Las Alamedas is described as "true Mexican," and although some find the food somewhat "Continental," most agree it is "authentic."
When I arrive, there are a lot of people in business attire drinking margaritas at the bar. A sign points the way to a private corporate happy-hour gathering. My dining companion isn't here yet, so I order a margarita. The waiter suggests I help myself to the happy-hour buffet. In another room, I find a serve-yourself bar boasting chips, salsa, a very orange chile con queso, quesadillas and various fried treats such as catfish nuggets, vegetable fingers and chicken taquitos -- all under heat lamps.
When my friend comes in, we approach the hostess, Beatriz Gomez, who is from Guanajuato. On the way to our table, we banter a little in Spanish, and I ask her if the food here is authentic Mexican or Tex-Mex. She tilts her open hand from side to side. "¿Media y media?" I ask. "Sí, media y media," she agrees.
My dining companion, Jay Francis, is married to a Mexican woman and has just returned from a family wedding in Mexico City. I ask Jay to read the menu and tell me which dishes he would consider authentically Mexican. The first two items on the appetizer menu, seviche Costeño and ostiones diabla (oysters au gratin), pass Jay's authenticity test. The remaining six appetizers -- crab cakes, a spinach artichoke dip, fried calamari, queso fundido with flour tortillas, nachos, and shrimp stuffed with cream cheese -- do not.
The tacos, enchiladas, soups and salads are all Mexican enough (with a few exceptions). There are three purely Tex-Mex entrées: fajitas de camarón, fajitas de pollo and fajita prime sliced. But we puzzle over some of the others: huachinango Pontchartrain with brown butter sauce and lump crab meat? Pollo Cuernavaca, "chicken breast topped with artichoke hearts in a mustard pepper sauce"? Filete forest, "mesquite grilled prime tenderloin smothered in a pepper mustard garlic wine sauce"? Is this Lou-Mex or French-Mex?