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
If you have eaten in an upscale restaurant in Mexico City, you know what's happening here. This is exactly the kind of Europeanized food that elite Mexicans favor. For diners in Mexico City, authenticity is hardly a concern, but in Texas, this kind of European-style Mexican food is simply ludicrous. Who wants to go to a Mexican restaurant and eat a bad imitation of French food?
Let's give the place a chance, Jay suggests. So we order the two most Mexican-sounding dishes we can find. I get the huachinango Azteca, a red snapper fillet with cuitlachoche (the Mexican gourmet corn fungus), and Jay gets carne asada tampiquena. The snapper is a little dry, and the cuitlachoche is mixed with artichoke hearts. I'm not sure if artichoke hearts are an authentic Mexican ingredient, but the dish is so boring, I don't really care. Jay's dinner, on the other hand, is very interesting, and I help myself to a "little taste."
"There was a restaurant in Mexico City in the 1930s called Club Tampico," Jay tells me. "It was like the Brown Derby of Mexico City. The owner was from Tampico, and he served this dish, carne asada tampiquena. It became famous all over Mexico." On Jay's plate, which is now sitting in front of me, there is a grilled steak, an enchilada with a little chile sauce, rice and refried beans. The steak is tender and juicy, and the enchilada and chile sauce make a perfect complement. It is a robust, if somewhat familiar, combination. "My theory is that carne asada tampiquena worked its way up to Texas in the 1930s, where it became known in Tex-Mex restaurants as the combination dinner," says Jay.
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
According to scholars of Mexican-American studies, Houston's "Immigrant Era" ended in the 1930s. But in some American cities, the "Immigrant Era" is just beginning. That's why, right now, the most authentic Mexican food in the United States is probably in Chicago. There are more than a million Mexicans in Chicago, more than in Houston or San Antonio, and most of them are newly arrived. The Mexican restaurants I have visited in Chicago's Pilsen district are unconsciously authentic; the owners serve the same stewed goat and pork in chile sauce as they did in Mexico, simply because they have no other frame of reference. Rick Bayless, the chef and owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago and probably America's foremost authority on Mexican food, discussed the phenomenon with me one day over lunch.
"When somebody from Mexico moves to Texas or California, the Chicano community is there to teach them how things are done," says Bayless. "But that doesn't happen in Chicago. The Mexicans here are almost all first-generation, and they still cook the way they did in Mexico. There's nobody here to show them what Americanized Mexican food is supposed to be like."
In Houston, newly arrived immigrants play a different role.
At Matamoros Meat Market No. 4 on Washington Avenue, I stand before a glass case filled with glistening pieces of roasted buche (pork stomach), deep-fried chicharrones (crunchy fat) and several choices of stewed meats in long trays. There is a sign that says, "barbacoa $5.50, barbacoa de cachete $5.99." I know that Tejano barbacoa is made from a long-cooked cow's head, but I ask the guy in front of me what "cachete" means. He says it means cheek meat.
We strike up a conversation. His name is Marcello Martinez, and he says he works in an office off Highway 290. He has driven all the way to Matamoros Meat Market to buy his lunch. "It's that good," he says with a smile. Today he is ordering the pork and green chile stew. "It's kind of like pozole, but with potatoes," he says. "And it's very spicy." I ask him what are the brown things that look like prunes in the carne deshebrada (shredded beef brisket). "They are big pieces of chipotle peppers," he says. "And they are unbelievably hot." Some restaurants offer things like barbacoa and carnitas on the weekends, but at Matamoros, you can buy them every day, which makes the place a favorite among local Mexican-Americans, and especially among recent immigrants from Mexico.
In his book Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: A History of Mexican Americans in Houston, published in 1990 by UH's Mexican American Studies Program when he was a visiting scholar, author Arnoldo De León explains that there is a love-hate relationship between Houston Mexican-Americans and the newcomers from Mexico. Many Mexican-Americans in the modern era came to dislike the immigrants because they thought they gave the whole community a bad image. But the constant stream of fresh arrivals is crucial to perpetuating Houston's Mexican culture, De León says in his book. "They inject cultural ingredients that prevent the dilution of the colonia's ethnicity," he writes. The new arrivals have kept Mexican-Americans in Houston in touch with the mother country. "Certain foods are more popular among the immigrants than among the indigenous group. Restaurants and barrio food stores offer these and forestall the loss of the dish," writes De Leon. You might say that the immigrant flow is what keeps the "Mex" in Tex-Mex.