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Brave Nuevo World

Last in a six-part series

What happened instead is that we added those authentic Mexican dishes to the menu. Likewise, once the Southwestern cuisine got going, we added some of that stuff to our repertory, too. And now it's all mixed together into something really original. Something based on Mexican food, but uniquely Texan.

In 1998 chef David Garrido of Jeffrey's Restaurant in Austin and I published a cookbook titled Nuevo Tex-Mex (Chronicle Books). Our concept was to try to capture the modern Texas-Mexican cooking style in a recipe collection. What we call Nuevo Tex-Mex is less sophisticated than Southwestern cuisine; it's unfaithful to authentic interior Mexican cooking's fussy mandates; and it's based on such familiar Tex-Mex forms as nachos, tacos, enchiladas and fajitas -- all served with lots of margaritas and cold beer. The book is in its third printing, but Nuevo Tex-Mex hasn't exactly become a household term.

Tex-Mex: 1. Designating the Texan variety of something Mexican. -- Oxford English Dictionary

Taco Milagro: Where the menu is innovative and the marketing hook is time-honored.
Troy Fields
Taco Milagro: Where the menu is innovative and the marketing hook is time-honored.

Details

The Blue Agave, 1340 West Gray, (713)520-9696. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Artichoke-and-spinach enchiladas: $11.99
Bacon-wrapped shrimp: $8.99
Tex-Mex combo: $10.99

Taco Milagro, 2555 Kirby Drive, (713)522-1999. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Spinach-and-cheese enchiladas: $6.45
Milagro burrito: $7.25

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Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer at Vogue and author of The Man Who Ate Everything, once asked me if Tex-Mex was a true American regional cuisine or a displaced Mexican one. It's a good question, because it gets to the heart of our nomenclature problem.

I told him that Tex-Mex is an American regional cuisine for two reasons: First, because the ingredients that made it Tex-Mex, like flour, ground beef and yellow cheese, came from the American side of the border. And second, because Mexicans insist that it has nothing to do with their cuisine.

Tex-Mex has never received much recognition as an American regional cuisine because the term was coined to define bastardized Mexican food. People from outside the state still use it derisively. Native Texans most often use it to describe cheap, old-fashioned enchilada plates with lots of cheese and grease. But if the purpose of the term is to differentiate authentic Mexican food from the dishes created in Texas, then margaritas, nachos, cheese enchiladas, chili con carne, crispy tacos and fajitas are all Tex-Mex.

"I don't think of fajitas as Tex-Mex," a Houston writer argued with me recently. As Mama Ninfa explains (see "Mama's Got a Brand-new Bag," September 28), fajitas come from the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The name, the dish and the serving style are all uniquely Texan. But people want to call fajitas "authentic Mexican" because they think Tex-Mex means inferior. The more respectful term for fajitas and other indigenous Texas-Mexican cooking is probably "Tejano" cuisine, as in Tejano music.

Tex-Mex is an insult applied by outsiders, and for that reason, we have trouble being proud of it. But the tide has started to turn. Thanks to the popularity of Tex-Mex in Paris and around the world (see "The French Connection," November 23), Chuy's launched the proud-to-be-Tex-Mex movement, and now many others are jumping on the bandwagon. The other day I saw a billboard on the Southwest Freeway for Lucinda's, a new self-proclaimed Tex-Mex restaurant in the Village, whose slogan is "You'll think you've died and gone to San Antonio."

San Antonio may or may not be your idea of heaven. If you are interested in Tex-Mex restaurant history, Houston is a better earthly paradise. Thanks to the sheer size of our city, you can find restaurants here that illustrate almost every stage of Tex-Mex evolution -- including those still in development.


Tortilla chips sit in cute little brown bags under warming lights near the self-serve salsa bar at Taco Milagro. Once you've loaded your tray with chips and hot sauce, you walk up and order from an overhead menu that includes Tex-Mex standards like nachos, fajitas and margaritas; Cal-Mex imports like burritos and fish tacos; traditional Mexican dishes like shrimp campeche and caldo de pollo; and some Southwestern innovations like sweet-potato-and-Swiss-chard enchiladas in guajillo sauce.

Taco Milagro's spinach-and-cheese enchiladas in Tex-Mex sauce are a little bland, but the Milagro burritos I sample more than compensate. These aren't California-style burritos with sealed ends but Texas-style, open-ended soft tacos placed on the plate seam-side down. Mine are stuffed with grilled fajita meat, onions, fresh-sliced jalapeños, roasted poblano chile strips and pico de gallo. The meat is tender with a nice char, and the heat level is no-holds-barred, full-on hot as hell. I guess it's the fresh jalapeños that get me -- I spend five minutes sucking ice cubes out of my iced tea. I haven't had a taco this hot in years.

We've come a long way from the days of Felix Tijerina's gringo-friendly chili gravy (see "Combination Plates," August 31). Nowadays we seek ever more exciting taste sensations. And as always, Tex-Mex has evolved to keep pace with our tastes. But wait a minute, you say, Taco Milagro isn't Tex-Mex. Or is it?

"I consider Mexican food to be one of the finest cuisines in the world. We approach it with the utmost dedication and respect. At Taco Milagro, we offer you a little Mexico in Texas or a little Texas in Mexico," writes executive chef Robert Del Grande on the back of the menu.

Taco Milagro may be a glimpse into the future of our regional cuisine. The restaurant is a prototype of a concept being developed by the Schiller Del Grande Restaurant Group. By calling this eclectic blend of Southwestern, quasi-Mexican and Tex-Mex items "Mexican food," Del Grande and company are following an old Houston tradition.

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