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
The oldest permanent Tex-Mex restaurants were little more than tamale stands moved indoors to escape the wrath of sanitation inspectors. "The two-story frame building on Texas Avenue, near the corner of Main, used as a tamale and chile con carne restaurant, has been torn down. A new building will take its place," reads a short news item in the Houston section of the Galveston Daily News on January 17, 1886. It's amazing to learn of a Houston Tex-Mex restaurant that was operating in 1885 — I believe that's the earliest on record. Too bad we didn't catch its name.
The Original Mexican Cafe in Galveston, like the Original in Houston, and restaurants of similar names across the state, imitated a formula invented by Chicagoan Otis Farnsworth at the Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio.
Farnsworth came up with the idea of building a Mexican restaurant for Anglos in the commercial district and staffing it with Latinos. The Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio was built in 1900. Gentlemen were required to wear a jacket to dine there. It became the most successful Mexican restaurant in the state.
Following Farnsworth's example, some Mexican-Americans relocated their restaurants from the barrio to the commercial district to appeal to mainstream clientele. According to old newspaper society columns, many charity functions were held at the Original in Galveston.
Today, the Original in Galveston is a Tex-Mex restaurant in decline. The food is little better than average, and the current employees are clueless about the restaurant's past — the manager has only been there four months. The place was sold last September to a Houston barbecue restaurant entrepreneur named Nicholas Servos. Hopefully, the new owner will do a better job of presenting the restaurant's long and colorful history. Putting more lard into the tamales is probably too much to hope for.
Some of the best vintage Tex-Mex I encountered this spring was at Leal's, a 51-year-old Tex-Mex restaurant in Muleshoe, where I ordered a deluxe plate and chatted with the founder, Irma Leal, over lunch. The chips we were dunking in salsa were wonderfully light and flavorful.
The chips came from Leal's tortilla factory a few blocks down the street. Leal's "Thin and Crispy Homestyle Tortilla Chips" are so good, they sell for a premium at upscale grocery stores like Central Market. The "seasoned" version of Leal's chips, lightly flavored with a garlic and lime coating, are sensational.
My deluxe plate included a taco, rice and beans, a tamale and enchiladas in red chile sauce. Leal's has two other locations just across the border in Clovis, New Mexico, a mere 30 miles away. The chili con carne around here is called "red chile," and it's made with New Mexican dried chiles rather than chili powder. The combination of the rich red chiles and Leal's tortillas is terrific.
Most of the tortillas you get in the United States and Mexico these days are made from the instant mix called masa harina (corn flour). Leal's tortilla factory is a throwback — they make tortillas (and tortilla chips) the old-fashioned way. They still buy dried white corn, slake it with chemical lime to make nixtamal and grind it on giant lava stones into fresh corn dough. The difference between tortillas made with corn flour and those made with fresh masa is like the difference between instant coffee and fresh-brewed.
"I grew up making tortillas," Irma Leal told me. And she means it literally. Her childhood home in the Lower Rio Grande Valley town of Mercedes was located next to her father's business, the "El Arco Iris" (Rainbow) Tortilla Factory, where the whole family worked. Irma married Jesse Leal, and the couple left the Valley when Jesse got a job working for the Bracero Association in distant Muleshoe.
The Bracero program of the 1950s was an immigration agreement between the United States and Mexico. By legalizing the influx of migrant Mexicans, the federal government was able to allocate workers to areas where they were needed and supervise their return. In exchange, the government of Mexico negotiated some basic rights for the workers, including a guaranteed rate of pay, familiar food, proper shelter and one day off a week.
When the program started, there wasn't any Mexican food in Muleshoe. Irma saw an opportunity. "I told Jesse, 'Let's buy a tortilla machine.'" They spent their savings bringing a tortilla machine up from the Valley and setting it up in a tin-roofed building on the east side of Muleshoe. When sales were slow, Jesse would peddle tortillas door to door. Before long, they were selling barbacoa on weekends to go with the tortillas. Then they added a few tables and the tortilla factory was renamed Leal's Mexican Restaurant.
The Muleshoe Leal's relocated to its current location on American Boulevard in 1968. There are now six Leal's Mexican Restaurants, all owned by members of the Leal family. Along with the one in Muleshoe, there are two in Clovis, New Mexico, one in Plainview, one in Henrietta and one in Amarillo. All six locations serve tortillas and tortilla chips manufactured by Leal's Tortilla Factory in Muleshoe.
When I finished mopping up the red chile with tortillas, the tiny, soft-spoken Irma passed me a manila envelope. Inside I found a stack of handwritten letters from Leal's customers.