Temples of Tex-Mex: A Diner's Guide to the State's Oldest Mexican Restaurants

We took a pilgrimage in search of old-fashioned tamales, chili con carne and cheese enchiladas

The one written by Heriberto Mendoza, a former bracero, told the story of a day in 1960 when Mendoza's boss, a local farmer, dropped him off at Leal's on his day off. With no way to get back to the fields, Mendoza had to hitch a ride with Irma's husband Jesse, who loaded him up with enough barbacoa and tortillas to last all week. Forty-eight years later, Mendoza, who is now a grandfather, still remembered that kindness.

"I got married and made Muleshoe my home..." the former farmworker wrote in his letter. "Now I take my children's children to Leal's."

"Puffy tacos," which are all the rage in San Antonio and Austin lately, have been served at Caro's in Rio Grande City since 1937, when Modesta Caro opened the place. I visited Caro's a few years ago. It serves the best-preserved example of old-fashioned Tex-Mex I have ever encountered. Unfortunately, Rio Grande City, which is situated on an isolated bend in the river across from Camargo, Tamaulipas, is a long way to drive for a taco.

Irma Leal puts on the birthday sombrero to celebrate Leal's 51st anniversary.
Robb Walsh
Irma Leal puts on the birthday sombrero to celebrate Leal's 51st anniversary.
Waitresses at Palmetto Inn's South Padre Island location.
Courtesy Palmetto Inn
Waitresses at Palmetto Inn's South Padre Island location.

But Modesta Caro's daughter Maria and her husband John Whitten opened another Caro's on Blue Bonnet Circle in Fort Worth in 1954. And today their son, John Jr., still runs it. The Fort Worth Caro's has preserved the same family tradition for fine Tex-Mex. "No steam tables, microwaves, or can openers," is the restaurant's slogan.

The fresh-fried puffed taco shells at Caro's in Fort Worth are just as good as the original. (Get the chicken tacos — the beef filling is bland.) The restaurant also serves the only decent version of spaghetti with chili con carne I have ever eaten in Texas. The restaurant, which is decorated with deer heads and old calendars, has a time capsule appeal that serves to make their modernized entrées, like grilled salmon with crab and Caribbean pork chops, look incongruous.

The signature item at both Caro's locations is the basket of puffy tostadas placed on every table when you walk in. They are made by cutting a fresh-pressed tortilla into pie-shaped eighths and frying them fresh. The basket of puffed-up "chips" tastes incredible with salsa and chunky guacamole. And these chewy hot masa wedges make the best nachos in the state.

Caro's is a newcomer in Fort Worth compared to the Original Mexican Eats Café, which was opened by the Pineda family of Waco in 1926. The murals on the walls, the tin ceiling and some of the decorations at the Camp Bowie restaurant go back more than 50 years — and so do some of the employees.

The restaurant used the "Original" formula — it targeted an Anglo audience. The Original of Fort Worth became a favorite haunt of Fort Worth bluebloods including Amon Carter and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's son Elliott. President Roose­velt raised the profile of Tex-Mex when he ate at the Original with his son Elliott during a visit to Fort Worth in 1937. If you want to sample real old-fashioned Tex-Mex, order what FDR ordered, now known as the "Roosevelt Special." It's a fried-to-order chalupa shell topped with beans and cheese, a crispy beef taco and a cheese enchilada in chili con carne topped with a fried egg.

Cheese enchiladas served in chili con carne — not thin, meatless chili gravy, or authentic enchilada sauce — are the hallmark of real Tex-Mex, according to 78-year-old Fort Worth sportswriter and Tex-Mex expert Dan Jenkins. What else does he look for in a great Tex-Mex restaurant? "There isn't a goddamned fajita within ten miles of it," he told me.

"The first time I ate Mexican food was at the Mexican Inn in downtown Fort Worth when I was in junior high," he observed. "Cheese enchiladas, rice and beans. I'll never forget it. It was like an orgasm."

Jenkins's favorite Fort Worth Tex-Mex restaurant is Mi Cocinita, a tiny operation located in a garage. He said the pork tamales there actually have some lard in them.

Was it health concerns that ruined Tex-Mex, or was it the authenticity thing? "Fuck healthy. I've been eating lard for over 60 years," he railed. "What happened to Tex-Mex is the same thing that happened to all the other food. It got too fancy. Culinary institutes are turning out idiots who want to put ferns and cactus on everything. Unfortunately, it's infected Tex-Mex too."

Jenkins wouldn't approve, but when I eat at the Palmetto Inn on South Padre Island, I always get the shrimp. After all, the biggest shrimp fleet in Texas docks right down the road in Brownsville.

The Palmetto Inn's shrimp and avocado cocktail served in a traditional parfait glass with chopped onion, cilantro and serrano chiles spicing up the red sauce is the most popular shrimp dish there. I like the shrimp fajitas, marinated in lime juice and garlic and served on a sizzling skillet with guacamole and hot flour tortillas.

Though I had eaten at the Palmetto Inn on visits to South Padre before, I had overlooked the old-fashioned Tex-Mex dishes on the menu. I was clueless about the chain's long history until I interviewed the owners and waitstaff on my Tex-Mex travels this spring. I asked if they served old-fashioned cheese enchiladas in chili con carne.

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Mr. Walsh will have a culinary orgasm if he ever drops by Tupinamba on Inwood Rd. in Dallas, the ultimate old style Tex-Mex restaurant like I grew up worshiping in. Real chili lathered cheese enchiladas is a dying art and the owner told me his children have refused to carry that art forward. Get it while you can.