Philly Poutine

A first look at the new Pappa Geno's in Bellaire.

"It's always good to have that discussion, if only to see the reaction people will have about it," said Arellano over the phone last week. "They feel extremely passionate about Tex-Mex, whether defending it or reviling it." He'd just finished a talk in San Marcos, where the university had prepared a spread of breakfast tacos and brisket for his appearance. Arellano was still coming down off the hospitality high.

"That's Texas for you," he laughed. And although Arellano is from Southern California — home of Taco Bell, fish tacos and burritos — it's Tex-Mex food that he enjoys talking about, particularly because of people's strong reaction to the cuisine.

"No one ever has those conversations about Cal-Mex," he noted. "A big part of it is Texas — there's sometimes bad mojo associated with Texas — but also what's interesting is when it comes to Texas barbecue all of America loves it." People talk about enjoying brisket or sausages, but not cheese enchiladas. Tex-Mex, as Arellano sees it, is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal outside the state.

The Oceanaire is designed to resemble and art deco ocean liner.
The Oceanaire is designed to resemble and art deco ocean liner.
Beef short rib and cheese enchiladas at RDG Bar + Annie
Michael Shum
Beef short rib and cheese enchiladas at RDG Bar + Annie

"In some ways, people feel cheated," he explained. "They feel that Tex-Mex masqueraded as Mexican food for all these years." And now that more of mainstream America is discovering what they perceive to be "authentic" Mexican food, the more they're turned off by the lard-and-cheese-laced plates that most Texans adore. Outside of Texas, says Arellano, the tide has turned against Tex-Mex despite its deep roots in our country.

"It's unfortunate because it's almost an attitude like, 'What have you done for me lately?'" Arellano sighed. And what many Americans can forget is that "dishes that were fads and phenomenons become assimilated into the American diet."

"At one point, chile con carne was considered to be Mexican food," he laughed. "And now it's American food — it's just chili from a can. Same thing with fajitas. They no longer have that cache value."

Arellano places much of the blame on people like Rick Bayless and Diana Kennedy, chefs and cookbook authors who despise Tex-Mex as a bastard cuisine and who — in some people's perceptions — have raided Mexico's various states and towns to cobble together an American version of what "authentic" Mexican food should be.

"[T]his triangle [Bayless] speaks of in the South, the triangle of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Mexico City he has ceaselessly promoted for decades as the only regions of Mexico worthy of visiting for its food? Straight-up bullshit," wrote Bill Esparza in the OC Weekly this past June. "He has dismissed the North and had previously referred to Tijuana and Baja as a wasteland until LA bloggers...made folks in the U.S. reconsider the region."

Arellano isn't a fan either. "Bayless and Kennedy validate the suspicion that people have with regard to Mexican food," he said. The suspicion that it's an interloper, meant to confuse us and steer us away from the "real" thing.

On the other hand, says Arellano, Mexicans often aren't very fond of Tex-Mex either — especially Mexicans in other parts of North America. Although other ethnicities' cuisines have been mainstreamed by Americans over the years (Italian and Chinese, most notably), Arellano notes that Mexicans — by far — hold the most contempt for the Americanized version of their food. Arellano calls it a "socio-psychological issue."

"With the Mexican elite, they have just hated the fact that Americans love Mexican food and despise the fact that when Americans cook Mexican food they cook Tex-Mex. It's a psychic wound," he explained. "Not only did the gabachos steal half of our territory, now they're stealing our food." Katharine Shilcutt

Read more of our two-part interview with Arellano and why he thinks Houston has a problem with "inherent insecurity" at Eating...Our Words.

Restaurant News

Openings & Closings
Block 7 on the chopping block.

The big news this week was word from Ronnie Killen of Killen's Steakhouse and Ricky Craig of Hubcap Grill that the two are combining their magical meat skills to open CK's Steakhouse in the Heights. The new steakhouse serves, in a way, to replace the plans that Killen had to open an outpost of his popular Pearland restaurant — plans that fell through when negotiations with the landlords at the proposed location (the site of the former Bedford and Stella Sola) didn't work out.

CK's Steakhouse will be situated close to the Hubcap Grill on 19th Street and, according to Alison Cook at the Chronicle, will offer "more adventurous dishes that don't necessarily play well at the Pearland location."

Meanwhile in the Heights, Ken Bridge has closed his popular Asian fusion restaurant — Dragon Bowl — after seven years to make way for a new concept: Witchcraft Tavern and Provision Co. The "craft" in Witchcraft presumably refers to the craft beers that Bridge plans for the tap lineup (similar to what he's done at Shepherd Park Draught House) as well as a menu of "artisan, craft made sandwiches featuring our very own house made cheeses." Bridge also owns Lola and the Pink's Pizza mini-empire.

What's not quite clear about Witchcraft Tavern and Provision Co. is its so-called environment of "an exciting blend of Swag Chic with a comfortable relaxed vibe." I passed a clothing store on Veterans Memorial last weekend called Got Swagg? (with two g's). Will I need to stock up on Swag (with one g) before dining at Witchcraft? Important questions here.

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