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How Influential Was Houston In the Development of Mexican Food In the U.S.?

The last Felix Mexican Restaurant closed in 2008.
The last Felix Mexican Restaurant closed in 2008.
Photo by mollyblock

Not influential enough, it would seem.

At our sister paper in Orange County, "Ask A Mexican" columnist Gustavo Arellano has compiled a list of the "most influential cities in the development of Mexican food in the United States." Spoiler alert: Dallas and San Antonio are on there, but not Houston.

While Arellano has compelling cases for both Dallas and San Antonio's inclusion on his list, I'll just leave Houston's defense in the capable hands of Tex-Mex expert Robb Walsh. In his feature "Combination Plates," Walsh wrote of Houston restaurateur Felix Tijerina:

His mission was to help Mexican-Americans merge into the American mainstream as successfully as he had. His cooking style was not about bringing authentic Mexican flavors to Texas; it was about putting Anglos at ease with things Mexican. His floury chili gravy and fluffy chili con queso were not far from brown gravy and cheese dip, and the spicing of his sauces was non-confrontational to the delicate Anglo palate. Early Mexican restaurants like Felix's were among the first institutions where urban Anglos and Hispanics rubbed elbows. Tijerina's Americanized version of Mexican cooking was what brought the races together. And it was a triumph of diplomacy.

If Tijerina's contributions alone don't merit inclusion on Arellano's list, then consider these facts:

Houston has been a city of Mexican (and Tex-Mex restaurants) for over a century, when the Original Mexican Restaurant was opened in 1907 at 807 Fannin, although Walsh has found evidence that an even Mexican older restaurant was in operation until 1885. (The oldest Mexican restaurant in Galveston was the Original Mexican Cafe, opened in 1916.)

Ninfa's on Navigation still turns out hundreds of fajita dinners every week.
Ninfa's on Navigation still turns out hundreds of fajita dinners every week.
Photo by Troy Fields

Fajitas were "invented" (although some say "popularized") in Houston at Ninfa's on Navigation. Wrote John Mariani in his 1991 book America Eats Out: "One Tex-Mex item that may someday rival the pizza as an extraordinarily successful ethnic dish is the fajita...introduced at Ninfa's in Houston on July 13, 1973, as tacos al carbon."

Chain restaurants from other cities don't necessarily do well in Houston (Chuy's notwithstanding), but we certainly love to export our own Tex-Mex chains: places like Pappasito's, Ninfa's, Taquerias Arandas and Lupe Tortilla all offer Houston's own Tex-Mex cuisine in dozens of other cities.

We like to eat out here, too: Houston is home to one of the greatest concentrations of restaurants per capita in the nation, with around 11,000 restaurants at last count, and Houstonians dine out more than in any other U.S. city.

Of those roughly 11,000 restaurants, close to 10 percent are Mexican or Tex-Mex. In the vast B4-U-Eat restaurant database, there are more than 1,000 listings for Mexican restaurants -- by far the most well-represented cuisine in the city. The second closest cuisine? American.

What's most interesting about Arellano's post, however, is the fact that it's not the cities' impact on Tex-Mex food specifically that he cites -- it's their impact on Mexican food as a whole. It's clear that Arellano considers Tex-Mex not as a red-headed stepchild of more "authentic" Mexican cuisine, a la Diana Kennedy, but as a full-fledged member of the family. Tex-Mex cuisine is autonomous to a large extent and certainly divergent -- these days -- from its roots, but still Mexican food at its core.

And on that point, at least, we can certainly agree.



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