The French Connection
A Six-Part History of Tex-Mex
In the good old days, Texans went to "Mexican Restaurants" and ate "Mexican food." Then in 1972, The Cuisines of Mexico, an influential cookbook by food authority Diana Kennedy drew the line between authentic interior Mexican food and the "mixed plates" we ate at "so-called Mexican restaurants" in the United States. Kennedy and her friends in the food community began referring to Americanized Mexican food as "Tex-Mex," a term previously used to describe anything that was half Texan and half Mexican. Texas Mexican restaurant owners considered it an insult.
But by a strange twist of fate, the insult launched a success. For the rest of the world, "Tex-Mex" had an exciting ring. It evoked images of cantinas, cowboys and the Wild West. Dozens of Tex-Mex restaurants sprang up in Paris, and the trend spread across Europe and on to Bangkok, Buenos Aires and Abu Dhabi. Tortilla chips, margaritas, and chili con carne are now well known around the world. In this series of articles, we reconsider Tex-Mex in light of its international reputation as America's most popular regional cuisine.
In the fourth article in this series ("The Authenticity Myth," by Robb Walsh, October 26), we looked at the many shades of authentic Mexican food available in Houston, and why searching for the real thing is overrated.
On the cover of Chuy's menu, a matador swishes his cape in front of a Cadillac sporting a flame paint job and a longhorn hood ornament. In the lower right it says, "Fine Tex-Mex." I get the Comida Deluxe Dinner. The guacamole retains the shape of a miniature ice cream scoop, the refried beans are crusty, and the queso is pure Velveeta. The Tex-Mex sauce on the very cheesy enchiladas is made of ground beef and whole chiles, and is much more intense than old-fashioned, flour-thickened chile gravy. The margarita is fuerte, the hot sauce is picante, and the chips are served slightly caliente -- this is Tex-Mex the way el Señor intended it.
Chuy's on Westheimer celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. From my two-tone vinyl booth, I look out over a dining room furnished with 1950s-style chrome dinettes. The silverware comes in a white paper bag that says "Sanitized for Your Protection" on one side and offers a Catholic, Protestant and Jewish grace on the back. With its painted fish mobiles, broken-tile frescoes and shrine to Elvis Presley, Chuy's is not your typical Tex-Mex restaurant. Or is it?
The first Chuy's was opened on Barton Springs Boulevard in Austin in the early '80s by two Anglos named Mike Young and John Zapp. From the beginning, the black velvet paintings of Elvis on the walls and the retro "Air-Conditioned" painting of a penguin with a scarf and earmuffs made it clear that Chuy's was a tongue-in-cheek send-up of old-fashioned Tex-Mex restaurants.
I stopped by Chuy's offices near the original restaurant in Austin one afternoon to look through their archives. Chuy's is the first "self-proclaimed Tex-Mex" restaurant I know of, and I was interested in finding out when it started using the term.
In 1982, its first menu boasted, "Chuy's, Comida Deluxe." In 1986, the words "Tex-Mex Deluxe" replaced the original phrase. "We embraced the term "Tex-Mex' pretty early," says Mike Young. By 1986, the term regularly appeared in the national press, he remembers, although he believes people in the rest of the country were mistaken about what Tex-Mex really meant.
To Young, who grew up eating Tejano food in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Tex-Mex was a style of restaurant cooking he first encountered in San Antonio; its signature dish was a cheese enchilada in chili gravy, topped with raw onions. But in the view of the general public, Tex-Mex had become a much broader category, and Young took note of it. Then he went along with it.
Chuy's was one of first restaurants in Texas to call itself Tex-Mex, but it was not the first in the world. That distinction, like so many other culinary honors, belongs to the French. To the vast amusement of Texans, Tex-Mex became the hottest food trend in Paris in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, Tex-Mex restaurants were springing up all over the world.
Cafe Pacifico's cheese enchiladas came cloaked in a rich red chile colorado sauce. But it was the cheese itself that captured my attention -- sharp, tangy and perfectly melted with the aroma of a Swiss fondue. It was the best cheese enchilada I had ever had. Which was quite a surprise considering the restaurant's location in the Montparnasse section of Paris.
"It's an aged Gruyère," she said in an English accent.
I asked her if she thought Tex-Mex was a just a passing fad here.
"No, Tex-Mex has outlived fad status in Paris," she said. "It's here to stay."
The year was 1993, and I had spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon sampling Parisian Tex-Mex restaurants. I tried a burrito at Indiana Cafe on Boulevard St.Germain; some huevos and chorizo at Del Rio Cafe in the Beaux Artes District; and a few tamales at Mexi&Co. on Rue Dante, across the river from Notre Dame. Most of the food was mediocre, but some of it, like the cheese enchiladas, was astonishingly good.
Everywhere I went, I asked the French what it was about Tex-Mex that they found so intriguing. The manager of the Del Rio Cafe, Yseult Naudé Plassard, summed up the appeal, "Le Cuisine Tex-Mex garde le parfum de temps des pionniers." (Roughly: "Tex-Mex cuisine recaptures the essence of the pioneer times.")
After my restaurant tour, I visited the Paris food writer Patricia Wells to get her take. "The French love it because it's an identifiably American cuisine," she told me in her living room over a glass of champagne. "And it's everywhere you look now. My winemaker in Provence, a real Frenchman's Frenchman, clears his palate with tortilla chips at wine tastings."
How did Tex-Mex end up in Paris? I asked Austin restaurateur Claude Benayoun. A partner in the Vespaio Italian restaurant on South Congress Avenue, Benayoun is a wiry, energetic man in his late thirties with a shaved head and an easy smile. I met him one morning at the Texas French Bread bakery, just a few doors down from Vespaio, where he gave me his account over an espresso.
Benayoun earned his MBA in hotel and restaurant management at the University of Paris X in 1980. After graduation, he came to the United States to continue his studies in California. While passing through Texas, he sampled Tex-Mex food and was intrigued by both the strong flavors and the intriguing name.
"Tex-Mex," he pronounced it dramatically in his French accent. "To a Frenchman, it sounds like cowboys and Indians, like the Wild West. And the food was all so crunchy and spicy, it fit the image." After Benayoun returned to Paris, he was offered the opportunity to open a restaurant in a 12th-century building, in the newly hip Le Marais district, that housed a dance studio complex. Benayoun decided to open a Tex-Mex restaurant. "We had cowboy and Indian pictures on the wall. I even put the cowboy boots I bought in Texas up on a shelf." The Studio, as the place was called, opened in March of 1983.
"Was it the first Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris?"
"That's what they tell me," he says.
"But why Tex-Mex? Why not authentic Mexican food?" I asked Benayoun.
"We had a Mexican chef for a while. He made mole for a Day of the Dead celebration one year. Everybody hated it. Mexican food is too elaborate, too old-fashioned for Paris. But Tex-Mex, Tex-Mex is simple. It's honest. And you know the French are crazy about Texas."
Still, Benayoun's Tex-Mex concept was not an instant success. "Parisians don't like to eat with their hands. They were trying to eat nachos and crispy tacos with a knife and fork," Benayoun laughs. "Business was pretty slow for a couple of years. We got lots of American ex-pats, but not so many French people. I started wondering if I had made a mistake. But then the movie Betty Blue came out, and things went completely crazy."
An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film of 1986, Betty Blue starred Béatrice Dalle as a mentally unbalanced beauty named Betty and Jean-Hugues Anglade as a struggling novelist named Zorg. In the movie's first scene, Zorg leaves Betty after an exhaustive session of lovemaking and races across town on his motorcycle. He flies in his front door just in time to save a pot of chili con carne from burning.
Zorg, whose writing is dismissed as modernistic garbage by pompous Paris publishers, is a rebel without a beret. His and Betty's alienation from French mainstream culture is the movie's central theme. It is expressed in strikingly uncharacteristic views of the French landscape, including desert-like panoramas reminiscent of the American West, and by Zorg's taste in food and drink. When a Paris bartender asks him what he wants, Zorg orders tequila. The bar doesn't have any. But somewhere Zorg finds a bottle.
During several drinking bouts, including a wild-party sequence, Zorg introduces his friends to a drink he calls a "tequila rapido." Known as a tequila slammer in the United States, it consists of a shot of tequila and a splash of soda poured together into a glass, covered with a cloth, slammed hard on the bar, and consumed while the bubbles are still overflowing. The movie ends tragically with the self-destructive Betty drugged beyond consciousness in a mental ward, where Zorg nobly smothers her to end her suffering. In the final scene, the grieving Zorg sits in his kitchen eating chili con carne.
"Betty Blue was like our Easy Rider; it was unbelievably popular in France. And after the movie came out, everybody in Paris wanted a shot of tequila and a bowl of chili," Benayoun remembers. Tex-Mex became a symbol of alienated, free-spirited youth, and business at the Studio soared. "Within a few years, a dozen Tex-Mex restaurants had opened in Paris," Benayoun recalls. "I think I heard there are something like 60 of them there now."
The trend soon spread to the rest of France and beyond. Since my visit to Paris in 1993, I have eaten Tex-Mex enchiladas in Bangkok, visited a Tex-Mex restaurant in Buenos Aires, and heard reports of Tex-Mex restaurants in Amsterdam, Oman, and Tokyo.
Surely, the most intriguing cross-cultural trend is the emerging popularity of Tex-Mex in Mexico. While they are still considered a foreign cocktail, margaritas can be found at almost any Mexican hotel these days. And in resort areas, Tex-Mex chains such as Señor Frog's and Carlos and Charlie's are popular not only with American tourists, but with Mexican nationals as well.
On a chilly November Wednesday, I stop by the Chuy's on Richmond. The bar is decorated with modern-day Mexican murals. In the dining room where I am seated, the walls are covered with giant roses. Today's lunch special is Elvis's Fried Chicken with Green Chiles. The chicken is pounded flat like a chicken fried steak and coated with corn flakes before being deep fried. (Elvis was big on corn flakes.) A piece of cheese is melted on top, and the whole thing is slathered with New Mexican-style green chile sauce.
This green chile sauce has me all shook up. It is rip-your-lips-off hot. I spent four days reporting on the chile harvest in New Mexico last month, and I didn't eat any green chiles as hot as the ones in this sauce. Blazing hot chile sauce with extremely crunchy fried chicken -- it's like Chinese New Year's in your mouth. (Elvis wasn't big on subtlety.)
Despite the fact that it is a self-proclaimed Tex-Mex restaurant, Chuy's has become famous for its September green chile festivals, with peppers imported from New Mexico, and for its Santa Fe-style enchiladas. "Our classic Tex-Mex enchiladas aren't really classic Tex-Mex, either," Mike Young says with a laugh. "They are made with whole chiles, not with chile powder." But strict definitions have never been the point. It is the outlaw spirit of Tex-Mex that Chuy's has adopted, not the literal culinary interpretations.
Mike Young got it before anybody else in Texas. He realized Europeans were seeing something we weren't. They liked Tex-Mex for the same reason they liked blue jeans. Both were inexpensive, informal, and part of the American West. And if Tex-Mex could be hip in Europe, there was no reason why it couldn't be hip in Texas, too.
So Young set out on a defiant-yet-playful campaign to champion the underdog. At a time when old-fashioned Mexican restaurants like Monterey House and Loma Linda were losing business because customers considered them "too Tex-Mex," Chuy's bet against the bear market. Young and company began using the seemingly oxymoronic slogan "Fine Tex-Mex" on their menus. They printed t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Don't Mess With Tex-Mex." They began to add "Fine Tex-Mex" to their outdoor signage.
The strategy worked. The mini-chain now has 1,000 employees and nine restaurants in Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio. In 1999, Chuy's, a restaurant owned by Anglos and famous for its New Mexican specialties, was voted "Best Tex-Mex" in the Houston Press "Best of Houston" issue.
Chuy's success has brought the wider international definition of Tex-Mex back home to Texas. "Tex-Mex has become a name for the peasant cooking of the Southwest," says Mike Young. "And the beauty of peasant cooking, whether it's French country cooking or Tex-Mex, is that it is simple, honest and affordable. I don't know what will happen to Southwestern cuisine or authentic Mexican in the future, but Tex-Mex will always be here."
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