A Six-Part History of Tex-Mex
Part IV of a six-part series.
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 last article in this series ("Mama's Got a Brand-new Bag," by Robb Walsh, September 28), we looked at the paradigm shift that occurred in Tex-Mex cooking in the early '70s when Americans began to reject the bland Uncle Tomás cuisine that passed for Mexican food.
Three taco trucks sit side by side in the parking lot behind the Farmers Marketing Association on Airline Drive. The one in the middle, with "Taqueria Tacambaro" painted on the roof, is crowded with people at 1:30 p.m. There are stand-up counters mounted on three sides of the truck. They all face a short-order cook named Maria Rojas, who alternates stuffing gorditas, frying tortillas and chopping meat behind sliding-glass windows. Maria is wearing a baseball cap that says Michoacán; a seven-leafed marijuana plant sprouts out of the second C.
The guy to my right is named Narcisso Santos. I ask him in Spanish what kind of tacos he got. "Tripitas y fajitas," he says with his mouth full. It looks like he got two of each, and there is a nice-looking grilled jalapeño on his Styrofoam plate as well.
I ask Narcisso if he has tried the other trucks. He makes a face and shakes his head. "Éste es el famoso," he says, tapping a finger on the counter beside his Jarritos soda. Originally from Toluca, Narcisso says he works in Conroe, but whenever he gets to Houston, he stops by this taco truck for lunch. I would guess that most of the well-dressed Mexican-Americans eating here aren't doing business at the market, either.
I order one taco al pastor, one of the fajita tacos that Narcisso is having, and a bean-and-cheese gordita. The taco al pastor is made with spicy pork that's crisped in a skillet and put into two folded-over corn tortillas, which are toasted on the griddle. Skirt steak and a big pinch of crumbly Mexican white cheese are placed in the middle of a flour tortilla on the griddle for the fajita taco. Maria calls this a fajita quesadilla, despite the fact that the Mexican cheese never melts enough to meld the tortilla together. The gordita is a thick masa cake split in half and stuffed with homemade refried beans and Mexican cheese.
The tortillas are well toasted, so the tacos are wonderfully chewy. The meat is tender and spicy, and the green salsa that Maria douses it with is incendiary. Since my mouth is already on fire, I ask for a roasted jalapeño, which at this stage of the meal has a lot of flavor and not much heat.
When the crowd thins out at 2 p.m., I hang around and talk to Maria Rojas. She really is from Michoacán; I ask her if the stalls in the market of her hometown serve the same sort of food she's cooking. More or less, she says. In Michoacán, people eat tacos, but the meats are different. They eat cabrito and stewed goat, she tells me. There is no fajita meat, and there aren't any flour tortillas, either.
I had come to the Farmers Marketing Association on a hunch. The taco trucks here, I figured, are the equivalent of the food stalls in the Mexican mercado, so maybe I could find some truly authentic Mexican food. Of course, I was wrong. Commercial Mexican food with no Tejano influences is practically impossible to find in Houston. Outposts like Pico's and Otilia's claim to be "Mex-Mex" or "100 percent Mexican," but they usually find it difficult to remain pure. Pico's serves some wonderful Mexican specialties, but the other half of the restaurant's menu, as well as its famous margaritas, is Tex-Mex. And even "100 percent Mexican" Otilia's follows the Tex-Mex custom of putting chips and salsa on every table.
Make no mistake, the Mexican food in Houston is among the best in the United States. There are so many restaurantes, cafes, fondas, taquerias, ostionerias, panaderias and carnicerias in the city, you can pick any degree of authenticity you desire -- up to a point. But authenticity is overrated. Part of the charm of our local Mexican food is that it has its own unique conventions.
Diana Kennedy's cookbook The Cuisines of Mexico drew a line in the sand between Mexican food and Tex-Mex; it also created a lot of confusion about what Mexican food really is. As the title suggests, Mexican cuisine is not a unified whole, but many different cooking styles. "Mole" in Puebla isn't the same as "mole" in Oaxaca, and in Merida, there isn't any mole at all. Some of these cuisines of Mexico don't even share the same language, nor do they stay neatly within the borders of the country. Mayan-descended Yucatecan cuisine has much in common with the cooking in Guatemala and Honduras. And northern Mexican ranchero cuisine has ties to the cooking of Texas and New Mexico.
When Tejanos argued that the food tasted the same on either side of the Rio Grande and that Mexican authenticity was an arbitrary distinction, the purists responded by substituting the term "interior Mexican" for "authentic Mexican." "Interior Mexican" refers to the corn-cultivating areas of the Mexican plateau and omits the northern desert.
After Kennedy's book came out, diners became fixated with the idea of authentic Mexican food, and "interior Mexican" restaurants began springing up everywhere. In Texas, they ranged from immigrant mom-and-pop joints located in former fast-food outlets to huge stone buildings that looked like they came straight from colonial Mexico. Kennedy herself consulted on the menu at San Angel, an interior Mexican restaurant at Westheimer and California that opened in 1972. Three years later San Angel's owners closed the establishment and moved to a larger space in Austin, where they founded Fonda San Miguel. Once again, Diana Kennedy was their menu consultant.
"We started out to be really purist; we wanted everything to be just like in Mexico," remembers owner Tom Gilliland. "But we ended up becoming realists. We had to make some concessions." Business was business, and Fonda San Miguel's competitors weren't bothering with Kennedy's strict definitions. "We began to see other restaurants that described themselves as "interior Mexican' opening up," Gilliland recalls. "But some of them were just inventing their own dishes, and then naming them after Mexican cities that didn't have anything to do with the food. Nobody complained about it because nobody knew any better.
"Diana made us commit to not serving chips and salsa, not only because it's not done in Mexico, but because the chips fill you up, and the hot sauce dulls your palate," Gilliland says. But patrons revolted. Chips and salsa, and later nachos, were eventually added to the menu by popular demand. "Texans have this fixation about chips and salsa," Gilliland says. "We had customers saying that unless we gave them chips and salsa, they weren't coming back. So we finally gave up and gave them their damn chips and hot sauce. We just didn't tell Diana right away."
Located on the south side of the Katy Freeway near Voss, Las Alamedas is an impressive stone building with pillars and old wooden benches. Inside, the stone floors, mission furniture and soaring high-beamed ceiling make the place look like a Spanish colonial hacienda in old Mexico. The owners are related to the owner of the famous Las Alamedas restaurant in Mexico City. In the most recent Zagat survey, Las Alamedas is described as "true Mexican," and although some find the food somewhat "Continental," most agree it is "authentic."
When I arrive, there are a lot of people in business attire drinking margaritas at the bar. A sign points the way to a private corporate happy-hour gathering. My dining companion isn't here yet, so I order a margarita. The waiter suggests I help myself to the happy-hour buffet. In another room, I find a serve-yourself bar boasting chips, salsa, a very orange chile con queso, quesadillas and various fried treats such as catfish nuggets, vegetable fingers and chicken taquitos -- all under heat lamps.
When my friend comes in, we approach the hostess, Beatriz Gomez, who is from Guanajuato. On the way to our table, we banter a little in Spanish, and I ask her if the food here is authentic Mexican or Tex-Mex. She tilts her open hand from side to side. "¿Media y media?" I ask. "Sí, media y media," she agrees.
My dining companion, Jay Francis, is married to a Mexican woman and has just returned from a family wedding in Mexico City. I ask Jay to read the menu and tell me which dishes he would consider authentically Mexican. The first two items on the appetizer menu, seviche Costeño and ostiones diabla (oysters au gratin), pass Jay's authenticity test. The remaining six appetizers -- crab cakes, a spinach artichoke dip, fried calamari, queso fundido with flour tortillas, nachos, and shrimp stuffed with cream cheese -- do not.
The tacos, enchiladas, soups and salads are all Mexican enough (with a few exceptions). There are three purely Tex-Mex entrées: fajitas de camarón, fajitas de pollo and fajita prime sliced. But we puzzle over some of the others: huachinango Pontchartrain with brown butter sauce and lump crab meat? Pollo Cuernavaca, "chicken breast topped with artichoke hearts in a mustard pepper sauce"? Filete forest, "mesquite grilled prime tenderloin smothered in a pepper mustard garlic wine sauce"? Is this Lou-Mex or French-Mex?
If you have eaten in an upscale restaurant in Mexico City, you know what's happening here. This is exactly the kind of Europeanized food that elite Mexicans favor. For diners in Mexico City, authenticity is hardly a concern, but in Texas, this kind of European-style Mexican food is simply ludicrous. Who wants to go to a Mexican restaurant and eat a bad imitation of French food?
Let's give the place a chance, Jay suggests. So we order the two most Mexican-sounding dishes we can find. I get the huachinango Azteca, a red snapper fillet with cuitlachoche (the Mexican gourmet corn fungus), and Jay gets carne asada tampiquena. The snapper is a little dry, and the cuitlachoche is mixed with artichoke hearts. I'm not sure if artichoke hearts are an authentic Mexican ingredient, but the dish is so boring, I don't really care. Jay's dinner, on the other hand, is very interesting, and I help myself to a "little taste."
"There was a restaurant in Mexico City in the 1930s called Club Tampico," Jay tells me. "It was like the Brown Derby of Mexico City. The owner was from Tampico, and he served this dish, carne asada tampiquena. It became famous all over Mexico." On Jay's plate, which is now sitting in front of me, there is a grilled steak, an enchilada with a little chile sauce, rice and refried beans. The steak is tender and juicy, and the enchilada and chile sauce make a perfect complement. It is a robust, if somewhat familiar, combination. "My theory is that carne asada tampiquena worked its way up to Texas in the 1930s, where it became known in Tex-Mex restaurants as the combination dinner," says Jay.
According to scholars of Mexican-American studies, Houston's "Immigrant Era" ended in the 1930s. But in some American cities, the "Immigrant Era" is just beginning. That's why, right now, the most authentic Mexican food in the United States is probably in Chicago. There are more than a million Mexicans in Chicago, more than in Houston or San Antonio, and most of them are newly arrived. The Mexican restaurants I have visited in Chicago's Pilsen district are unconsciously authentic; the owners serve the same stewed goat and pork in chile sauce as they did in Mexico, simply because they have no other frame of reference. Rick Bayless, the chef and owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago and probably America's foremost authority on Mexican food, discussed the phenomenon with me one day over lunch.
"When somebody from Mexico moves to Texas or California, the Chicano community is there to teach them how things are done," says Bayless. "But that doesn't happen in Chicago. The Mexicans here are almost all first-generation, and they still cook the way they did in Mexico. There's nobody here to show them what Americanized Mexican food is supposed to be like."
In Houston, newly arrived immigrants play a different role.
At Matamoros Meat Market No. 4 on Washington Avenue, I stand before a glass case filled with glistening pieces of roasted buche (pork stomach), deep-fried chicharrones (crunchy fat) and several choices of stewed meats in long trays. There is a sign that says, "barbacoa $5.50, barbacoa de cachete $5.99." I know that Tejano barbacoa is made from a long-cooked cow's head, but I ask the guy in front of me what "cachete" means. He says it means cheek meat.
We strike up a conversation. His name is Marcello Martinez, and he says he works in an office off Highway 290. He has driven all the way to Matamoros Meat Market to buy his lunch. "It's that good," he says with a smile. Today he is ordering the pork and green chile stew. "It's kind of like pozole, but with potatoes," he says. "And it's very spicy." I ask him what are the brown things that look like prunes in the carne deshebrada (shredded beef brisket). "They are big pieces of chipotle peppers," he says. "And they are unbelievably hot." Some restaurants offer things like barbacoa and carnitas on the weekends, but at Matamoros, you can buy them every day, which makes the place a favorite among local Mexican-Americans, and especially among recent immigrants from Mexico.
In his book Ethnicity in the Sunbelt: A History of Mexican Americans in Houston, published in 1990 by UH's Mexican American Studies Program when he was a visiting scholar, author Arnoldo De León explains that there is a love-hate relationship between Houston Mexican-Americans and the newcomers from Mexico. Many Mexican-Americans in the modern era came to dislike the immigrants because they thought they gave the whole community a bad image. But the constant stream of fresh arrivals is crucial to perpetuating Houston's Mexican culture, De León says in his book. "They inject cultural ingredients that prevent the dilution of the colonia's ethnicity," he writes. The new arrivals have kept Mexican-Americans in Houston in touch with the mother country. "Certain foods are more popular among the immigrants than among the indigenous group. Restaurants and barrio food stores offer these and forestall the loss of the dish," writes De Leon. You might say that the immigrant flow is what keeps the "Mex" in Tex-Mex.
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I order a carnitas taco and watch while the woman behind the counter chops it up, blending the tender pork with its crunchy edges. It is an extraordinary amount of meat for a dollar and a half. I wonder if I should buy another pound to go. It's hard to find good carnitas in the middle of the week, and the crunchy pork, which is boiled in its own fat, is one of my favorite Mexican meats.
An Anglo construction worker steps up beside me and asks for a fajita combo plate. The woman taking his order is straight from Mexico and doesn't understand. The young woman making my taco translates for her. "Fajita combo plato," she says. "Tortillas de harina," she adds without even asking. Some things are simply understood. After all, who eats fajitas with corn tortillas?
The Mexican woman ladles rice, refried beans and fajita meat into the to-go carton. She adds a plastic cup with hot sauce, and some flour tortillas, and hands the Styrofoam lunch bucket to the tall blond Texan and smiles. "Gracias," he says.
She's learning Tex-Mex on the job.