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 previous article in this series ("The French Connection," by Robb Walsh, November 23), we looked at how Parisians and their love for Tex-Mex helped to legitimize the cuisine back in Texas, where it was created.
By the early 1990s Tex-Mex was popular around the world, but here at home, it had become a victim of its own success. Canned and preprocessed ingredients like powdered refried beans, preformed taco shells and imitation cheese had become the norm as what we called Tex-Mex sank into the fast-food rut. Mom-and-pop Mexican restaurants that didn't compromise their cooking did everything they could to convince the public that what they were serving wasn't Tex-Mex.
The Southwestern cuisine movement of the mid-1980s gave Tex-Mex restaurants even more of an inferiority complex. The classically trained Southwestern chefs fused the concepts of French nouvelle cuisine with the ingredients of Mexico and the border states to create an elegant and refined new cooking style.
Despite its expense, the influence of Southwestern cuisine spread far beyond the confines of high-dollar restaurants. With its lobster tacos, duck enchiladas and spinach tamales, it changed the way Texans looked at familiar Tex-Mex dishes. It also created a widespread awareness of new ingredients.
Southwestern chefs imported then-exotic ingredients from Mexico like chipotle chiles, prickly pear fruit and achiote, and put them in their recipes. Then through their cookbooks and classes, the chefs taught home cooks what to do with these foods. Over the course of a decade, their innovations trickled down to the popular cuisine of the Southwest.
A new breed of Mexican restaurant opened in Texas in the early 1990s. The cooking included ingredients, such as chipotles and pasilla chiles, that had been popularized in Southwestern dishes, as well as recipes from interior Mexico, like achiote recados from Yucatán, seafood dishes from Veracruz or fruity moles from Oaxaca.
But establishments that served this updated Mexican food weren't about to call themselves Tex-Mex restaurants, even if they did continue to serve such distinctly Tex-Mex dishes as fajitas and nachos. El Rinconcito, an innovative Mexican restaurant that opened in Austin in 1991, summed up the spirit of the times with its advertising slogan: "It Ain't Tex-Mex!"
Meanwhile, many restaurants that were locked into the old-fashioned Tex-Mex style went out of business. Even such legendary institutions as The Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio, which had been open since 1900, and the Old Borunda Cafe in Marfa, which had been going since 1910, closed their doors permanently in the early 1990s.
And no wonder. By the 1990s the term Tex-Mex had come to define the antithesis of everything good in the evolving food scene. If the enchiladas were oozing orange grease and were served with beans refried in lard, we called it Tex-Mex. But if the enchiladas were stuffed with crabmeat and served in a green chile sauce with black beans on the side, then it was well, what was it exactly?
At The Blue Agave, the artichoke-and-spinach enchiladas are served in two-tone red and green enchilada sauce. We get some bacon-wrapped, jalapeño-stuffed shrimp, and I order a Tex-Mex combo, which includes one taco and one enchilada of your choice with two barbecue pork ribs. I get a fajita taco and a shrimp-and-spinach enchilada. Even though the ingredients sound exotic, the food has unmistakable characteristics. The dark fajita meat is seasoned, grilled well-done, cut against the grain and served in a soft flour tortilla. The enchiladas are submerged in so much molten cheese that it's difficult to distinguish any other flavors. And the pork ribs are cooked East Texas-style until the meat falls off the bone.