Restaurant Reviews

Combination Plates

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 first article in this series ("Pralines and Pushcarts," by Robb Walsh, July 27), we met the pioneers of Tex-Mex: the pecan candy and tamale vendors who sold their wares in the streets of Houston and other Texas cities from the 1880s until the turn of the century.

The cloud of steam and the deep pool of thick brown sauce make it impossible to tell where the enchilada starts and the refried beans end. There is a tamale under there, too, somewhere. The No. 1 dinner at Felix Mexican Restaurant [904 Westheimer, (713)529-3949] ($7.25) starts with a beef taco and a tostada on one plate and continues with a second hot plate covered with the brown sauce, called chili gravy on Felix's menu. It resembles the flour-based brown gravy you might find on a Salisbury steak or a roast beef plate at the Piccadilly Cafeteria, but with comino and chili powder added.

I believe that the taste of chili gravy explains Tex-Mex more eloquently than words ever will. The thick brown gravy with Mexican spices is neither Mexican nor American. It wasn't created in the homes of Texas Mexicans, either. It was invented in old-fashioned Mexican restaurants that catered to Anglo tastes. But what's amazing about it today is the way it illustrates how our tastes have changed.

Felix's Mexican food tastes absurdly old-fashioned because it's geared to the Anglo palates of the 1950s, and it has never changed. How do I know? Because Geneva Harper told me. Harper was there when Felix's flagship location on Westheimer near Montrose opened in 1948. And she was there when I stopped by for lunch last week. "The cheese enchiladas with chili gravy on the Mexican Dinner haven't changed at all since the place opened," she said. "Except that a Mexican Dinner went for 50 cents in 1948."

The 91-year-old Harper worked for owner Felix Tijerina for more than 50 years. "He was a wonderful man," she said. Indeed he was. In fact, Tijerina, whose accomplishments went far beyond his restaurants, was one of the most inspiring figures in recent Texas history. But he also wrote an important chapter in the history of Tex-Mex food.

Tijerina's story is a study in assimilation. 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 nonconfrontational 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.

At the turn of the century, tamale vendors, chili stands and other such street sellers supplied the Mexican food in Houston. But in 1907 a public crusade for better sanitation began to force them out of business. The civic reforms of the Progressive era brought about the first health inspections and rules for safe food handling. William McDuffie Brumby, Houston's crusading health officer, led these reforms and then went on to become president of the Texas Board of Health, where he wrote a statewide sanitation code. While some tamale vendors and chili stands remained in business after 1910, their numbers dwindled as permanent Mexican restaurants with more hygienic facilities began to take their place.

The first Mexican restaurant listed in Houston's city directory was the Original Mexican Restaurant at 807 Fannin. It was opened in 1907 by George Caldwell, an Anglo from San Antonio. Caldwell was no doubt inspired by the Original Mexican Restaurant in his hometown, which opened in 1900. Caldwell's place was quite popular and a favorite of mayor Oscar Holcombe's. Caldwell's slogan was "Genuine Mexican food, properly prepared."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh