How to Spot a Genuine Tex-Mex Restaurant

Assistant Music Editor Craig Hlavaty recently purchased a 1981 edition of The Genuine Texas Handbook, a guide to all things Texan. It's an often-tongue-in-cheek look at the people, places, outfits, songs, foods and more that made someone Texan 31 years ago. Incidentally, the book and I are the same age, so we'll be featuring excerpts from the handbook's food chapter (entitled, fittingly, "Love & Lard") over the next few weeks to see how Texas has changed during the course of this food writer's lifetime.

Rosemary Kent's book on how to be a Texan contains -- as you would guess -- many nifty how-to lists. Among those in "From Chuck Wagon to Cocina," the food section of the handbook, are lists on how to spot genuine barbecue joints, Tex-Mex restaurants and chicken-fried steak spots.

All of those how-to guides include "fly swatters" on the lists of things to look for in a legit establishment. But that's not all...

According to Kent, these are the necessary items you should find inside of any Tex-Mex joint worth its fajitas:

  • One or two serapes draped on chairs
  • Paintings on velvet of bullfighters, sequined sombreros, on the walls
  • Hot sauce and fresh tortilla chips brought to the table with the menu
  • Dishes named "Combination," "Regular," "Fiesta," or for a city or state in Mexico: "Saltillo," for instance
  • Mexican beers on the menu
  • Inexpensive prices
  • Cactus collection
  • Pralines wrapped in wax paper at the end of the meal
  • Shell no-pest strip
  • Red plastic roses and red plaster bulls
  • Fly swatter

While it's tough to argue with most of the items on the list (especially the dishes named after a city or state in Mexico), you could definitely argue that these definitive items are among the reasons that most Texans -- and certainly Houstonians -- are so tough-minded in their rigid definitions of what Tex-Mex (and, by our curious logic, Mexican food on the whole) should be now and forever.

The book is 30 years old, and almost all of these items -- sans the no-pest strips and fly swatters, thanks to rampant a/c -- hold true, although you generally have to pay for your pralines at the end of the meal now. We fear change when it comes to our Tex-Mex food.

In fact, the only things I'd add to the list today would be:

  • Murals of Aztec scenes or cityscapes from places like Monterrey (if the mural is of Monterrey, it must include at least one soccer stadium)
  • Margaritas on the menu
  • Sizzling comals of meat and/or shrimp on at least half the occupied tables
  • Tiny abuelitas making tortillas (whether visible from the dining room or not)
  • Strolling mariachis playing "Guantanamera" for the 12th time that night even though it's a Cuban song
  • Bottles of Tapatio and/or Valentina hot sauce on the table

Do these things always have to define a good Tex-Mex restaurant? Absolutely not, nor should you judge a place by how many serapes it has hanging from the walls. But that doesn't mean most of us aren't doing it anyway.

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Katharine Shilcutt