Restaurant Reviews

The Authenticity Myth

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.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh