I still think about that meal because it is emblematic of the problems people have with Tex-Mex. Mexican food purists take swipes at it, claiming it is simply bad Americanized Mexican food, while Texans rush to defend it as its own breed. What is Tex-Mex supposed to taste like? What does the term even mean? Where is the Tex, and where is the Mex?
To understand, a sweep through Texas history might help. Texas and Mexico go way back, to when they were neither Mexico, nor Texas, but for more than 300 years part of Spain’s colony of New Spain. And the mixing started: evangelization efforts to convert native people to Catholicism, intermarriage between people — and between ingredients in the kitchens. Texas went along with Mexico in separating from Spain in 1821, and the two stayed together for another 15 years.
It’s safe to guess that if Texas hadn’t become part of the United States in 1845, it would probably have developed a Mexican regional cuisine similar to that of one of its southern neighbors, Chihuahua or Nuevo Leon. But American settlers — from cowboys to ranchers to treasure hunters — brought their foodways to the table, their preference of wheat over corn, their belief that anything Mexican, be it its food or its people, was utterly inferior.
Still, Americans have always been drawn to Mexican flavors. Those flavors’ path into the mainstream, though, hasn’t been easy. One entrepreneur after another has tried to bring “Mex” to the plate, while being sensitive to Americans’ dietary concerns and those with a less-adventurous palate.
For example, as journalist Gustavo Arellano writes in “Taco USA,” starting in the late 1880s, consumers could satisfy their hunger for “Mex” by grabbing a bite at San Antonio street food stands from the Chili Queens and the Tamale Kings. San Antonio even went by the nickname of Tamaleville: People couldn’t get enough of them.
Around the same time, a German immigrant, Willie Gebhardt, concocted what might be the culprit behind today’s supermarket “chili powder.” He claimed that his Gebhardt Eagle Chili Powder could give any American meal — fried chicken, meatballs, even baked ham! — an “authentic Old Mexico tang,” according to his 1923 cookbook, “Mexican Cookery for American Homes.” The powder (made from ground ancho chilies, cumin, oregano and black pepper) was accessible and modern and came from a jar, no risks involved. Gebhardt became a spice magnate, but many traditional Mexican cooks wouldn’t touch the stuff; they prided themselves on tailoring the use of different dried and fresh chilies for different dishes, accomplishing a much larger span of flavors.
The same idea applies to the success of the taco shell: Glen Bell (of Taco Bell fame) figured how to fry taco shells by the dozens to make open tacos, rather than frying to order — which produces better taste but is more time-consuming — as with the Mexican “tacos dorados.” Easy and fast: Grab that taco shell, stuff it with seasoned ground meat, add cheese and gravy sauce and some shredded lettuce, and you had an “authentic Mexican meal.”
Tex-Mex is now so much more than that, and it keeps growing. It encompasses chili gravy, queso dip (with its fanatics all over the world), the puffy taco, the fajita platter, chiles rellenos, breakfast burritos, all sorts of tacos, seviches and carne asada tostadas, among other dishes. As more Mexican ingredients are accepted, demanded and available, the pool of Mexican cooks is more diverse than ever before, making the Mex in the Tex-Mex that much more vibrant.
For example, aside from the queso dip (based on the purely American Velveeta “cheese”), people are becoming enamored with queso fundido, broiled cheese topped with chorizo or poblano pepper strips, a dish from northern Mexico that’s served with flour tortillas. Fajitas and carne asada dishes come from neighboring northern states, where cattle ranchers love beef; the chiles rellenos come from central Mexico, where poblanos thrive; the fresh, citrusy seviches come from the coasts. The famed mole poblano from the state of Puebla now covers enchiladas in many Tex-Mex spots.
But Texas has framed the cuisine. Take the case of Matt’s El Rancho, established by Matt Martinez (a.k.a. “The King of Mexican Food”) in Austin in 1952. As Gloria Reyna, his daughter who now helps run the business, described in a phone interview, her father was born in San Antonio and her mother in Austin, but her grandparents had come from northern Mexico: San Luis Potosí and Monterrey in Nuevo León. She told me the restaurant’s cooks prepare everything fresh — their masa, tortillas and chips are made in-house, just as in Mexico — but when I asked about the Mexican connection of the dishes, she said, “We cook it like we do in Texas, the Tex-Mex way.”
The continuous comparison to authentic Mexican food is a source of irritation to many Texans, including Tex-Mex expert Robb Walsh, a cookbook author and founder of Foodways Texas. “Why are there no French cooks or connoisseurs coming over to Louisiana to tell Creole cooks they are not making French food the right way? The real way!” he exclaimed in a telephone interview last week. “That they are making a mockery of authentic French food?”
Possibly simply because France is not the next-door neighbor of Louisiana. France is geographically so distant that French and Creole food have evolved in practically separate universes, with few bridges in between. Mexico and Texas are, well, in each other’s faces. And when Mexicans show up to eat at an “authentic Mexican” place in Texas, they can find it disconcerting, to say the least. “What is this kind of Mex?” I can hear them say — since I’ve said such things myself.
But after years of living in the United Sates, I have different expectations. What I thought was a strange kind of Mexican food with too much cumin I know now to be purely Tex-Mex, a breed of its own, with strong, unique traits. And a tradition unto itself. As for that cumin, for instance, Walsh says its heavy use has been ingrained in Texas for centuries, long before it became part of the United States: Spanish people brought workers from the Canary Islands who had come from Morocco, where there is intense use of cumin and garlic.
Similarly, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing Tex-Mex’s oversauced and cheesed-up plates, which seem to represent an American affinity for abundance, just as so many Italian American restaurants load meatballs and tomato sauce on pasta in ways that Italians never do in the old country.
Whether it’s those changed expectations or an improvement in quality, I’m not sure, but I’ve had much better Tex-Mex meals than that one in 1997. I even make some Tex-Mex dishes for my boys at home.
When I was back in San Antonio last March, I went to a place on the River Walk and ordered a combo platter of shrimp enchiladas. The red rice had lovely, full tomato taste (and a lot of that darned cumin); the beans, rather than refried, were left whole and in their cooking liquid, seasoned with chunks of bacon and tomato. I ordered two extra sides of beans so I’d have some for every bite of the enchiladas; they didn’t taste like the Mexican frijoles de la olla (soupy beans) that I know, but they were smoky and fabulous. The enchiladas were made up of warm corn tortillas, malleable and soft, filled with sweet, crunchy and plump shrimp, with a generous amount of a tomato chipotle cheesy sauce and with shredded lettuce and avocado on top.
I could make out each element on the plate. After I cleaned it, I thanked the Mexican waiter, with a big grin on my face. And I thought to myself: Ay más o menos entendí lo que me comí. I sort of get what I just ate.
Jinich, who lives in Bethesda, is the author of “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) and the star of the public-television series of the same name. Her show airs at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays on WETA.