Tex-Mex: The term is often a bait-and-switch. Throughout the United States, and as far away as Japan, restaurants affix the label, a shimmering promise that all too frequently collapses in the wrong hands. At its worst, “Tex-Mex” can become a phony advertisement used to get customers through the door for cloying margaritas, stale chips, salsa out of a jar and overcooked slivers of grilled meat.
At its best, the cuisine is a beacon of pride for people like me who grew up in Texas regularly munching on chips and salsa — always offered at no charge.
So what constitutes Tex-Mex? It isn’t Mexican food, and it isn’t Central and South American, either. According to Robb Walsh, a partner at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in Houston and the author of “The Tex-Mex Cookbook” and “The Tex-Mex Grill,” the food is best defined as a category of American regional cuisine, an outgrowth of the cooking shaped by Spanish priests, Native Americans and Mexican cowboys in frontier missions and later adapted by Texan entrepreneurs.
Fajitas are one of the genre’s most famous dishes. Their evolution began with Mexican “arrachera” and was advanced by Texas ranch hands, who were given tough skirt steak and gussied it up with marinades and mesquite wood flames. The modern version, attributed to Austin butcher Sonny Falcon, is often served with flour tortillas. Cooked on-site and held at the proper temperature, a great tortilla is soft and a little elastic, a comforting bed for meat, pico de gallo, guacamole and anything else you want to stuff inside.
That’s not to say corn tortillas don’t have a place in Tex-Mex. The masa-based wrappers are the foundation for what Walsh considers to be the quintessential Tex-Mex experience: cheese enchiladas with chili gravy. Bundles of corn tortillas are softened in hot oil, rolled and stuffed with shredded cheese and bathed in a sort of chile pepper roux. They’re topped with more cheese and raw onions and flanked by beans and rice.
After coming of age in the Houston suburbs, I’ve been on the lookout for the real deal in Washington. That’s why I scoured the area looking for the sort of stuff that even the most excessively proud and defensively provincial native Texans would deem up to snuff. I rated my picks on a scale of one margarita to five.
Started in Austin in 1982, this temple of Texas kitsch, decorated with Elvis shrines and hubcaps, has gone corporate: Locations dot the map pretty much everywhere east of Texas. I may have stacked the deck against the one in Springfield Mall by showing up an hour before close on a Sunday night.
Sure enough, the beef fajitas ($15.79) carried such a heavy plume of smoke that they made our waitress cough. Though it had a nice black-pepper flavor, the overcooked Shiner Bock-marinated steak had a puzzling, soggy texture. The best part of the Elvis Presley Memorial Combo ($12.69) – a variety of unremarkable enchiladas, a ground sirloin crispy taco and a cheese-dipped tostada – was the crispy tortilla slathered in “boom-boom sauce” (queso with roasted green chiles, tomatillos, onions, lime and cilantro). The Mexican rice and green chile rice were better than just filler.
Red paint advertised handmade tortillas, but the work station below it was vacant. The imperfect shape of the flour variety vouched for the human touch, and they were tasty — but only after a requested warm-up. That pretty much sums up my experience at Chuy’s: The signs of its Texas pedigree were present, but most dishes weren’t as authentic as the aesthetics.
6793 Springfield Mall, Springfield. Additional locations in Sterling, Fairfax, Woodbridge and Rockville.
5. El Paso Cafe
Enticed by President George W. Bush’s long-ago visit, which is commemorated by a red-white-and-blue chair hanging on a wall near the entrance, I waited for a dining companion on a recent Thursday night. El Paso scores major points for atmosphere. With attentive service and a packed house, the whole dining room seemed to project positive vibes.
The downtime was more tolerable thanks to the live music, a baseball game broadcast in Spanish and a 16-ounce beer in a cowboy boot-shaped glass. Baskets of chips and bowls of smoky, pureed salsa were frequently refilled.
The grill is the predominant flavor in the subtly marinated beef and chicken fajitas ($17.99), and I don’t think Bush would approve of the square block of enchiladas. A congealed hunk of cheese dwarfs a thinly applied gravy that tastes more of tomatoes than chiles. For some reason, the onions are stuffed inside, not on top of the corn tortilla wrappers. Thankfully, the refried beans — the most flavorful I tried during my Tex-Mex excursions — did suggest the use of lard.
4235 N. Pershing Dr., Arlington.
A hulking BE&SCO tortillamaker near the back of Guapo’s shows that the kitchen is serious — I can’t stress enough how much the commitment to fresh flour tortillas improves whatever they’re wrapped around. These are pressed thin and delicious, even though they come without the desirable brown pockmarks. Beef and chicken fajitas ($19.50) hiss on a plate so hot that the clarified butter sitting in a ramekin next to the meat is bubbling. That finishing touch yields beautifully caramelized onion and pepper slices that soak up the meats’ juices. The skirt steak takes a little effort to chew, but it packs a pleasant Worcestershire punch.
Cheese enchiladas ($11.50) pass the eyeball test, but the cheese filling is a little too solid. Shredded beef enchiladas ($11.50) encase a stewed, tomato-tinged filling that has everyone at the table nodding their heads with each bite. Eating at Guapo’s is a nice enough experience, but as a stickler for Tex-Mex, I’m left slightly unsatisfied.
4515 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Additional locations in Gaithersburg, Bethesda, Arlington, Fair Lakes.
This Houston-based chain brought a refined take on Tex-Mex to the Mosaic District complex. I assume the restaurant’s high-end clientele considers sizzling platters gauche, because the mixed fajitas ($22) arrive smokeless in a small tin — a drag, although it does prevent diners from going home perfumed like a grill . The chile con queso ($9) – melted cheese dip with chopped peppers – is rich and smooth with a bounty of fresh tomatoes and a surprising addition of green onions.
Juanito’s Superior Platter ($15.50) comes with a taco al carbon – a pre-rolled taco filled with fajita meat – and an admirable enchilada made up of a bright-red tortilla and a rich, clay-colored chili con carne. But garnishes of cotija cheese and purple kale are flourishes that have no place in Tex-Mex.
2911 District Ave., Suite 170, Fairfax.
2. Mi Rancho
Whether it’s because of healthier attitudes in Washington or the dearth of Texas influence in the kitchen, most of the enchiladas I encountered locally suffered from too light a ladling of chili gravy. Mi Rancho is the exception.
On the Silver Spring restaurant’s Tijuana Platter ($15.95), two cheese enchiladas float in enough gravy to reach the rim of the plate. A crunchy beef taco and a moist pork tamale — with a nice ratio of masa to meat — round out the combo.
From plump and juicy beef and chicken fajitas ($19.95) to the nearly translucent tortilla chips, most everything looks appealing here, including the actual place. The sprawling front patio is the perfect spot to enjoy a drink. Heavy double doors open into a dimly lit interior, featuring a BE&SCO tortilla machine and a festive border of Christmas lights.
Owner Albino Castro brightens the room, making small talk with customers as he refills their waters. A native of Portugal, Castro said he wanted to create a family atmosphere when he opened Mi Rancho. After years working in French and Italian kitchens in New York, he said he knew nothing about Tex-Mex — except it was fairly easy to produce. He visited the namesake state and eventually found a Mexican chef that had worked in Tex-Mex joints. “That changed everything,” Castro said.
The results have kept the original spot in business for 27 years and spawned two more locations.
8701 Ramsey Ave., Silver Spring. Additional locations in Germantown and Rockville.
The scent surrounding Cactus Cantina is the first marker of quality Tex-Mex. It comes from the steam chugging out of the BE&SCO beta model the staff calls “El Machine,” which mass-produces soft, lush flour tortillas.
Cactus Cantina Vice President Jaime Sanchez said his father-in-law, Cuban-born owner Raul Sanchez, and original chef and partner Luis Reyes were determined to get the “border-style” food right when they opened in 1990. They source tortillas for their paper-thin chips from Texas because they can’t replicate the process perfected by their purveyor. According to Jaime Sanchez, they spent 12 years just decoding the salsa. “We were salsa maniacs,” he said. “We tasted everyone’s salsa.”
It shows. Brick-red and specked with bits of blackened tomato skins and chile de arbol seeds, the salsa arrives still warm from the grill. Part of the Tex-Mex experience means filling up on chips and salsa, which I’m happy to do while I watch fresh flour tortillas puff up on the conveyor belt of El Machine.
From the mixed fajitas ($17.50), the beef is tender and pink in the middle. A soy-and-pineapple marinade makes the skirt steak sing, and a ramekin of clarified butter is a welcome indulgence for the chicken. Sides of charro beans stewed with bacon and tomatoes make me doubly happy — once upon tasting them and hours later when I dig them out of a to-go container in the fridge.
The flat shape of the cheese enchiladas ($9.95) proves the corn tortillas have been properly softened, though the gravy is a little darker and sweeter than I like.
That peccadillo aside, Cactus Cantina is my clear favorite Tex-Mex restaurant in Washington — it makes me feel at home.
3300 Wisconsin Ave. NW.