Tex-Mex food seems to have a slightly naff reputation now, being regarded by many foodie types as nothing more than a mild, watered-down version of 'real' Mexican food. As we might just be working on a brand new Taco Legend book exploring how Mexican food has spread around the world (don't tell anyone yet!), I travelled to Houston and San Antonio to find out for myself...
Houston and Southern Texas is the birthplace of some of the all-time classic Tex-Mex dishes, as it was one of the first places in the US where the Anglo community were introduced to Mexican food. Its location on the Gulf of Mexico also gives lots of Cajun and Latino influences, plus it now has an incredibly international population that has led to some very exciting new developments in the local food.
You can find all kinds of twists on Mexican food here, from Indo-Mex (Indian and Mexican fusion using Indian ingredients like parathas and mango chutney in a Mexican style), Cajun-Mex, Arabic-Mex (a new concept trying to blend Middle Eastern dishes with Mexican flavours), and much more! I even had a Fish & Chip taco with Curry Mayo, and a Chicken Tikka taco with Mint Raita!
Texas is also home to the breakfast taco - where has this been all my life?! Scrambled eggs, sausage, crispy bacon or chorizo plus cheese and hot salsa is a fantastic way to start the day, and now seems to be spreading around the country via chains like Taco Bell.
It was great to try all those new creations, but it's the classic Tex-Mex food that still has enduring popularity here. Many of these dishes (and possibly even the existence of Tex-Mex as a cuisine in it's own right) owe a debt to the work of one man - Felix Tijerina. He opened the first recognisably Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston in 1929, where he adapted the food of his Mexican homeland to the tastes of his Anglo customers. Decades later, many Tex-Mex dishes have become popular around the world and the cuisine now has it's own particular style, character and traditions which make it just as valid as any other.
Felix is honoured with a plaque, and even has a school named after him in recognition of his work popularising Mexican food and creating a place where Anglo and Mexican people could come together, as well as his contributions to the local community.
Fajitas - apparently this famous dish was invented at Ninfa's restaurant in Houston in the 1970's, and it's still regarded as one of the best places in town. The sizzling beef steaks (Texas has fabulous beef and the portions are almost comically enormous) are thinly sliced then served with caramelised onions, peppers, hot brown butter, tortillas and salsas on the side.
Chile con Queso - this is the iconic starter in any Tex-Mex restaurant. Creamy melted American cheese flavoured with a litte red chile and served with tortilla chips for dipping. Rich, indulgent and totally addictive!
Further south and closer to the Mexican border, San Antonio is one of the oldest cities in America, originally settled by the Spanish missionaries who travelled from Mexico in the 17th Century. It boomed during the 19th Century with lots of immigration from Germany and Central Europe, and the legacy can be seen in the fabulous architecture and grand civic buildings.
It also has it's own culinary traditions, and is in fact responsible for probably the most famous Mexican-related dish to have spread around the world - Chilli con Carne!
The story goes that in the late 19th Century when the city was booming (and therefore full of single working men who probably didn't have much money or anyone to cook for them), Mexican and Native American women would set up stalls in the public squre at night, and sell a simple meat and bean dish with tortillas on the side. The spicy stew (flavoured with the local chile peppers and lots of cumin - due to the presence of people from the Canary Islands who would have brought this ingredient with them from Spain) was called Chile con Carne.
San Antonio was probably not the most gentrified of cities at the time, and the ladies who sold chilli were renowned for being as fiery as their food, and so they became known as the Chile Queens. At the World Fair in 1893 San Antonio was represented by these Chile Queens and so the dish was introduced to the rest of the world.
Weirdly, although it's the official state dish of Texas, it's actually quite hard to find chile con carne in modern-day San Antonio - perhaps because it's just considered a side dish, or something you'd make at home rather than go out for. The ones I did find were pretty hot and fiery, served with grated cheese, chopped onion and flavoured with lots of cumin which is something you don't tend to see as much in traditional Mexican stews.
San Antonio also has a few other unique culinary creations that are now part of the Tex-Mex repertoire:
Puffy Tacos (these are famed across the state, as the corn tortillas are fried rather than toasted so they puff up, making the tacos both crunchy and soft. A delicious, but rather calorific combination!)
Crispy Dogs - frankfurters wrapped in a tortilla then fried and served with American mustard
Frito Pie - this is a dish that's popular across the US, but it's claimed it was invented in Texas. Basically it's just a pack of Fritos (a corn-based crisp like Doritos), slit down the side, hot chile con carne poured over plus a dose of liquid American cheese.
Taco Salad - this is a standard on any Tex-Mex menu. A whole crispy tortilla shell filled with lettuce, tomato, avocado, beans and cheese, then topped with chicken or beef plus some salsa on the side
The fact that Tex-Mex dishes like chilli con carne, fajitas and crispy shell tacos have spread so far and wide, and introduced millions of people to exciting new flavours is something to be celebrated. These dishes have their own unique history and traditions, and the story of their development is a reflection of how America itself has welcomed so many different people and ideas, and given them the freeedom to reinvent and share them around the world. Far from thinking of Tex-Mex as being a bit naff, I'm now a huge fan (and also about 5kg heavier after this trip..!).
p.s. Thanks to Julia at Food Chick Tours in San Antonio for sharing her knowledge and love for San Antonio and it's fantastic food scene - definitely get in touch with her if you're ever in the area!
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