The other day my girl called me at the prime hungover-and-need-grease-in-my-body hour of 1p.m. on a Saturday. “Let’s go to this Mexican place on Stanton,” she says. Like any good born-and-bred Angeleno, I inquired, “Like Mexican Mexican?” “Yeah,” she assured me. What I sat down to about thirty minutes later—between the yellow cheese, crispy pre-made tortilla shells, and human infant size-burritos—was not Mexican food. It was something else entirely: Tex-Mex.
Sit down class; it’s time for a little history lesson. When I think of Tex-Mex, my mind automatically conjures images of Velveeta-covered ground meat of questionable origin, served with a blended cocktail with something in it faintly resembling tequila, and maybe one of those swirly straws. But the history of Tex-Mex is actually far more nuanced than its stereotypes, and has much more to do with how and by whom the state was colonized before becoming a part of these United States.
Broadly, Tex-Mex is fusion fare that draws upon American and Mexican cuisines, with a heavier reliance on the former. The most Mexican thing about chile con carne, for example, is the way it’s spelled.
As the name would suggest, Tex-Mex originated in Texas where it remains incredibly popular, if not a point of pride. Much of the cuisine derives from the culinary traditions of Tejanos, which was once a broad-brush term to identify Spanish-speaking settlers and residents of Mexican and Spanish decent. So from an early stage, you’ve got not only Mexican flavors in the mix but Spanish ones as well. As Texas became more ‘Mericanized, both literally and culturally, so did Tex-Mex fare.
Where’s the BEEF?
...and yellow cheese, and flour tortillas…? The ranching culture of South Texas had a great impact on the development of Tex-Mex, too. And as much as I love my tacos with carne asada, the truth is, beef is much more prevalent in Tex-Mex than it is in Mexican cuisine.
Also, Tex-Mex has a near-obsession with cumin, which makes far fewer cameos in Mexican food. Cumin arrived in the US from India by way of England, and while it does pop up here and there in a few Mexican dishes, it’s far more popular on this side of the Rio Grande.
As gringos tirelessly tried to recreate what was going down in kitchens South of the border, they used what was readily-available and cheap locally, whether it was beef, wheat flour, or what would eventually become staples, like yellow cheese and canned vegetables. Eventually, these attempts became a cuisine of its own: welcome, first iteration of Tex-Mex! By the 1970s, the term was being thrown around and popularized by cookbooks authors and food writers, such as Diana Kennedy, who tried to separate it from Mexican cuisine. You go, girl.
So, are you eating Mexican or Tex-Mex? Let’s break down the determining factors:
1. Wheat flour
Americans have this thing for wheat. You can blame government subsidies and Big Agra, but the shit is everywhere. So if your tortilla is flour-based instead of corn, chances are whatever it’s hiding is probably Tex-Mex or extremely mediocre Mexican food.
Yes, Mexicans eat beef, but more so in the North, whereas the rest of the country relies more on things like chicken, pork, and seafood. That beef-stuffed burrito isn’t Mexican and neither is that chile con carne. Lo siento.
3. Yellow Cheese
Queso is a quintessential Tex-Mex dish that’s basically nacho cheese dip. It’s usually radioactive orange in color, and gooey like the blood must be in your arteries after you eat it. If you're served a Mexican queso, they’d be like, “Que?” Same goes for all the yellow (and usually processed) cheese, shredded, melted, and stuffed all over and inside Tex-Mex cuisine. Mexican cheeses, such as Cojita and queso blanco, are usually crumbly and white.
So, where are we eating tonight? If you’re looking for the supreme cuisine, Mexican, of course. If you’re looking for a burrito supreme (and, more power to you) opt for Tex-Mex. The future of Tex-Mex remains to be seen, but for now it reminds me too much of the state it comes from: big, bloated, and only inclusive of immigrant culture in a self-serving way. (You didn’t think I’d bring immigration reform into this, did you?) Well, I did. Buen provecho, readers!