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Apr 5, 2002 07:50 PM

Cal-Mex vs. Tex-Mex vs. "authentic" Mexican?

  • r

Can someone explain the difference between the three for me? I realize that Mexico is a vast country with a large variety of regional dishes, but this seems to be a topic that generates some confusion on various Chowhound boards.

Thanks in advance!

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  1. j
    John Whiting

    Before launching yet again the perennially recycling debate on authenticity, take time to go back to early March, on this very board, and look at what has already been posted, including an ironic and perceptive anecdote from Russ Parsons. Also look at the brilliant essay by Rachel Lauden, one of our greatest living food historians, whom Russ commissioned to write on the subject last December.


    4 Replies
    1. re: John Whiting has a link to a series of articles called "A History of TexMex" by Robb Walsh. Good reading!

      This discussion reminds me of the fact that I am still looking for sopapillas in the Pacific Northwest area! I try and make up for this lack every time we visit the Southwest!


      1. re: ElizabethC
        John Whiting

        This is essential. I've saved them all into my permanent file. We should all stop and read this series before uttering another word.

        1. re: John Whiting

          I didn't see the link on the page Elizabeth referenced. Perhaps they did an update. Found the author's home page with a link to the series on TexMex


      2. re: John Whiting

        Just noticed that this is from 2002, when the Times had their now sadly lamented Food section. Eleven years later, that link doesn't work.

        The woman's name is Rachel Laudan, not Lauden, and I have a wonderful book of hers on Hawaiian food called "The Foods of Paradise." Very highly recommended.

        Okay, back to the Mex Debate …

      3. A rather concrete differentiation, since you are aware that within Mexico there are numerous regional cuisines, has to do with the primacy of corn. In Tex-and Cal-Mex styles, the flour tortilla is as important, if not more important than tortillas made from corn masa. Lime-treated corn is the base upon which Mex-Mex cuisine is built.

        1. In addition to other posters I agree with, it seems to me "authentic" Mexican is as varied as the regions and lifestyles in Mexico.

          It seems to me that "authentic" Mexican include frijoles (refried pinto beans), chorizo, lots of melted cheese, hot chili-peppers, corn, barracuda, albacore, halibut; Tex-Mex is the grilled fired foods (blackened fish, etc.), roasted vegetables, dry spices, black beans, that powdery white cheese that sort of tastes like parmesan (sorry about the courseness!), hominy; and Cal-Mex has many more fresh vegetables (incl., tostadas, taco salads), not as many pickled or cured vegetables), fresh fish and chicken, and less use of heavy lard. I would say Cal-Mex is an attempt to use indigenous ("authentic") Mexican fares into a more healthy-style diet. I think Tex-Mex uses more beef products (i.e., Steak Asada) as Cal-Mex has more abundance of Pacific Ocean fish.

          There are two women (their name escapes me just now) on TV who have opened two restaurants in California named "The Border Grill" and I would later research to see if they define the trilogy. I think they are Cal-Mex.

          BTW, REP, how long have you heard the terms "Cal-Mex vs. Tex-Mex vs. 'authentic' Mexican?"

          5 Replies
          1. re: kc girl

            The two women are Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feinegar. I think their show is called "Two Hot Tamales". Both gringos, but very successful with their south of the border restaurant.

            1. re: Chino Wayne

              They also did the food styling for the movie "Tortilla Soup". I rented the movie recently to see if the food looked as great on the small screen as it did on the big one. While it still looked fabulous, it looked even better on the big screen of the movie theater.

              1. re: Gayla
                russ parsons

                they are both great cooks and great folks, but i would hardly call border grill typical cal-mex. rather, those restaurants are closer to what rick bayless is doing in chicago--contemporary recreations of "mex-mex."

                1. re: Gayla

                  I haven't seen the movie yet, but I came across this article that features an interview with the chefs and links to recipes they used in the film. A friend of mine tried the Tortilla Soup recipe and gave it a thumbs up.


                  1. re: Macy U.

                    I saw it on an even "smaller screen," i.e. the UAL in-flight entertainment monitor on an older 777 in BC.

                    Still, the food DID look good, and it appeared to be better than what was served on that flight to LHR.


            2. Okay, if we could forget about the postmodern quibbles about the nature of authenticity, it seems that there is a real point to be made. A couple years ago, my wife and I moved from Dallas to Chicago, and we found the differences between "Mexican" restaurants in the two locales to be dramatically different. After myriad attempts in Chicago, we realized that, unbeknownst to us, our infatuation in Dallas must have been with Tex-Mex, because we certainly weren't getting it here.

              Now, I'm not talking about higher-end Mexican fare, like Frontera/Topolobambo, or even Monica's Aca y Alla in Dallas. That is wonderful food, but it is a different creature from the standard menu of tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, et al., off which a satisfying dinner for two can be had for about $20-$25.

              The first difference we noticed between Dallas and Chicago was the chips and salsa, and mostly the chips part. In Dallas they were usually thin and crispy, in Chicago thick and crunchy. The Dallas salsas were almost always hotter. Among the entrees, the primary difference seems to be the sauce--saucier in Dallas, drier in Chicago. Also, it seems corn tortillas are more prevalent in Chicago, flour in Texas. Returning to the "authenticity issue" Chicago Mex joints seem much more likely to call themselves authentic; in Dallas, an authentic Mexican restaurant was one where only Spanish was spoken, only Spanish was on the menu, Spanish-language soap operas were on TV, Spanish-language CDs filled the jukebox, and most if not all of the diners were Mexican. I thought the food was usually sub-par, but in hindsight, maybe it was just Chi-Mex.

              Point is, can anyone clarify these (American) regional differences regarding the preparation of Mexican food--are there others?

              6 Replies
              1. re: Aaron D

                I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "..(American) regional differences". I agree with you, this is not about Mexican high cuisine, but about simple comfort food. I also believe that the different interpretations we may find, in say southern California, Arizona, Texas or Chicago, are really the response of the restaurants in these locales responding to local tastes and prefernces, or at least, the restaurants' perception of the local prefernces. Kind of "a what ever sells to the masses is what I will sell".

                I think that is why in The Dining Wilderness That Is The Inland Empire (Chino, California and surroundings) where I live, you will find the absolutely worst "white bread" Chinese food anywhere, except for Santa Fe, New Mexico.

                1. re: Chino Wayne
                  Caitlin McGrath

                  Not to be overlooked in American regional variations and adaptations of Mexican food is the fact that the Mexican immigrant populations in different parts of the US generally hail from different regions of Mexico, and there's a great deal of regional variation in the cuisine of Mexico.

                  1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                    Yeah, all of these comments seem to indicate that it will always be an adventure, as it should be.

                2. re: Aaron D
                  russ parsons

                  Rick Bayless says chicago has some of the best "authentic" mexican restaurants in the country because the immigration is so recent. In border states (n.m., ariz., tex., calif), when immigrants come north, they fit into an existing social structure and part of what that structure does is tell cooks "you can't get that here, use this instead." in chicago, there is no similar tradition. folks from mexico use what they used in mexico--and thanks to modern transportation, getting those ingredients isn't a problem.

                  1. re: russ parsons

                    Gotta disagree here. In Texas, the history of Tex-Mex is that Texans who had been to Mexico (mainly deer hunting) would eat a fair portion of appetizers while they drank their margs and beers. Then, they'd come home and ask cooks at local restaurants to re-create the anjotitos (appetizers) they'd had in Mexico. Knowing Texans have an affinity for "goopy" food, these local cooks went heavy on the smooth melt and the chili, and were successful.

                    I would argue that the "authentic" Mexican restaurants have been here all along, just not in the parts of towns that non-immigrants frequented. The immigration has always bee constant and strong in Texas; it's just that only recently have folks down here become truly interested in the true "ethnic" food of our soouthern neighbor. BTW, Fonda San Miguel, the bastion of true "interior" Mexican cuisine in Austin has been dishing it up for over 20 years.

                    1. re: russ parsons

                      Thanks, that confirms my hunch. I never really saw how anyone could live on a regular diet of Tex-Mex food, and what I've had up here, though it didn't initially satisfy my Tex-Mex cravings, seemed like a more "normal" eating experience.

                  2. My first experience with "Mexican" food was at a dive called "Mama Garcia's" behind the Stanford campus. I was fresh from Washington state and tortillas and frijoles hadn't made it up there yet (this was quite some time ago.)

                    Mama Garcia served tacos - crisp-fried ones - containing spicy mystery meat (probably some hamburger-chorizo concoction). They also contained shredded lettuce and a little tomato salsa, as I recall. I LOVED them! At Lake Tahoe there was a taco truck at the beach which made similar tacos. Later, in San Jose the same type of crisp-fried tacos were prevalent, plus enchiladas smothered in a mild, rather creamy red sauce.

                    In 1969 I visited a friend in Phoenix and had chimichangas for the first time. I have never seen them in Mexico, and even now, you rarely see them in California.

                    So, for me, Cal-Mex is crisp-fried tacos, and enchiladas drowned in mild sauce. Arizona-Mex is Chimichangas with some sauce on top and guacamole on the side.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: Sharuf
                      John Whiting

                      "In 1969 I visited a friend in Phoenix and had chimichangas for the first time. I have never seen them in Mexico, and even now, you rarely see them in California."

                      They've been well-known in San Diego for at least twenty years.

                      1. re: John Whiting

                        I was born and raised in San Diego, and just moved back this past October after having been gone for 25 years. Chimichangas were not around when I grew up. I'm not quite an antique yet , Chimis were not part of the standard Mexican restaurant menus of my youth.

                        What I can remember mostly were crunchy tacos and cheese enchiladas. All plates were served with the ubiquitous beans and rice, smothered under a bed of the even more ubiquitous yellow cheese (which is not see in Mexico). Beans were mostly refried with the occassional pinto bean, "Charro" beans were not common. Black beans (often referred to as a "turtle" bean back in the 60s) were rarely served and considered exotic. Avocados and guacamole were not considered exotic because, of course, San Diego county is a major producer of avocados so we knew - thanks to Sunset Magazine - what they were and what to do with them. Tamales and chile rellenos were fairly common in Mexican restaurants and both were fairly decent, or so my memory says. Seafood was not uncommon, and fish taco weren't on any menu ;-). Ceviche and lots of shrimp dishes were common and one restaurant even served a sea bass with a jalapeno bernaise sauce. (Lest one forget, San Diego had a huge tuna fishing fleet at one time, so seafood was easy to come by and inexpensive.)

                        The local chain Consuela's used to serve a complimentary "quesadilla" which was a very large flour tortilla that had been topped with grated yellow cheese and run through the broiler till it melted. Certainly not a quesadilla by any definition, but a great munch while reading the menu, and different than chips and salsa.

                        I've had the opportunity to live with a Mexican family in central Mexico and can safely say that the food I ate with my Mexican family bore little resemblance to anything labeled as "Mexican" that I've eaten in the State of California. What we lack here is the sheer variety that is available in Mexico. For example, I haven't found many restaurants on this side of the border that serve really good sopa or cocido, but I ate really great ones all over Mexico. And while the variety of produce used by Mexican restaurants here in the States has improved dramatically, it still can't match what you find in Mexico. The immigrant population brought their traditions with them, adapted them to what was here and them molded them to fit the tastes of the local population in order for their restaurants to survive. Pretty typical process.

                        The one thing that I have noticed in some of the Mexican restaurants I've been to in San Diego since I've been back is the decided lack of pork on the menu. Since pork is such an interegal meat in Mexico I was surprised to find multiple restaurants not serving it here in S.D. So far the most satisfying Mexican food I've found has been at El Cuervo (1st & Washington), but I'm just taking my time working my way through the options. But for "real" Mexican food, I'm going to have to plan a trip back to Mexico :-)

                        1. re: Gayla
                          John Whiting

                          "I was born and raised in San Diego, and just moved back this past October after having been gone for 25 years. Chimichangas were not around when I grew up. I'm not quite an antique yet , Chimis were not part of the standard Mexican restaurant menus of my youth."

                          Over a twenty-year period, until ten years ago, whenever I visited my friends in San Diego we always went out for chimichangas. Maybe it was the only place in town.

                          1. re: John Whiting

                            Or maybe I *have* reached antique-hood

                            1. re: Gayla
                              John Whiting

                              On the other hand - maybe it actually *was* the only place in town. After all, I didn't live there.

                        2. re: John Whiting

                          I believe that chimichangas were invented in Southern Arizona, somewhere in that area between Tucson and Nogales. I first encountered them in Tucson in the early 70's. Even the university cafeteria served chimichangas, but the best were to be found in South Tucson in the very Latino area. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1973 none of the local Mexican restaurants served chimichangas. Eventually many Mexican restaurants, including the chains, started serving them, and now they can be found in chain restaurants all over the country. In my opinion they don't compare with the originals (for one reason, the flour tortillas in Tucson are paper-thin, and become light and flaky when wrapped and deep fried). I have an Arizona/Mex cookbook that I bought in the 70's, and according to the author the word "chimichanga" has no meaning in English, other than something on the order of "thingamabob."

                          Also in that cookbook was a recipe that I used to make for "tacos con berenjena" -- eggplant tacos. I remember that they were good but I haven't made them in about 25 years. You boiled the eggplant whole, then combined the pulp with beef, spices, and cheese, as I recall. I will never forget the look on the face of a man I was dating and to whom I represented that I was making tacos for his dinner, when he came into the kitchen and found that whole eggplant bobbing up and down in a saucepan of water.

                          1. re: Sarah C

                            That's what I've always heard, too, about the chimichanga. Especially the chains-copying-them part.
                            I never heard of eggplant tacos, but I'm going to have to give them a try. I was raised in Tucson but my parents were both from the midwest, and were delicate in their exploration of fabulous Mexican food. I had to break out on my own when I grew up and delve into it.

                        3. re: Sharuf

                          You will find plenty of chimichangas at the big chains in Southern California, like Acapulco or El Torito. I really don't care for those chain operations, although, there are coupons in every Sunday L.A. Times for Acapulco, so if you gotta go there, at least you can get some deals.