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Aug 27, 2009 09:06 AM

what makes tex-mex tex-mex?

curious to know what distinguishes tex-mex from california mexican or east coast mexican or authentic mexican...

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  1. According to my California Mexican godmother, Tex-Mex is Mexican food cooked to agree with Texas Anglo palates.

    In Mexico all regions have different styles of cooking and rely on different, fresh, local ingredients. Rick Bayliss cooks primarily Oaxacan food, and that seems to be his favorite, but has also mastered the cooking styles and flavors of other Mexican states.

    As for me, authentic Mexican food is my godmother's because that's what I know and love best, and that is what I cook now since she's the one who taught me. :-) I am attempting to broaden my horizons some, though, by trying out some of the recipes from Rick Bayliss's cookbooks.

    1. I will take a stab at this, but LH will round it up for a slam dunk later I am sure.

      What might have been referred to as Tejano cuisine at one time (Mexican heritage of Texas birth) is now fondly referred to as Tex-Mex. It would be the blending of indigenous ingredients with the tastes of of the population.

      In Tex-Mex we see less fresh cheeses such as panela, queso fresco, queso blanco, cojita, asadero, Oaxaca (stretchy stuff), quesadilla and even crema Mexicana. We instead see the over abundant use of jack and cheddar. My Mexican American friends call it 'yellow cheese' and giggle when they see it used.

      Some of the ingredients and spices might be similar, such as the basics of meat, cheeses, tortilla, beans. However it can be something as simple as the execution of the dish that would separate the two. In Tex-Mex you will find more chili con carne, chili con queso, chili gravy, and fajitas... all Tex-Mex inventions. However, in the American kitchen, you will find different types of meat, basics like ground beef and chicken.

      So when asked to compare the various regional cuisines related to Latino cooking in America, I would say it is the ingredients used, and no doubt where your Latino population migrated from originally.

      The California version of Tex-Mex might be referred to as Baja-Style (certainly as of the past decade with reference to marketing) and as I suggest, includes more regionally available provisions. We also see more region favorites, such as poutine inspired carne asada fries, and the giant San Francisco burrito (see: Chipotle for a version of this phenomenon). Also, you will find the pupusarias that are common with large Salvadoran populations (stuffed tortillas similar to a quesadilla but so much more intense and delightful). See first Image for a pupusa.

      This might be over simplistic, lunch hour version of what you are asking for. But generally I hope it was what you were looking for.

      Lastly, if you have ever seen Telemundo, I must leave you with the obligatory photo of Maria Chonchita Alonso. Arriba!

      Edit @ KailuaGirl : Love Rick Bayless and his methods. Interesting fellow, however in texas we do not like his brother Skip. We tossed him to the lions for his methods of reporting sports.

      1 Reply
      1. re: DallasDude

        this is very insightful, thanks! i did notice that i can never find fajitas on the east coast...and the tortillas here are usually layered 2 at a time before getting stuffed..they lack that floury, dough-light texture of the ones from that also a Tex-Mex thing?

      2. I believe Tex-Mex is a variation to the eaten in the south Texas Area. It is a adaptation of Mexican, Spanish, and Native Texan and European dishes using the products of the region. In Texas beef is king, so dishes that were made with goat or pork in Mexico, Texicans substituted there own spices, and cheeses they could get or grow locally.
        Just each region of Mexican has their typical dishes...So does South Texas.

        Corn is the prominet grain in Mexico, Wheat flour became popular when German and other European groups settled in south Texas. A mix of culture happend and the culture was shared along the migrant worker's pisca route from south Texas to New Mexico, Arizona, California, Washinton state...over to Michigan and back south to Texas.

        Tex Mex can be thought of the food sold in resturants in San Antonio and south Texas. With San Antonio being a tourist destination and Home to many Military men...the Tex-Mex style became very popular. Young interprisesing resturantuers took Tex Mex to their home base and open resturants.

        10 Replies
        1. re: SAguy

          Regarding wheat flour...

          Flour is very popular in the large cattle states of northern Mexico - hence the popularity of flour tortillas in northern Mexico vs corn in the south. Sometime in the 1500's, when the Spaniards began settling "New Spain" in earnest, they began growing wheat. Not only did they prefer European-style breads, they required wheat to make their communion wafers. There is a perception in Mexico that lingers to this day that associates flour with the Spaniards and other Europeans and the wealthy cattle states in northern Mexico and corn with the poorer populations of the south.

          1. re: SAguy

            My take. I think the prior post are all fairly correct. I generall define Tex-Mex by the ingredients used: All are derived from parts of Mexico but tricked up differntly.

            Chili con carne and it's uses.. Cheese or ground beef Enchiladas, burritios, chimichangas covered in it.

            Chili con Queso - Usually yellow processed cheese food and it's uses..Dip, Cheese Taco, Burrito,chimicanga, chalupa

            Ground Beef -crispy tacos, puffy tacos, burritios, enchiladas, salads, chalupas, dips

            "Chips and Hot Sauce" - rarely seen in Mexico and when you do many times the torillas are grilled and are flour. Never will you see basket after basket, bowl, after bowl used a a sacriment even before eating.

            The Margarita - Perhaps the most definitive of the Tex-Mex table.- Invented in Texas, not Mexico as most know. I think it real funny the Mexico has now adopted it.

            1. re: J.R.

              Margarita "Invented in Texas, not Mexico as most know"?

              Most know?

              Actually, if you've narrowed down the dozen or so possibilities to Texas, you're likely the only one that knows. I've seen many, many mentions, and all but one are in Mexico - Flamingo Hotel in Acapulco, Mexico City, Juarez, Tasca, Tijuana/Rosarito, the Garci Crespo hotel in Puebla, Matamoros, among others.

              It's hardly a stretch to think that Mexicans would be the first to combine their national liquor, tequila, with their national fruit, the limon, and add salt and a squeeze or two of orange.

              And speaking just for myself, I think it's perfectly appropriate, and not at all "funny," that they've adopted the Margarita as basically their national mixed drink. Good for them.

              1. re: Jaymes

                Possibly true. The drink known as the margarita is a fairly late invention, some say dating back to the 1930's, but more commonly accepted as the 1940's. Most historical print I have seen on the margarita (and I am a student of food history) claim that the libation was named for Rita Hayworth, real name Margarita Cansino.

                Other stories have it invented in Acapulco with a wealthy Dallas socialite Margarita Sames associated with the cocktail, spreading popularity by means of one of her many lavish parties, once attended by good old Tommy Hilton. She was credited in recent years with an appearance on Good Morning America.

                One other story was given credence in a San Diego obituary in 1990, crediting a Carlos Herrera originating the margarita back in the late 30's.

                Whatever you subscribe to as far as the origins, we cannot displace the origins of the frozen margarita. In 2005, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired the world’s first frozen margarita machine, invented in 1971 by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez. Of course the idea was spawned after a visit to Dallas based 7-11 in view of the famous Slurpee machine.

                I say drink one with fresh lime juice, no salt, vigorously shaken. Sit back and enjoy the scenery.

                1. re: DallasDude

                  I think it's worth noting for purposes of this discussion that Herrera said he invented his Margarita not in San Diego where he died, but in a restaurant in Mexico, south of Tijuana, along the highway to Rosarito Beach.

                2. re: Jaymes

                  I speaking of the Frozen Margarita. I should have specified.

                3. re: J.R.

                  If I could make an analogy, Tex-Mex cooking is to Northren Mexico and Southwest what the acordian is to Conjunto and North Mexican music.

                  In the 1840's,The Germans settled In south Texas and Mexico, we share many things with them and adopted the Polka and the Acordian. Germans brewed beer in Mexico giving us Modelo, Sol, Corona and Bohemia. The tradition of the large Tortilla is a Sonoran and New Mexican Native flat Bread tradition.New Mexican Natives make blue corn tortillas that are large and thin, the Sonorans use wheat four. I remeber Families in Southren California had that large tortilla tradition. We share more than we think...

                  One more thing, I thin we use a lot more Cumin in our dishes. Our Spanish rice, I believe came to south texas form the New Orleans East Texas route. Texas supplied catle to the New Orleans area. Rice took off in the Bayous of Louisanna and Esat Texas. Sopa de arroz is different than that made in S. Cal...We use more tomato, garlic and cumin.

                  1. re: SAguy

                    It is funny how many cuisines are identical, but the preparation and execution is where the difference lies. I have my squeamish friends think of the various ingredients of Mexican cuisine when I take them to an Indian restaurant. Often many of the same spices, certainly the same proteins. And we can equate naan to a tortilla if we stretch. This practice never fails.

                    1. re: DallasDude


                      Many people have noted the similarities between the curries of India and the moles of Mexico.

                    2. re: SAguy

                      nice post saguy and I believe pretty accurate.

                4. The distinguishing characteristic of Tex-Mex cuisine is the use of tomatoes, especially in the various sauces/salsas that are part of any Tex-Mex dining experience.

                  1. If the cheese enchiladas have brown sludge on top, they're Tex-Mex.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Woofy


                      Where in South Texas have eaten Enchiladas with "brown sludge" on top?

                      1. re: SAguy

                        South Texas? That's been a long time ago, but I recall a place in Harlingen or Wesleco
                        I believe was called Los Lomas where we ate frequently and there were numerous other hole-in-the-walls in McAllen, Brownsville and South Padre Island with brown meat sauce. I don't recall anything down there much different from the San Antionio, Austin, Dallas/Ft. Worth variety.
                        The only significant variation I know of is in El Paso where red and green, (not tomatillo), sauces reign supreme but that is so far west, it is more New Mex-Mex. (And lots better in my opinion).
                        I always figure Texas Tex-Mex applies to the stuff served in the strip from Brownsville to Amarillo about the width from Lubbock to Dallas with Corpus and Houston thrown in for
                        good measure.