HOME > Chowhound > Texas >


what makes tex-mex tex-mex?

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

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  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 Texas..is 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 USA...like 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.

                    2. Here's my go at this. I agree with most of what has already been reported, but there are a few things that I'm surprised that no one has mentioned yet. As an introduction, I am an Anglo that was raised on hard taco shells and ground beef, yet I married a woman from Mexico. Also, I love Rick Bayless' cookbooks; they are probably the ones I go to most often.

                      Chips and Salsa: Most restaurants in Mexico that I've been to have them, but every single Mexican that I've ever eaten with will each no more than a handfull if any at all. This is opposed to my family that can go through three bowls of the stuff and wonder if we should get one more. Salsa is definitely used much more as a condiment in Mexico, and there are other varieties that get short shrift in Tex-Mex cuisine, e.g. anything with tomatillo (which in Mexico are simply called tomate verde--green tomato).

                      Cheese: Much less dependence on it in Mexico and never yellow. It's used, generally, with a light hand and is more often farm style or very young cheeses. Even the Mexican manchego is very young, i.e. soft, compared to Spanish manchego.

                      Tortillas: Corn and flour tortillas are abundant in Mexico, but most Mexicans that I've know prefer corn. As an aside, the hard shell tortilla was first mentioned in a cookbook published in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1949 according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taco).

                      Fajitas: Yes, they are a Tex-Mex invention, but they do have a Mexican analogue, tacos al carbon. I don't know the history of of tacos al carbon, but I do know that you can always find it on menus at restaurants in Mexico. There, it is mostly cubed and always grilled. Fajitas using beef always come from skirt, flank, or hanger cuts which all are from the underbelly of the cow.

                      Sour Cream or Crema: Sour Cream == Tex-Mex, Crema == Mexican. Crema is only slightly soured and more akin to créme frâche of France than to sour cream. If there is the traditional half-spherical dollop of some sort of thickened cream as an accompaniment to your dish, it is always Tex-Mex.

                      Meats: You will certainly find your standard beef, pork, and chicken in Mexican cuisine, but I've never seen tongue, liver, or intestines (tripas from the intestines, not to be confused with honeycomb tripe which comes from the stomach) on any Tex-Mex menu. Also, in the region around Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, cabrito (baby goat) is very popular. As an additional bonus, things involving ants and crickets (very delicious if a bit salty) are always Mexican as well. As an aside, I have rarely found ground beef used in traditional Mexican dishes. The only times my mother-in-law uses it is in chile rellenos, stuffing (without any bread) with raisins and almonds, meatballs, and picadillo (I'm not sure how to describe this one).

                      Enchiladas: There are many varieties in the US and in Mexico. I've never seen enchiladas with chile con carne (the brown sludge that another author used) in Mexico. The original enchiladas were corn tortillas, coated in a concentrated dried chile sauce, and quick fried in a skillet. This lent suppleness and boats load of flavor for a very simple filling. This is the traditional street side vendor style enchilada without any added sauce that is always present in Tex-Mex. To be clear, there are also Mexican enchiladas that have a simple soften corn tortilla with filling and a sauce overtop that has been baked, but they have different sauces.

                      Fruits and Vegetables: They are present much more often in traditional cuisine than in Tex-Mex. Nopales, squash blossoms, huitlacoche (fungas, not plant), papaya, mango, prickly pear (cactus fruit), are all never found in Tex-Mex cuisine.

                      I'm sure I'm missing something, but this is a good start.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Tlaloc57

                        ....."I've never seen tongue, liver, or intestines (tripas from the intestines, not to be confused with honeycomb tripe which comes from the stomach) on any Tex-Mex menu."...

                        Liver guisado, Tripas, Menudo, Lengua lampriada is served in resturants I go to...They may not be served in Denton, Sugarland, or Fort Stockton...But they are in South Texas.

                        Where were y'all eating your Tex-Mex 30 years ago? and where?

                        1. re: SAguy

                          Guiso and menudo are traditional Mexican dishes, but maybe I should have said that the alternative meats don't show up on menus at the vast majority of tex-mex restaurants throughout the US. Of course, near the border, there will always be a blurring of the line distinguishing one cuisine from the other.

                          In answer to your other question, it's Dallas. Now there are some great places to get both here, and I do love the lengua tacos from a nearby taqueria. However, that place is definitely Mexican to the core.

                      2. I agree with the "brown sludge" comment. Here in SA, if enchiladas come with that stuff, you're in a tex-mex restaurant. I'm always amazed here that people will eat flour tortillas on the side with enchiladas. Puffy tacos, ground beef are also tex-mex specialities here. There are great authentic mexican rests here, but you have to look for them.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: saeyedoc

                          El Mirador was one of my favs while living in SA from '94 through '96, but it has been 10+ years since the last time I was there. Is it still good?

                          Friend's liked Brown's enchiladas - talk about "brown sludge" (!) - but it never did much for me.

                          1. re: pschweizer

                            Unfortunately most folk believe Tex-Mex to be what is sold in resturants. Athough we do eat Enchiladas, Crispy Tacos, and Chalupas; Tex-Mex is a 100 other dishes Off the Menu. I have lived by Brown's Mexican resturant for 30+ years, Ive never eaten there. If you want to try Tex-Mex, go across the street to Patty's Taco House and have the Sopa de Fideo and the Frijoles ala Bola.

                            1. re: SAguy

                              I think the point is that Tex-Mex is both - it's Sopa de Fideo AND what we called "truckstop enchiladas" - the chili/cheese combo plate style.

                              Tex-Mex shouldn't have to apologize for its roots OR its cheese - it is NOT Mexican, it's Tex-Mex. And that's fine.