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Definition of Tex-Mex

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The discussion of Mexican food in Houston below prompted me to ask: What is Tex-Mex, exactly? Is it the addition of ground beef and yellow cheese and hard taco shells to traditional Mexican dishes?

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  1. I think of it as Mex filtered through Texas Germans - especially cheese and sour cream

    2 Replies
    1. re: Betty

      I think Betty's on the right track in that tex-mex is an old Texan's interpretation of mexican food. I think of it as how a cook at a Texas diner might have tried to emulate dishes from Mexico he'd heard about but never seen or tasted. Remember the days when you had to order tortilla chips but saltines came with the enchiladas?

      As for sour cream, I think that's a cal-mex import. I don't remember seeing much of it as a kid growing up here.

      1. re: Greg Spence

        I think you're right about sour cream being a California import. I do tend to associate ground beef and with Tex Mex. Also, an absence or minimal amount of chile/enchilada sauce.

    2. I haven't eaten much Mexican food in Mexico, but when I did, mostly in Mexico City, it was bland. Perhaps it was the restaurants, but as I recall, it was boring. Do you hounds think Tex-Mex is spicier?

      4 Replies
      1. re: chuck

        I think that depends on what you order and where you order it. I'd have to say that as a general rule, Mexican is hotter than Tex-mex. I also think that the original Tex-mex was milder than what is being served today.

        I you want to try some authentic Tex-mex, head into Austin and checkout El Patio on Guadalupe. They quit serving saltines instead of chips in the past couple of years. My 68 year old mom used to eat there when she was in school.

        1. re: Greg Spence
          Roland Swenson

          Boy, I'm not really sure what the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex is. I usually think of places like Fonda San Miguel and Manuel's as Mexican, and their food is relatively mild. I love El Patio, too, and I agree that it's a good example that Tex-Mex was milder back in olden days.

          But if you're coming to town to eat Tex-Mex, a couple of other venerable Tex-Mex spots would have to include El Azteca on E. 7th and Matt's El Rancho on South Lamar.

          1. re: Roland Swenson

            I used to enjoy Dario's and Nuevo Leon, also. I guess Tex-Mex can only be broadly defined. Can't pin it down in a couple of sentences.

            1. re: Roland Swenson

              Avoid Matt's El Rancho like the plague.

        2. j
          Jerry Stevenson

          Having been to Mexico and lived in Texas for a number of years, here's my best explanation of the differences:

          -Tex Mex makes extensive use of chili con carne -- a brownish soup type chili with meat as a main toping on many of the dishes offered (think Hormel). You will almost never find this in true Mexican cuisine -- they use true chili based sauces that are based on actual chili peppers -- mild red sauces, dark mole sauces (a mixture of dark red pepper and Mexican chocolate -- absolutely delicious), etc. and they seldom include meats in the sauce. Chili con queso -- a soft, dipable cheese sauce is also more commonly found in Tex Mex fare.
          -Tex Mex often includes flour tortillas. Flour tortillas are pretty rare south of the border. Corn tortillas are preferred. You'll also more commonly encounter varied colors of corn tortillas made from red and blue corn south of the border. Yellow is the rule in Tex Mex.
          -Tex Mex nearly always includes chips and salsa or dishes based on chips (Nachos). You almost never find tortillas chips in traditional Mexican cuisine. If you do, they are _really_ thick and more textured.
          -Refried beans are typically the rule in Tex Mex dishes. You'll find whole beans more common in Mexican cuisine. You'll also find more black beans in Mexican food as opposed to Pintos that are used in Tex Mex. Not an absolute rule, but pretty common.
          -Tex Mex tends to be spicier, as a rule, and the heat often comes from the inclusion of Jalapeno peppers in the food. Mexican food is a bit more bland in general, though there are some regional exceptions.
          -Tex Mex favors fried dishes -- Chimichangas, Flautas, etc. While similar dishes are used in Mexico, they are more rare. This also explains what you noticed in the tacos -- Tex Mex favors hard tacos where the tortilla has been fried. Mexican Taqueria style tacos are usual soft and almost always corn. (as opposed to the 'soft' Tex Mex taco made with a flour tortilla).
          -The types of meat used in dishes is more varied in Mexican cuisine than Tex Mex. A typical Tex Mex joint will offer Chicken, Beef and Cheese as the typical filling for tacos/enchiladas. Mexican restaurants are more apt to have pork, seafood, and other sometimes unrecognizable fillings. You're also more likely to encounter Chorizo -- a flavorful Mexican sausage.
          -Flavorful soups are more commonly offered in Mexican restaurants and are an expected part of the meal. If you're lucky, you might find Tortilla soup in a Tex Mex joint.
          -Yellow cheddar/colby cheeses are the rule in Tex Mex. White asiago or Monterey cheeses are more commonly found in Mexican food.
          -Mexican food often uses a lighter, pourable type of cream sauce. Tex Mex uses the thick scoupable sour cream you can find in most grocery stores.

          There are other differences I'm probably not thinking about, but those are some of the big things.

          If you ever find yourself in Dallas, be sure to check out La Valentina if you'd like to try real Mexico City style food. They have a sister restaurant that's in Mexico City, so they are the real deal. The food is WONDERFUL, and different than what you'll find at the average Tex Mex joint. For a good contrast, try Mi Cocina (also in Dallas) and order one of their more traditional Tex Mex dishes -- beef or cheese enchiladas.

          Hope that helped!


          3 Replies
          1. re: Jerry Stevenson

            Thank you! The distinction between the two can be a somewhat elusive concept. As Americans I think we have very differing opinions when it comes to what authentic mexican food is though I suspect that the vast majority of us really haven't a clue. I am certainly not an expert but when I have traveled in Mexico I often find the local fare to be on the bland side. I more often prefer "Mexican" food the way we prepare it north of the border but sometimes get put out by array of cheesy sauces offered in most tex-mex restaurants. I grew up in Colorado and have spent a good deal of time in New Mexico. Living in these areas has fostered a deep love for green chile which can take various forms but seems to be largely unknown in many places I have dined in Texas.

            1. re: Jerry Stevenson

              Very good. I would add that Tex-Mex beans are thick, greasier and usually lump-free.
              Tex-Mex is greasier with more cheese. It has a higher ratio of meat to cheap (common folks food), ingredients than real Mexican. A lot of Mexican food is meatless. The rice almost always has peas and carrots in it.
              In Texas, Mexican food used to be cheap, while Tex-Mex has soared to unreal prices. I think now, if you find a Gringo tempting Mexican place its prices have gone way up because it is now unique and has more cachet. Witness Fonda San Miguel, in Austin.

              1. re: Jerry Stevenson

                Thank you SO much for writing this. Now I know that I don't *like* Tex-Mex and do like Mex. Before I just knew that there was some *Mexican* food that bored me.

              2. The first ingredients that instantly come to mind are:
                Velveeta cheese
                Sour cream enchilada sauce
                Store-bought hard taco shells
                Burritos stuffed with rice, beans, and hundreds of other items (a la Chipotle, Q'doba)
                Chile con carne enchilada sauce (WTF is up with that!?!?)
                Sliced black olives used as garnish


                11 Replies
                1. re: LeahBaila

                  As a kid, i never had a burrito stuffed with anything but beans around here.
                  I've noticed at mexican places around here you can get either refried or whole beans,and I usually get the whole beans.most of the time the mexican plates around here always have rice and beans. Rarely do you see other vegetables ,like calabcita squash, corn,etc. Though at El Jalisco in Schertz I have had nopalitos,which is cactus.
                  In texas, they really don't seem to use green chilis much,except I have had tomatillo sauce on chicken enchiladas mainly.
                  And the way people cook at home is far different than what you get in restaurants.

                  1. re: HollyDolly

                    "And the way people cook at home is far different than what you get in restaurants." Absolutely agreed.
                    I'm speaking of my 4 years spent in Lubbock, followed by 2 years in Dallas. This was Tex-Mex in its most extreme form, in my opinion.


                  2. re: LeahBaila

                    you are describing a Mission Burrito, not a texmex concoction.

                    1. re: LeahBaila

                      Tex-Mex cannot be poured from a can nor removed from a carboard box nor picked up at a drive-thru. Prepared properly, It is its own very unique style, most unhealthy as it may be. Jerry (above) does a very good job with his descriptive variations. I'd add that the really good stuff, like southern fried chicken, incorporates mucho lard into the process. Additionally, more tomatoes are used as opposed to tomatillos and jalapenos are usually the green chili of choice.

                      Now, it complete fun I'll ask, should a Texan give her thoughts on the prep of a Reuben?

                        1. re: LeahBaila

                          Velveeta cheese and Rotel is not Tex-Mex restaurant food. It may be what some Texans do at home.

                          1. re: Scargod

                            I've had PLENTY of cheese enchiladas made with Velveeta in both Dallas and Lubbock.
                            Rotel? Fine, I'll give you that.


                            1. re: LeahBaila

                              I think you are saying they put Velveeta cheese inside the enchilada? I might have had that at one time or another. More likely, I might have had a sauce based on Velveeta poured over enchiladas. If you are saying inside, I sure am curious where this was. There's no accounting for taste in Lubbock.
                              I was raised in Dallas and my mom would do homemade Tex-Mex. I would guess that I started eating Tex-Mex in restaurants when I was 18, so that was 38 years straight of Tex-Mex in Texas. Once I had four Tex-Mex meals in a row. We would kid about El Fenix hot sauce being soup as an appetizer. We used to make frequent pilgrimages to Joe T's (Garcia's) in Ft. Worth, when it was just a run-down house with a seriously leaning wall. In the '70's it was popular with underage TCU students since you got your own beers from a coke box and ordered "dinners" which were bountiful family style servings on platters... They didn't keep track of who was underage. Fun times as a 20 something, before I got all cranky and critical about what I ate.

                              1. re: Scargod

                                :) Yes, inside of the enchiladas, indeed. It really horrified me. I found this in Lubbock in nearly every restaurant I went to. So disappointing! Man, how I miss good ol' Joe T Garcia's. I still think they make some of the world's best cheese enchiladas. And those refried beans!? Ah, heavenly.


                        2. I lived 8 years in Texas, 4 in Mexico. Tex-Mex should drop the "Mex" , except in Webb County, and around McAllen and Brownsville. Sour cream, canned jalapenos, ground beef, nuked jack cheese, and pre-formed taco shells are an insult to a fine cuisine. Fancy places like Manuels in Austin will give you flour tortillas, but there is still something lacking, like soul, and a plump mexican lady whistling while she cooks.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Veggo

                            Luckyfatima said it, too. Ground meat does not belong in Tex-Mex though it is often to be had at lower end places. Shredded or pulled meat should be the norm or chopped or coarsely ground meat.
                            I cut all my chili beef and pork into cubes so that once cooked they are about the size of a sugar cube. Pork and so forth for stuffing, enchiladas, etc., I chop or shred. Common ground meat leaves you with an unsatisfactory mouth feel and texture, to say the least.

                          2. I think that Jerry Stevenson's description of Tex-Mex is a pretty good summary, although I sense some distain from other posters regarding Tex-Mex. The canned, liquified Velveeta cheese, Rotel, and, I suspect, flour tortillas, are relatively new additions to this cuisine (although I am not sure about the flour tortillas). They reflect the ongoing and pervasive effect of American culture on Mexican cuisine.

                            However, here is a radical suggestion: Tex-Mex cuisine existed before there was a Texas. If you completely removed Texas from consideration and just looked at the cuisine of Mexico in the top third of the country, geographically, the food would still be what we consider to be Tex-Mex.

                            If you go straight south from the border, the nature of Mexican cooking changes somewhere a little south of San Luis Potosi. I think that the change in the nature of the food is more climate driven than culture driven. The northern third of Mexico is arid and you need highly spiced food to mask the somewhat rapidly deteriorating quality of meat in such an environment. (Hey, don't blame the Mexicans. This is true of most hot country cultures: Thailand, Malaysia, southern India, etc., in an age when refrigeration did not exist.) Also, happily, chilis like to grow in an arid environment.

                            Some other northern Mexican characteristics are the use of nopal (cactus) in the cuisine; the use of beef (more of it is raised in cattle country in the north); the use of goat meat (a hardy animal that survives well in an arid climate); semi-dry cheeses (the arid climate
                            sucks the liquid right out of a round of cheese); and beans (they'll grow anywhere).

                            I love Tex-Mex cuisine, but I have to say it: Tex-Mex cuisine is the embodiment of making due with what you've got in an agriculturally and economically deprived environment. (I am talking solely about northern Mexico, now.) But look at the genius of the cooks who put together this cuisine with limited ingredients and a hostile cooking environment with
                            which to contend.

                            Tex-Mex is never going to have the diversity of the Mexican cuisine developed in Guadalajara or Mexico City, but its very limitations are its strengths. (How is that for a pretentious ending?)

                            1. Thank God I was born & raised in Southern Arizona on Sonoran food. We don't be using no brown gravy ground beef chili sauce mish mash!

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: mrbigshotno.1

                                Your right! That is one of the worst Texas inventions I've ever had. Why do they have to ruin a good tamale (or tamal), with it I will never understand. You often have tasty pork inside and you get BEEF gravy on it? Give me some green chiles or red chile sauce. Tamal sounds so wrong...

                                1. re: Scargod

                                  But one never eats just one tamal, so the plural is fairly ubiquitous...

                                  1. re: Scargod

                                    Gimme Hatch red chile sauce or fresh roasted green chiles! I will never forget traveling I 40 east through the panhandle and and stopped at one place and got this God awful beef gravy defecate and I thought it was a one-off abberation, then a second place, then a third.
                                    On the return, I hit Denver and I 25 south for Colo green chile heaven. I literally got out of the car danced around and kissed the ground at Raton Pass, NM. What a difference between east and north from New Mexico! Gimme Texas Q or taco trucks, but the beef gravy, no gracias.

                                2. There is Mexican inspired creations by non-Mexican home cooks that may incorporate velveeta and so forth. That is Americanized Mexican food perhaps, but not Tex-Mex.

                                  Tex-Mex overlaps a lot with Nortenyo food and a lot of the dishes go by the names which they are called in the North. Northern food has a lot of beef, grilled meats, does have refried beans, and of course uses flour tortillas in addition to corn and corn-flour mixes. There are many Mexican Americans in Texas whose families have roots in Texas before Texas was part of the US. Also, people from Northern Mexican states have come to Texas and contributed a lot to the cuisine. That is what Tex-Mex is and what it is based on. Not velveeta cheese. Well prepared Tex-Mex made with Texan ingredients is wonderful, though heavy and oily.

                                  By the way, Northern Mexico has chile con carne and it is like a chopped beef stew, not made with ground beef. Ground beef chile is Texan.

                                  1. What started as a discussion of the differences in Mexican and Tex-Mex food seems to have evolved into a forum for people to tell us that "their" type of Mexican food is so much better. Seriously, Tex Mex is its own cuisine and should make no apologies for its differences from traditional Mexican cuisine.

                                    While Jerry (above) has done a fantastic job of listing some of the differences, Robb Walsh wrote a whole book about the cuisine. If you are truly interested, it is a fantastic book, titled "The Tex Mex Cookbook." Here's a link to Amazon -

                                    check it out!


                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: UptownKevin

                                      I agree and have mused over some of the non-Texas residents who are complete "authorities" on this matter of definition. Tex-Mex, as the name implies, is possibly the original, new-world, "fusion" food - taking food items from both the south and the north to create what is a truly unique food type and experience unto itself. Depending on where you are in the state, food preparation and taste will likely differ.

                                      Texas, in case some haven't noticed, incorporates a relatively large space. South TX, being closer to the Mexican border, will incorporate different products in their prep than will West TX, who pick up influences from New Mexico. North TX has other variations. Then there's east TX - well, God knows and bless their little hearts; they try, but truthfully, the great state of Louisiana with the wonderful Cajun influences tend to creep across the border over there.

                                      In any case, for those of you planning a venture into TX, please post on the Texas board for recs to "the best" in the area from other hounders who actually live there and know of what they speak.

                                      1. re: CocoaNut

                                        CocaNut, I think that is a stupendous idea!
                                        When I came to New Haven, CT, I was amazed that the state of Connecticut is about the size of just the Dallas - Ft. Worth Metroplex. There are certainly many variations as you cross the state. It was distinctly noticeable as we went from the eating in New Mexico to the West Texas Panhandle and on into Austin (with its own different variations). As you say, it doesn't even account for the deep south of TX or where I was from in North Texas. Denton, TX is a trip for Tex-Mex! Dallas has all forms of Mex to Tex-Mex as Austin does.

                                    2. Wow, I just realized that someone dug up this thread from 2001. That was 8 years ago!