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A Celebration of Tex Mex, Without Apology

WHEN I arrived in Texas in late 60,s to visit my girlfriend whom I met in Germany thru my brother Roman and his girlfriend Bonnie ,whom he later married , there were a great many things I knew nothing about. Among them were Tony Lama boots, espadrilles and Tex-Mex food.
I returned to the great state of Texas to in 2001 to get lost in my very own tamale triangle: San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. When I learned that the government of Mexico flew in the owners of 50 Mexican restaurants in the United States and Canada that summer to teach them what’s authentic and what’s not, the expedition picked up some gravity.

Among food snobs, the Mexican vs. Tex-Mex argument has been raging for decades. It is a wrongheaded debate, according to Robb Walsh, who wrote “The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Photos and Recipes” (Broadway, 2004).

“Tex-Mex isn’t Mexican food,” said Mr. Walsh. “It is an American regional cuisine. So why do we have to apologize to Mexico for it?”

Mr. Walsh said the late food writer Waverley Root got it right when he described Tex-Mex as “native foreign food.”

“It is native, for it does not exist elsewhere; it was born on this soil,” Root wrote in “Eating in America: A History”(William Morrow & Co., 1976), with Richard de Rochemont. “But it is foreign in that its inspiration came from an alien cuisine.”

After the book was published, of course, Tex-Mex moved into the mainstream, and that was where the trouble started. Between microwaved burritos in convenience stores and nacho platters served with two-for-one margaritas in casual chains across the land, Tex-Mex got itself a bad reputation.

The history of Tex-Mex begins with the “chili queens” of San Antonio, who in the late 1800s transformed the plazas of the city into destinations for everyone from soldiers to tourists in silk hats to Mexican bootblacks, all seeking generous portions of chili and beans, with a tortilla on the side — for a dime.

It is hard to pin down experts and restaurateurs as to what happened to Mexican food when it crossed the border. The best explanation is perhaps the most inelegant: it got cheesier, chili-er and meatier.

“Cal-Mex is long on burritos and sour cream,” Mr. Walsh said. “In New Mexico, it’s all about green chilies, and in Arizona they are proud to have invented chimichangas — deep-fried
burritos. The embodiment of Tex-Mex is a cheese enchilada with gravy.”

While superior Tex-Mex food may be specific to Texas, it is hardly restricted to one region or city. I learned that there is no such thing as a best Tex-Mex restaurant in any given city. Instead, there are favorites recommended by locals. This is because the restaurants are family run, and the true Tex-Mex aficionado is usually a good neighbor who supports more than one family.

San Antonio is arguably the cuisine’s Paris, the place where dozens of top-notch restaurants have built on the foundation of the chili queens, but have not been afraid of injecting their own artistry. No place embodies this better than El Mirador, which since 1967 has been owned and operated by the Trevino family.

Each morning Maria Trevino, 97, is in the kitchen as the fresh fruits and vegetables are delivered to the restaurant, an ivy-covered stucco building at the edge of downtown. Her handwritten recipes, kept in a large book, have been handed down for generations in her family in Guanajuato, Mexico, or the family of her late husband Julian, who was from Salinas Victoria.

Doña Mari, as she is known to the patrons she’s been serving for nearly four decades, watches over the preparations of all of El Mirador’s sauces. None is made more painstakingly than the mole, which is prepared only once a week. It takes a whole day to get the right blend of ground chili peppers and nuts — among them almonds and pecans — to go with the cacao, sugar and cinnamon.

You can taste that effort when the mole is presented over a plate of enchiladas. It gives the cheese a sweet, chocolate flavor and teases the smokiness out of the beef and chicken.

The Trevinos regard the Tex-Mex label as a slur, something more appropriate for the food served at Taco Bell. They also shrug off the notion that their life’s work sometimes is treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of cuisines.

On Saturday afternoons, they get their due respect when, just like in the days of the chili queens, a cross section of San Antonio waits in line for El Mirador’s famous soups, which hew closely to the traditional soups across the border. Within hours, three days of work disappears. By itself, the sopa Azteca — a spicy tomato broth filled with chicken, spinach, avocado, peppers, potatoes, cheese and tortilla strips — requires seven chickens and 12 pounds of tomatoes.

“If we were in France and someone came and watched what went on in our kitchen and then tasted our food, we would be considered a highfalutin restaurant,” said Diana Trevino, who with her husband, Julian, Maria’s son, now operates El Mirador.

So what is the essence of Tex-Mex? I drove 200 miles east on Interstate 10 to Houston to try to answer that question.

San Antonio lays a legitimate claim to high-end Tex-Mex (if there is such a thing) and Dallas leans Anglo with its fajitas and frozen margaritas. But in Houston, Texas’s largest city, the cuisine is part of the fabric of everyday life. Perhaps that is because more than 37 percent of Houston’s residents are Hispanic, according to United States census figures from 2000.

“I discover a new Tex-Mex gem every week,” said Mr. Walsh, who is the restaurant critic for the Houston Press.

Neon signs flicker above pastel storefronts promising excellent Mexican food in virtually every block of the city. The trick is to figure out which places will deliver on that promise.

Here are a few guidelines: 1. It has to be family-owned. 2. A ramshackle space with added-on rooms is a positive. The most successful Tex-Mex restaurants started small and expanded due to popular demand. 3. It’s best if the patrons in the dining room look like the face of democracy. You want a mix of gringos and Hispanic customers; professionals and laborers.

Joe Gonzalez who, with his wife, Alma, opened El Jardin in 1975, offers a fourth tip: take careful measure of the chips and salsa.

“It’s the first thing that hits the table,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “Are the chips and salsa homemade, or does it taste like they’re from a bag and a jar? Right there you know if you’re in for the real thing, or they’re trying to save money.”

El Jardin’s chips are warm, crisp and greaseless. Its salsa is fresh and chunky and does not slide off the chip. The dining room has walls painted in pale blues and yellows. El Jardin has expanded over the years, adding more straight-back straw-seated chairs; it now seats 80.

Lawyers in shirt sleeves, who make the 10-minute drive from downtown, and engineers from the nearby construction giant KBR eat side by side with dusty construction workers. The Coronas are ice cold, the ambient chatter bilingual.

Steaming combination platters of beef tacos and guacamole-topped chicken flautas cover the tables. For $5.55, the No. 16 was paralyzing — three pork tamales steamed in cornhusks dripped with gravy and cheese.

It is easy to feel like a Texan after three days of tacos, tamales, chiles rellenos and enchiladas, especially when Willie Nelson and Toby Keith are on the radio belting out a red-blooded anthem with the righteous chorus of “Whiskey for my men/beer for my horses.”

“She was from right here in Dallas,” said Nora, 52. “We’re Mexican-Americans. It was her recipes, and it is our own style of cooking.”

Neither the government of Mexico nor the high priests of that country’s cuisine are going to get an apology from me. In the Lone Star state, Tex-Mex is as authentic as any food can be.

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