I know, I know: where the hell does a born-and-bred Mexican from California get off telling the rest of the world about the glories of Tex-Mex cuisine? But hear me out, world: I am Tex-Mex's most arduous non-Texan defender. I've crisscrossed most of the state doing research for my Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Going there dozens of times over the past years on business and pleasure has endeared me to the state's food even more, from Chico's Tacos in El Paso to Torchy's in Austin, the Trompi-Burger at La Macro in Houston to some bomb-ass baby goat at a backyard in Brownsville. One of my mentors and pals is Robb Walsh, the James Beard Award-winning author and dean of Tex-Mex history who--believe it or not--once lived in Orange County, attending Sunkist Elementary in Anacrime just like yours truly.
In short, I know my Tex-Mex and what gets Texans salivating when it comes to their Mexican. So as you read this list, know I ain't speaking out of my Cali culo. And, as my final appeal to authority, I had this list approved by two proud Tejanos: our own Gabriel San Román (whose family has roots in El Paso going back to the late 1800s) and Associated Press New Mexico reporter Russell Contreras, who keeps threatening to sic La Santa Muerte on me because I didn't praise Tex-Mex food enough in my book--never mind that I devoted AN ENTIRE CHAPTER to it. May this be penance to get La Muerte off my ass, may the rest of the country finally realizing they're missing out on Tex-Mex's charms, and viva Tex-Mex!
15. You Know that Tex-Mex Food is Born in the Rio Grande Valley, Becomes Popular in San Antonio, and Gets Ripped Off in Austin
It happened with fajitas, it happened with canned chile, it happened with breakfast tacos, and it'll happen again and again as it has for the past century. Austinites insist all their food developments are organic; San Antonians seeth at such usurping; the Valley just shrugs its shoulders. Meanwhile, the rest of the country can't tell Pflugerville apart from New Braunfels apart from Harlingen, or care about why Texans would care.
14. Salpicón is the Best Salad EVER
Those of us who live in Southern California mostly know salpicón as a ground beef salad served at Salvadoran restaurants. In Texas, though, salpicón turns into a salad fit for a Texan: meat, meat, and meat, with some vegetables thrown in. Most Mexican restaurants in Texas serve salpicón, while I've never heard of a Mexican restaurant in Southern California serve it. America's loss, as the meat is spicy, juicy and GANGSTA; far better than huevos rancheros, which have traveled everywhere at this point.
13. Flour Tortillas are Perfectly Fine for Tacos
In California, we're used to our flour tortillas being big, the better to make burritos and quesadillas out of them. And when it comes to tacos, corn tortillas are the answer. In Texas, on the other hand, they make flour tortillas that are not only edible, but appear in different sizes. As a result, most taquerias have the option of flour or corn tortillas for their tacos, leading to hilarious expectations of Californians who think flour tortilla tacos are just burritos that exploded then get disappointed when they're not. HA!
12. It's Not "Chili"; It's "Chile con Carne"
I won't get into the touchy argument of whether chili should have beans or not, but it's always great to visit Texas and see the American staple referred to by its original name: chile con carne. Even in the most gabacho Tex-Mex places, the chile con carne name reigns. And the Baylessistas claim Texas waters down Mexican food...
11. There's Nothing Wrong with Beans, Rice and Fajitas on Thanksgiving
This one I've yet to try, but Russell swears by it. Those crazy Texans! And speaking of fajitas...
10. Mama Ninfa is the Third-Greatest Mexican Woman of All Time, After the Virgin of Guadalupe and Selena
Mama Ninfa is Maria Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo, the woman who introduced fajitas to the United States through her eponymous Houston restaurants. People forget that fajitas--nowadays on almost any non-regional Mexican restaurant menu in the world--were unknown outside the Valley until Mama Ninfa brought them up to Houston in the 1970s, from where they spread across the United States during the early 1980s and beyond. And long before Bayless got his accolades, Mama Ninfa was named to the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. She's a bona fide legend in the Lone Star State, as well she should be.
9. Big Red and Dr. Pepper are Your Aguas Frescas
8. Multicultural Tacos are Nothing New
Long before Southern California went gaga for Kogi or even Oki Dog, Texans were drawing upon its European heritage to make tacos that still are popular today. The most widespread are brisket and chicken-fried steak tacos, but Texans are known to get kielbasas and bratwurst, chop them up, and call it a Taco Tuesday.
7. You Know that Barbacoa isn't Barbecue
Sure, barbacoa translates as barbecue, but barbacoa in the Tex-Mex world refers to a cow's head wrapped in maguey leaves, then left to roast in an earthen pit for hours on end so that the meat becomes stringy and fatty and wonderful. Lacking a pit or maguey leaves, restaurants in Texas will just roast a cow's head in the oven to similar (but not the same) results. Everywhere else in America, such meat is called cabeza for the obvious reasons. Those silly Texans!
6. For Breakfast, it's Migas, not Chilaquiles
More Tex-Mex confusion. Migas is essentially scrambled eggs mixed up with chorizo and veggies, with tortilla strips thrown in and beans and rice on the side--the opposite of chilaquiles, where the emphasis is on the tortilla and sauce. Even all these years later, I still can't satisfactorily explain the difference between the two--but tell a Texan that migas are chilaquiles, and them's fighting words.
And speaking of breakfasts and fights... 5. Breakfast Tacos Beat Breakfast Burritos Forever
A story that I tell whenever I lecture on Taco USA is the comedy of errors that happened when my hungover friends in San Antonio tried to take my hungover ass to a Tex-Mex breakfast. They had to explain to me what breakfast tacos were; I had to explain to them what breakfast burritos are. A verbal fight ensued.
The incident happened about five years ago; since then, breakfast tacos have trickled into Southern California, and breakfast burritos are slowly getting into Texas. But this might be the biggest rivalry between our two states outside of our highway system. Californians; breakfast tacos are delicious. Texans; breakfast burritos are delicious. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills and Nash: Everyone's right if nobody's wrong.
4. You've Ended at Least One Night at Taco Cabana
Californians: Taco Cabana is Texas' El Torito, if El Torito stayed open 24 hours, had a drive-thru, and featured pink and turquoise as a main color scheme. Texans: El Torito is California's Taco Cabana, if Taco Cabana closed before midnight, were located in soulless suburbia, and featured bankruptcy as a main color scheme. There's over 150 of them, mostly in Texas (with a couple in Oklahoma and New Mexico) and while they're not particularly popular with smarty-art Texans, it's open--think of it as Texas' Norm's. At some point in a Californian's life, they've stumbled into a Taco Cabana and left...confused.
3. The Best Goat Dish isn't Birria; It's Cabrito
The only way people in Southern California eat Mexican goat is via birria, because the stew comes from Central Mexico, which is the ancestor to Cal-Mex. The same holds true in Texas, except the influencing region is Northern Mexico, and the preferred way to eat goat is via cabrito: roasted kid. And the best kid is that which has only fed on its mother's milk, and the best part of the kid is the kidney and all of that fat. Yum!
2. You Know the Difference Between Queso and Queso
Queso is the Spanish word for "cheese"; queso is what the rest of the country would describe as nacho cheese, but which a Texan would vainly explain is melted cheeses spiked with peppers (hence its full name, chile con queso). You'll find queso given to you in ramekins or full jugs at many Tex-Mex restaurants; you'll have to ask for queso if you want some.
And the #1 sign you grew up Mexican food? Simple...
1. You'll Never Understand Why the Rest of America Hates Tex-Mex
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All those trash talkers who'll immediately trash bad Mexican food as "Tex-Mex," who think of it as the culinary version of Joe Arpayao? Que se vayan a la chingada. Tex-Mex is a magnificent cuisine, a beautiful tradition that's simultaneously regional American and regional Mexican (much more so than Cal-Mex, btw). After all, if it wasn't for Tex-Mex, the world wouldn't have chili, the combo plate, nachos, frozen margarita machines, tortilla chips, masa harina, Fritos, and many other staples of Mexican food that--yes--were invented by bona fide Mexicans. Don't mess with Tex-Mex, cabrones.