Five More Influential Cities in the Development of Mexican Food in the United States

Wow! I didn't expect my post on the my choice for the five most influential cities in the development of Mexican food in the United States to inspire so much debate and so much anger from Houstonians aghast that their eternal rival, Dallas, beat them (it's obviously a Texas thing; funny how no Californians gave me shit for putting three Lone Star cities over two Californian entries). So to continue the discussion, and to throw in another gratuitous plug for my upcoming Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, behold five more influential cities, this time in descending order of importance.

: This list involves cities with influence, not cities with the better Mexican food scene. If that were the case, San Diego and Denver would be on this list. Now, onward to the rant.

6. Houston

Yes, Houston: your wonderful city is important in the annals of Mexican food in this country–but not for what you think. You think it's because of Felix Tijerina, a beloved restaurateur who became an iconic civil rights pioneer–but it's not, as his specific Tex-Mex never spread out of Texas (think about it: who outside of Houston has heard of Felix's? Sad, but true) and was codified earlier by the El Chico and El Fenix families over at your beloved Dallas (and that bit about Felix's creating Americanized Mexican food by Mexicans for Americans? Research Olvera Street–I know, that means you'll have to pay attention to something in California for like the first time ever). And you think Houston important because of Ninfa's, the iconic restaurant that introduced fajitas to mainstream America–but the restaurant was a vehicle, much like Chipotle introduced the country to Mission-stye burritos and Kogi helped to popularize loncheras. An important vessel–but a vessel.

Those points buttress your real contributions to Mexican food in this country: the scientists over at NASA, who have created a tortilla that can last a year, which ensure tortillas will one day land on Mars, and Robb Walsh, the Houston-based writer who has long fought the good fight against pendejos who deem Tex-Mex an abomination. Just wait 'til you read what Robb has to say about “authentic” Mex-food meanie Diana Kennedy…

7. New York

New York–per the old Pace Picante sauce commercial, New York City? The city that, until about a decade ago, was notorious for its lack of good Mexican food? Yes: New York. Whenever I get to do a book signing in NYC, I've already promised the Village Voice a cover story on the secret history of Mexican food in the city–but all I'll say right now is that New York was the stage for one of the first famous pop-up Mexican restaurants in the United States, was where a Mexican immigrant received the first patent for a taco shell-making machine, and was the base for Zarela Martinez, one of the country's first famous Mexican cooks. And, of course, there's famed New York Times critic Craig Claiborne, who did more to highlight Mexican food for the United States than any food critic of his era–it was Claiborne who introduced the country to Diana Kennedy, to Martinez, to the margarita and so much more…
8. Eugene

Eugene–fucking Eugene??? Which has, like, barely any Mexicans??? As bizarre as it sounds, it's true. Eugene was where Ron Fraedrick opened TacoTime in 1959, one of the first gabachos to open a Mexican fast-food chain outside the corridors of the Southwest or other regions with large Mexican populations. The success of TacoTime convinced other entrepreneurs to open fast-food Mexican chains such as Taco John's, Taco Mayo, Taco Tico and a host of other chains who created a shadow empire of Mexican food in the Midwest decades before Mexicans moved into the region. TacoTime is also the most likely originator of tater tots in Mexican food–an absolute heresy in the Southwest, but the preferred method of potato consumption in Mexican food in the Northwest and Midwest, where they're known as Mexi-Fries (TacoTime) or Potato Olé's (Taco John's). And Fraedrick was the first American to open a Mexican restaurant in Japan. Mexicans: you can stop screaming now and accept historical reality.

9. Chicago

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Yes, there's Rick Bayless–but he essentially took Diana Kennedy's schtick and opened a restaurant with it. Oh, and he's a thin-skinned diva. Much more important was the Windy City's role as the epicenter of the American canning industry, which helped chili con carne spread across the country during the 1890s. And then there was the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which introduced the world to Mexican food–but even that is mostly hype. You'll have to read the book for more info….

10. Santa Fe

I'm more of an Albuquerque guy, but Santa Fe is important–but not as much as people make it out to be. Don't get me wrong: I love New Mexican cuisine–the pozole and lamb chicharrones and cult of chile and awesome green chile cheeseburgers and sweet sopaipillas and even-sweeter bizcochitos and sweetest panocha. But few, if any, of New Mexico's traditional meals have ever made it out of the state, even at the height of the Southwestern cuisine movement during the 1980s, of which Santa Fe was its epicenter. When your most lasting contribution to Mexican food in the U.S. is the Southwestern (or Santa Fe) chicken salad, you know you ain't that big–and that we didn't pay attention to New Mexico's true culinary gifts is America's loss.

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