How Southwestern Cuisine Conquered the American Palate

Despite stereotypes of blue corn chips and coyote silhouettes, the Southwest wields an outsize influence on American eating. Here's how it transformed from ‘80s food trend to culinary powerhouse—and why chain restaurants like Chili’s ensure that it will never die.

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It’s impossible to even think the word Southwestern without the the phrase “chicken salad” springing up behind it. Or maybe “cheese fries.” Or even, God help us, “egg rolls.” It depends on which strip-malled suburban chain restaurant you spent your surly teenage years in.

They are all, essentially, the same thing. Chicken, black beans, corn, avocado. Fried tortilla strips. Some kind of “zesty” sauce: TGI Fridays’ Sedona Black Bean Burger is topped with chipotle mayo; the Cheesecake Factory’s Santa Fe Salad has cilantro vinaigrette. These dishes are exotic without being foreign, with an aura of freshness that can be achieved by kitchens whose ingredients all come from Sysco. They’re everywhere.

And yet, I dare you to name a restaurant in Santa Fe. On the Food Network’s lengthy list of celebrity chefs, only one ever made his name on Southwestern food: native New Yorker Bobby Flay, who has spent the last 10 years distancing himself from his Mesa Grill-stained reputation and is currently dazzling critics with his respectable Spanish restaurant, Gato. Yet by remaining a culinary touchstone of casual chain restaurants, the Southwest remains one of the most powerful influences on the American palate today, at least by revenue; the top five casual dining chains in the U.S. made $16.8 billion in 2012, compared to a mere $1.3 billion for “upscale” restaurants. At least two of those—Applebee’s and Chili’s—are rife with dishes that reflect the enduring specter of the Southwest.

What is Southwestern cuisine?

Southwestern cuisine—from the region that covers New Mexico, Arizona, the bottom of Colorado, and Utah—looks and sounds a lot like Mexican, born of Spanish influence on indigenous tribes like the Hopi and Zuni. It relies heavily on regionally available produce in its fresh and preserved forms: squashes, blue corn, chiles like the Hatch and Chimayo. Green chile is king; sopaipillas, a kind of fried bread, are as commonly found as tortillas south of the border. Preserved in amber until the early ’80s, Southwestern cuisine was mostly a tourist attraction to non-natives—just another stop on the road trip after the Grand Canyon.

southwestern mesagrill How Southwestern Cuisine Conquered the American Palate

The fire-roasted veal chop at Bobby Flay’s Southwest-influenced Mesa Grill (photo: Mesa Grill)

Then nouvelle cuisine hit the United States, and it hit hard. In the late 1960s, French chefs eager to express their creativity began stripping away the butter and rich sauces of classic Gallic cooking, instead emphasizing lightness and novel flavors. Their style made its way across the Atlantic in the mid-’70s, and by 1981, Michel Guerard—who, along with Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers, had been one of the movement’s chief proponents—was calling its widespread adoption a disaster. “Where is the originality?” he asked in a New York Times article. “Everything is cooked in either raspberry vinegar, strawberry vinegar, or pumpkin vinegar. It’s sad.”

In typical melting-pot fashion, American chefs looked to other traditions to find those new flavors. Japanese food was first to fall into the fusion chamber, spawning soy vinaigrettes and soba with caviar at NYC’s Le Plaisir and L.A.’s La Petite Chaya. Next came Cajun, which spawned blackened redfish and ring-molded jambalayas at L.A.’s Ritz Café and NYC’s Texarkana. Finally, Southwestern: blue-corn tortillas topped with sun-dried tomatoes and chive-cilantro goat cheese; salmon-jalapeno terrines; and quesadillas stuffed with brie, mangoes, and serrano chiles at NYC’s Arizona 206 and Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek.

The Gang of Five and the move to the mainstream

How did the Southwest manage to stake a claim to our national palate while those other influences faded faster than you can say Paul Prudhomme? Unlike any other trend of its time, the Southwestern movement was being driven by a marketing machine. In 1983, a group of Texas chefs calling themselves the Gang of Five gathered under the banner of “New Southwestern” cooking, giving interviews for articles with names like “The Dawn of a New Cuisine.” That same year, the restaurant consultant and teacher Anne Lindsay Greer published their unofficial mission statement, a cookbook called Cuisine of the American Southwest.

Unlike any other trend of its time, the Southwestern movement was being driven by a marketing machine.

In 1985, the Gang of Five hosted a “Festival of Southwestern Cookery” in Houston, attended by food-media elites and Mexican-cooking royalty Diana Kennedy (though Kennedy, a notorious hard-liner about authenticity in the kitchen, was no fan; about Greer’s book, she said, “She’s got some awful things in here…I can’t stand it. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”). Their proto-MAD conference worked; in 1986 alone, the New York Times published three separate trend pieces on their flashy new style.

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Anne Lindsay Greer’s seminal Cuisine of the American Southwest (photo: Amazon)

Of course, these media-hungry Texas chefs weren’t the only ones looking to the Southwest for inspiration in the early ‘80s. California cuisine—which had similar goals to nouvelle cuisine, if fewer accents—influenced both Jeremiah Tower and Jonathan Waxman, both of whom worked at Chez Panisse and went on to mentor two of the Southwestern movement’s biggest progenitors. Tower’s Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley launched Mark Miller, father of the trailblazing Coyote Cafe, and it was at Waxman’s Jams in NYC where a fresh-faced Bobby Flay learned the secrets of cilantro. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the L’Ermitage-trained John Rivera Sedlar was dubbed the “Father of Modern Southwestern Cuisine” by Gourmet. The media buzz surrounding these real-deal chefs meant more exposure and credibility for everyone who was dabbling in Southwestern flavors.

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John Sedlar’s “fireworks,” an example of the nouvelle Southwestern cuisine of the ’80s (photo: Food GPS)

By the time Flay opened Mesa Grill in New York in 1991, Southwestern cuisine had reached peak saturation—and it had the haters to prove it. That was the same year Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho was published, packed with absurdist food descriptions from late-’80s New York that included dishes like “quail stuffed into blue corn tortillas garnished with oysters in potato skins”—barely an exaggeration from what was actually coming out of kitchens across the country.

The rise of chain eating

At the same time that the Gang of Five was storming the market, the chain restaurant as we know it was being born. In the first half of the century, chain restaurants were family-friendly diners like Howard Johnson’s and Perkins—homogenized versions of the ubiquitous roadside café. But by the early ’80s, the industry was at a turning point; more and more people were eating out, and a corporate trend toward portfolio diversification led to a series of high-stakes acquisitions. Chili’s was sold by its founder to a hotshot Pillsbury exec; Applebee’s was bought by the chemical conglomerate W.R. Grace. TGI Friday’s, which sold to the company that owns Radisson Hotels in 1975, had its IPO; and Ruby Tuesday’s was bought by a company that ran hospital and school cafeterias, manufactured china, and sold insurance to strip mines.

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The original Chili’s in Dallas, TX (photo: Brinker)

This ultra-competitive era was about shock and awe. Rather than risking it all on one genre or dish, the new chain-restaurant strategy was to dazzle customers with an endless set of options—without alienating them, of course. The Southwestern fusion being aggressively marketed to the highest ranks of fine dining was a perfect fit: exotic and exciting, while maintaining an All-American image.

Southwestern fusion was a perfect fit for chain restaurant: exotic and exciting, while still maintaining an All-American image.

Headquartered in Dallas, home of the Gang of Five, Chili’s was the first to jump on the bandwagon; in 1984, it began to pivot toward the Southwest by adding fajitas to its previously all-burger menu and doubling down on its pink-and-green adobe-styled decor; by then, heavy Tex-Mex fare had already taken hold in fast-casual restaurants, creating an easy on-ramp for a fresher, Santa Fe-inspired approach. Fourteen years later, Stephan Pyles, one of the original Texas chefs, sold his restaurants to TGI Fridays parent company and sealed the Southwest’s fate in chain dining.

The eternal appeal of the Southwestern Egg Roll

So why are we still eating Southwestern chicken salads after 30 years? While casual chains talk a big game about creativity and innovation, the bigger they get, the more their menus are designed by R&D departments to meet decidedly un-artistic metrics like ROI and per-store profit. With $16 billion at stake, they’re now extremely conservative, slow to adopt anything new until it’s been tested and re-tested, focus-grouped and guaranteed to sell. New dishes are rolled out as limited-time offers only to disappear if they’re not an instant hit; it takes years of overwhelming success to be cemented in the menu’s canon.

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Southwestern Egg Rolls, one of the most recognizable dishes at Chili’s (photo: Chili’s)

While chain restaurants still evolve at a snail’s pace today, food trends move faster than ever. If the Gang of Five had a horde of Instagramming, media-obsessed, starfucking foodbeasts behind them, it would have taken eight minutes, not eight years, for their ideas to travel the 1,500 miles from Dallas to NYC. That prolonged incubation period is what allowed their cilantro, corn, and chipotle mayo to infiltrate the corporate dining monolith; now that ideas move at top speed, no culinary fad will ever so completely take over the big business of eating out again. Though trends like “hipster Asian” might influence a dish or two, it’ll be long after the real hype has died, and you’ll never see New Nordic nachos on a chain-restaurant menu. Meanwhile, Americans will keep ordering the egg rolls, and the Southwest will never die.

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