According to Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly editor and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Tex-Mex has never gotten the credit it deserves, and never will. “Texas and Mexico—two of the U.S.’ most-loathed peoples. America doesn’t like mongrels, and that’s exactly what Tex-Mex food is: wonderful, beautiful mongrel meals.”
Arellano’s quest to document the evolution of Mexican cuisine launched him into the cheese-laden world of nachos, chili, fajitas, and puffy tacos—Tex-Mex staples that are often viewed as bastardizations perpetuated by the likes of Chili’s and Applebee’s. But despite our long-held prejudices, Arellano argues that Mexican food in America is indebted to these cross-breed dishes.
The term Tex-Mex entered the American vernacular in 1875 in reference to the Texas Mexican Railway, which was abbreviated as TexMex. In the 1920s, the hyphenated form was used to describe the railroad and people of Mexican descent born in Texas, and eventually it became synonymous with the Mexican food of area.
The cuisine grew out of the Rio Grande Valley but came into its own in San Antonio. “In the 1870s, chili queens in San Antonio started becoming nationally and internationally famous. That’s when Tex-Mex started getting on the map of Americans in earnest. From then on, every decade has had a monument to Tex-Mex.”
To make sense of Tex-Mex’s entwined past, we recruited Arellano to explain how the combo plate became such a widespread item, the controversy surrounding Diana Kennedy’s cookbook, and other features of a cuisine that often we take for granted.
Tex-Mex was created in the Rio Grande Valley. The valley, which is the section of Texas closest to Mexico, had a sizable Mexican population and a cattle industry. It was somewhere that region that Tex-Mex specialties like fajitas, nachos, and tacos al carbon were conjured up. But it was in San Antonio where the Tex-Mex earned national acclaim. “San Antonio is the cradle of Mexican food in the United States,” Arellano says. “Tex-Mex eventually traveled up to Austin and people there claim that they invented it. But really, it all took off in San Antonio.”
After all, San Antonio was the home of one of the cuisine’s signature dishes: chili. While Tex-Mex food has its roots in Mexico and southern Texas, it didn’t grow legs until a group of Hispanic women known as chili queens began their reign in the 1870s, setting up shop in the plazas of San Antonio. “These were the original pop-up restaurants,” Arellano says. From dusk to dawn, they served chili con carne with tamales, enchiladas, and chili verde. Word spread, and their chili won national acclaim. “They started bringing in all these tourists and spreading the gospel of chili, which was the first popular Mexican meal to enter the American mainstream,” he says.
The Combo Plate and Other Inventions
The format of an entree served with beans, rice, and a hefty dollop of sour cream or sprinkle of cheese cannot be underestimated. This set the foundation for the classic combination platter, which would later infiltrate Tex-Mex restaurants across the country.
“In the early 1900s, the idea of the combo plate first [emerged] with a restaurant called The Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio from a guy named Otis Farnsworth,” Arellano says. “Otis created the combo plate with beans, rice, and an entree. He called it The Regular. Quickly after, restaurants in Texas started copying this concept. The first chains came from Dallas in the 1930s. El Chico and El Fenix were the first real chains in Mexican food history,” he says. They spread the combo plate and also popularized the concept of ordering by number. Melted cheese and sour cream became a recurring theme on platters.
The new tweaks to the formula don’t stop there. In the 1930s, Fritos were created by an Oaxacan immigrant who sold the idea to Elmer Doolin of Fritos-Lays, based in San Antonio. Tortillas also began to be mass-produced, and were in such demand that they were sold in cans by Ashley’s Mexican Food to preserve the freshness. “They don’t exist anymore today, but it became a multimillion-dollar industry,” Arellano says.
In the 1950s, nachos were born by the quick thinking of a man named Ignacio Anaya (who was often called “Nacho” as a nickname). A group of military housewives had come over to his restaurant in Mexico where he was the maitre d’. The cook was unavailable, so he reportedly put together tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapeño peppers as a way to appease his guests. They liked it, and soon the dish spread like wildfire across the border. Fajitas came next—while they were born in the Rio Grande Valley, they gained traction in the late 1970s at a place called Ninfa’s in Houston. A year later, the frozen margarita machine was born at a place called Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine in Dallas. The most popular invention of recent years, Arellano says, has been the breakfast taco.
All of the above was categorized as Mexican food until cookbook author Diana Kennedy entered the scene in the late 1960s.
“She was the first person to create a caste system between real Mexican food and ‘fake’ Mexican food,” Arellano says. In her book Cuisines of Mexico, she wrote that Mexican food north of the border shouldn’t qualify as Mexican food—a statement met with sarcastic jabs by Texans and proud Tex-Mex connoisseurs. The division, however, was permanent.
“We can all thank Diana Kennedy for inadvertently granting Tex-Mex its rightful place in food history. By convincing us that Tex-Mex wasn’t really Mexican food, she forced us to realize that it was something far more interesting: America’s oldest regional cuisine,” wrote Robb Walsh in The Tex-Mex Cookbook.
“Because of her, people view Tex-Mex with suspicion. But it is still a valid cuisine,” says Arellano.
Modern Tex Mex
Old as it may be, Tex-Mex is a regional cuisine that’s consistently evolving. “There are constantly new twists,” Arellano says. He points to Bar Ama in Los Angeles and El Real Tex Mex in Houston (which is owned by Walsh) as places that are elevating the food. At El Rio, you can get a beef burger with Fritos, cheese, and refried beans. Arellano notes that at a lot places around the country, traditional Tex-Mex specialties and regional Mexican dishes are blending together and sharing space on the same menu. Bar Ama is the perfect example: You’ll find seared lengua and grilled octopus alongside queso dip. The lines may be blurring, but Tex-Mex has and always will be pure, unadulterated comfort food, which according to Arellano, means “big portions, hearty flavor, and something passed down through generations.”