Alternate title: Will I Ever Shut up About El Paso?
Recently, I read a Texas Monthly Q&A with Rick Bayless. The interviewer, Layne Lynch, brings up Tex-Mex toward the beginning of the interview. Bayless’ response is short and dismissive. (I swear this is the last time I’ll bring up Rick Bayless, I really came upon this article by chance.)
LL: Down in Texas diners sometimes confuse Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cuisine. How best would you describe the differences to a puzzled diner?
RB: Honestly, I see the connection between the two to be pretty tenuous. I have nothing against Tex-Mex at all. I can get down with a burrito just like everybody else, but when I think of Mexican food I think of fresh corn tortillas, intricate sauces, and a cuisine that is largely built around chiles. As far as I know, Tex-Mex isn’t built on chiles, except maybe for the jalapeño, and relies far more on melted cheese than on sauces.
While I want to defend the kind of Mexican food I grew up eating (which is not quite Tex-Mex, and not quite “traditional Mexican”, whatever that means), I’ve realized trying to describe it is a challenge in itself. It’s honestly like trying to describe how to breathe.
I was relieved to find another Texas Monthly piece from 2007 (attributed to Texas Monthly rather than a sole writer) which extolls the unique deliciousness of El Pasoan Mexican food, which is directly influenced by Northern Mexican culture, New Mexico, and (though I’d argue very slightly) Texas itself. The article highlights a few nuances of El Pasoan Mexican food that I felt were pretty spot-on:
Namely, its hotter than Tex-Mex and some forms of our enchiladas are flat and not rolled, but all the same – its just as legitimate as a food group.
The argument goes something like this: Texas A&M University — which is periously close to South Texas — is inventing peppers so mild that Pat Sharpe compares them to sweet bell peppers. In contrast, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM, 40 miles west of El Paso, developed the world’s hottest serrano. El Pasoans like their Mexican food spicy – really spicy. So if you’re expecting Tex-Mex you’re liable to burn off a few taste buds trying salsa that no one thought to tell you might be hotter than you’re used to.
El Pasoan food is spicy. At a new shopping complex in El Paso, a beloved Tex-Mex chain called Chuy’s recently opened. It’s an Austin-based chain that was founded by two men named Mike Young and John Zapp. A friend excitedly took me to dinner there; she told me it’s one of her favorite restaurants to go to when she visits Austin. I had the enchiladas, which were delicious but lacking in the spice or heat that I was used to.
It wasn’t until I left El Paso that I realized I have a greater-than-average tolerance for heat. I grew up with two parents who are absolutely wild when it comes to spicy food—as a child, I could never trust them when they told me something wasn’t that spicy because it would more often than not burn my mouth for hours to come—so I had always perceived myself as pretty weak compared to them.
I agree that El Paso Mexican food has all the same elements as Tex-Mex but the interpretation is different. For example, almost NEVER do you find a dish called “Mexican Plate” on a menu here. In South Texas that’s one taco, one enchilada, one tamale or chile relleno and rice and beans. If you were to order a Mexican Plate here you’d receive a plate that had “hecho in Mexico” stamped on the bottom. And, while all the old Mexican food standards remain, restaurants here also go with pit-roasted cabrito, velvety mole sauces over lamb shanks, and of course, extremely hot salsa that’s always fresh and never wears the label “Pace Piquante Sauce.” El Pasoans are probably the only people who make fun of those comercials. Made in New York City, indeed, it might as well say Made in San Antonio.
I think this class has really opened my eyes to what authenticity means when it comes to Mexican food. While I frequently make fun of the Californian Mexican food my mom grew up on, I realize that there is no such thing as a superior cuisine. Once we let go of this intra-community posturing and accept that Mexican people in different places have different takes on Mexican food, we can focus on enjoying it. That being said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little bit of friendly competition:
So at the risk of having offended people in the Tex-Mex Capital of the World, I offer a way to end the contest of who has the better Mexican food. Perhaps its a nomenclature thing. Tex-Mex is found in East, Central, North and South Texas, while Southwest Mex (repleat with the world’s hottest serranos) is king on the Far West side of the state. Yeah, that’s right. King.