The Mouthwatering Restaurants Taking Tex-Mex To New Heights
Mexican Inn Café, Camp Bowie. Photo by Mr Shawn Chippendale
Where to enjoy America’s most misunderstood cuisine .
Say “Tex-Mex” and two ideas inevitably come to mind. One is massive portions: combo plates held together with cheddar cheese, bucket-sized margaritas, fajitas that spout off enough juices to water a small lawn.
The other isn’t as welcoming: disgust.
Over the past 25 years, as new styles of Mexican food, both high and low, have spread to all parts of the US, foodie culture has not only relegated Tex-Mex food to an antiquated laughing stock, it’s now an insult. To label something “Tex-Mex” is to label the food fattening and gross and fake and, well, white. Instead, we’re supposed now to celebrate “authentic” Mexican food, made by Mexicans and for Mexicans, and ridicule those dumb gringos who still eat Tex-Mex.
To those haters, I say, “Go trip over a hard-shell taco and fall into a vat of queso.” Tex-Mex remains one of the country’s most thrilling homegrown cuisines, a tradition that goes back centuries and reflects our country at its best: multicultural. Historic. Texan. Mexican. And, contrary to the stereotype, evolving.
It’s a tradition so vast that what you eat in El Paso is wildly different from what’s available in Houston. But too few people know its scope, so here are five of my favourite spots, which I’ve encountered in more than a decade of trekking across the Lone Star State.
Hey, if this proud Californian can love Tex-Mex, then so can you.
Left: six rolled tacos with green sauce and cheese. Photo by Mr Robert Strickland. Right: Chico’s Tacos, El Paso, Texas. Photo by Mr Justin Carrasquillo
Long forgotten, even by Texans, El Paso is suddenly in the American spotlight, thanks to its attempted demonisation by the President as a crime-ridden border town (it’s consistently ranked one of the safest cities in the US) and being the home of Democratic presidential hopeful Mr Beto O’Rourke. But everyone is still sleeping on its food scene, where Tex-Mex, New Mexican and Mexican – three distinct traditions – meet to create a cheesy, spicy, meat-heavy heaven.
The quintessential El Paso snack is the double order at Chico’s Tacos, a small chain that dates back to the 1950s. Six fried bean taquitos are placed in a paper boat, drowned in a mild tomato salsa, then buried under a blizzard of cheddar cheese. You don’t eat a double order so much as drink it, letting the cheese melt into the tomato sauce to create a pseudo fondue and swirling the results with the taquitos, which are crunchy, savoury, spectacular. The best time to go is after midnight, not just because it’s drunk food, but because you’ll inevitably hear the jukebox go from hometown heroes The Mars Volta to a ranchera classic, and no one will blink.
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que
Left: Vera’s Backyard Bar-B Que sign. Photo by Mr Robert Strickland. Right: Brisket tacos with green sauce. Photo by Mr Robert Strickland
The name of this drive-through spot in the border town of Brownsville isn’t exaggerating. Vera’s truly does its barbecue in the back, in a 6ft-deep pit heated by mesquite coals. But this ain’t just any barbecue; it’s barbacoa, roasted cow heads wrapped in foil, put into the pozo, dozens at a time, left to cook low and slow overnight, then sold at the weekend. This is the traditional way to cook barbacoa, and many taquerias across Texas offer the delicacy. Vera’s is the last restaurant in the US legally allowed to cook beef head this way, because it was grandfathered in once Texas banned the practice decades ago.
And when Vera’s says “head”, it means it. All the goodies are available to eat: unctuous cheeks, sumptuous tongue, gummy lips, sometimes brains and even the pinche paladar (palate; it’s chewy). The most prized part is the eye, which has a flavour somewhere between the springy saltiness of caviar and the strong zip of liver. Get a plate of your choice of meat, or a mixta (a mix), grab some corn tortillas, douse on some of Vera’s stellar salsas and eat living, gamy history.
Fort Worth area
Mexican Inn Cafe
Left: Brisket Tacos. Photo by Mr Shawn Chippendale. Right: Mexican Inn Café, Camp Bowie. Photo by Mr Shawn Chippendale
Although San Antonio is the birthplace of Tex-Mex food, it was mainstreamed for the rest of the US in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, thanks to its chains. El Chico and El Fenix popularised the numbered combo plate and the use of cheddar cheese and sour cream. Mariano’s invented the frozen margarita machine. The original is now in the care of the Smithsonian (because the history of Mexican food in the US deserves to be kept for posterity in temperature-controlled rooms, you know?).
On the Fort Worth side is the metroplex’s tastiest chain, Mexican Inn Cafe, which opened in 1936. This is where you get piping-hot queso, fine brisket stuffed into tacos or enchiladas, or a simple tamale dinner smothered in chilli con carne. Its most famous dish is arroz con pollo, a hallmark of Tex-Mex rarely served any more in Texas, but wildly popular in the South (long story). It’s not the Latin-American classic, but rather grilled chicken breast slathered in chilli con queso, the best Dallas tag team since basketball’s Messrs Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry.
Ray’s Drive Inn
Left: Ray’s Drive Inn sign. Photo by Mr Robert Strickland. Right: Ray’s signature puffy tacos. Photo by Mr Robert Strickland
The most famous taco San Antonio gave to the US is the breakfast taco, that brilliantly simple meal of a flour tortilla and morning goodies that Austin always tries to take credit for. But the Alamo City’s most famous contribution to Tex-Mex is the puffy taco, so called because cooks pat out a fat, fresh corn tortilla, throw it in the fryer so that it inflates to three times its size, then stuff it with beans and your choice of meat. They’re oily, crunchy, chewy, sublime and near impossible to find outside San Antonio.
The most famous place to get them is Henry’s Puffy Tacos, a small chain so successful that it sponsors a puffy taco as the official mascot of the minor-league San Antonio Missions baseball team. But better is Henry’s older brother, Ray’s Drive Inn, a massive, ramshackle restaurant with so much wood panelling, random arcade games and paintings it looks like a VFW/British Legion lounge circa 1977. Its puffy tacos are bigger than Henry’s and it offers more fillings – beans and avocado for vegetarians, barbecue and carne guisada (beef stew) for the real Gs. Buy two and Ray’s gives you a jalapeño. You’ll need the heat to cut through the fatty bliss.
Left: Trompi burger. Photo by Mr Shawn Chippendale. Right: La Macro food truck. Photo by Mr Shawn Chippendale
This Houston restaurant, and its food truck, represents the advent of Mex-Tex – the embracing by Texans of the food traditions of recently arrived Mexican immigrants. Dishes such as the smoky liquor sotol, shave ice called raspas and Mexican ice cream flavours such as tart guanabana (otherwise known as soursop) and the custardy chamoy are becoming part of the Texan diet, just like chalupas and nachos in generations past. Both gringo and Mexican-American chefs are incorporating these flavours with American favourites. And the best example of its possibilities is La Macro’s Trompo Burger.
The signature meat of La Macro is trompo, northern Mexico’s saucier, sweeter take on Mexico City’s famous al pastor. You can get it in big tacos, but the trompo is better in a La Macro burger, topping a thick beef patty and grilled onions between a toasted bun. Add some fierce salsa and pineapple chunks and the Whataburger/In-N-Out debate between Texas and California gets exposed for the shrill sham that it is.