Great Escapes

01.25.14

The Next Big Cuisine of 2014 Is ... Tex-Mex?

How hipster enchiladas could change the way America thinks about food.

Not long ago, OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano publicly announced that Tex-Mex cuisine—the greatest use of sour cream, shredded cheese, refried beans, and flour tortillas known to man; the driving force behind thousands of suburban fajita factories all across America—was dying out.

“Tex-Mex for decades was ascendant,” Arellano told the The Weekly Alibi in 2012. “It was the dominant player, [but] I would say that California won the Mexican war. You’re going to have many more restaurants selling tacos and burritos then you do Tex-Mex. ...  And, yeah, you’re going to see Tex-Mex slowly disappear from the American landscape.”

Arellano isn’t just some loudmouth on the Chowhound message boards. He is the author of Taco USA, a smart, lively, deeply reported history of “how Mexican food conquered America.” Which means he is something of an authority on the subject. When Arellano talks, in other words, taco people (like me) tend to listen.

That’s why I called Arellano earlier this week. I had a simple question to ask him: Two years have passed since Taco USA came out. Is Tex-Mex dead yet?  

I thought I knew how Arellano would answer. Turns out I was wrong. After surveying the latest advances in the field, he no longer seemed so sure about the imminent demise of queso dip and Frito pie.

“Famous last words, right?” Arellano said when I quoted his prediction back at him. He was laughing. I could picture him shaking his head. “Out here, Tex-Mex is suddenly the big hipster food.”

***

When Arellano said “out here,” he was talking about Southern California. But he could have been referring to any of America’s big food cities, really.

Over the last couple of years, chefs and entrepreneurs around the country have been quietly reviving and revamping Tex-Mex cuisine for a new generation of chowhounds. Gone are the Southwestern Spring Rolls and Bacon Ranch Quesadillas that (thanks to Chili’s and its chain counterparts) have come to represent Tex-Mex for many diners. In their place are foods that actual Texans might recognize. The puffy tacos, fajitas, and enchiladas at Bar Ama in Los Angeles. The queso at Trigger in Portland or El Camino Real in Philadelphia. The Frito pie at Fox Bros. BBQ in Atlanta. The breakfast tacos ... well, everywhere, from Brooklyn’s Whirlybird, Guero’s, Zirzamin, and BrisketTown to L.A.’s HomeState. And the entire menu at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in Houston.

None of this means that Tex-Mex is set to take over the world (again). Arellano is right when he says that for the foreseeable future, Cal-Mex—the Mission-style burritos of Chipotle and the carnitas tacos of Baja Fresh—will do more to shape America’s idea of “Mexican” food than anything from Texas. But I think that what’s happening with Tex-Mex—this specialized, small-scale renaissance—is more interesting, and more revealing, than the old food-trend narrative about national dominance and corporate co-optation anyway. It’s a story about authenticity, technology, and the way culinary ideas spread these days. It’s a story about how America’s food culture actually works now.

It’s also an excuse to eat some delicious tacos.

***

If the current Tex-Mex mini-revival has a Pied Piper, it’s probably Texas food writer Robb Walsh. And if the revival has a Ground Zero—to mix our metaphors—it’s probably Houston’s El Real, the “vintage Tex-Mex cafe” that Walsh opened in 2011 with chef Bryan Caswell and restaurateur Bill Floyd.

At first glance, the El Real menu seems almost comically cliched: nachos, quesdillas, sizzling fajitas, and enchilada combo platters, all with a side of refried beans. But this isn’t your father’s Tex-Mex. It’s your grandfather’s. Worried that decades of pre-formed taco shells, canned enchilada sauces, and industrial beans and tortillas had obscured the true flavors of Tex-Mex, Walsh spent years roaming Texas in search of the archetypal puffy tacos, enchiladas borunda, and queso flameado, among other items, then worked with his partners to distill his discoveries into dishes that tasted exactly like Tex-Mex used to taste in the days before Chi-Chi’s. El Real is the culmination of Walsh’s obsessive quest for Tex-Mex perfection. It’s as close as anyone will ever to come to a Museum of Tex-Mex Cuisine—a place where chili con carne is a delicious meat sauce and a history lesson all in one.

When I called Walsh earlier this week, he warned me that he wouldn’t be able to talk for long. He’d just ordered a plate of fried chicken; once it arrived, he was “gonna have to go.” Fortunately, Walsh had enough time to deliver a disquisition on the meaning of El Real’s chili con carne while we waited. “Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when you made cheese enchiladas, you made homemade chili con carne,” he said. “It was at base of most of dishes. So what we do is toss some toasted anchos and roasted cumin in the pan, then start the chili with bacon grease and chuck ground into half-inch pieces.” I could tell Walsh was getting hungry. “And that’s what we thin that down into a sauce to use on the enchiladas,” he continued. “I mean, this hasn’t been seen in Tex-Mex restaurants in Houston before! Ever! Other places mostly just put gravy with chili powder in it on their enchiladas.”

“The most authentic thing about Tex-Mex is that it’s not ‘authentic.’ The melting pot is what’s authentic.”

For Walsh, El Real isn’t just a restaurant (or a museum). It’s also an argument. In the 1970s, Diana Kennedy began to publish cookbooks that extolled the authentic regional cuisines of Mexico and dismissed Americanized Mexican food—a.k.a. Tex-Mex—as an unworthy, inaccurate facsimile of the real thing. Her descendants dominate the scene today: chef Rick Bayless of Chicago; the bloggers who scour East L.A. for the most authentic birria. “For years I got so much crap from food writers in New York,” Walsh explained. “They talked about Tex-Mex as this vile, bastardized food: Mexican food that had been fucked up by dumb gringos.” What Walsh is saying with El Real is that those writers were dead wrong: that Tex-Mex is, in fact, a true regional cuisine—the oldest in America—and that it deserves to be respected, savored, celebrated, and preserved as much as any so-called “authentic” Mexican food from Mexico.

And what the current Tex-Mex revival reveals, I think, is that a certain kind of diner—the diner who knows authenticity and purity aren’t always the same thing—is starting to agree. Even in New York.

***

I admit that growing up I never really thought much about the roots of Tex-Mex. I just liked to eat it, or what passed for it in the suburbs of South Jersey.

But after college I moved to New York and made friends with a girl and couple of guys from Texas. One of the guys had worked as a line cook in a greasy spoon in Denton; the other was a great amateur cook from Austin whose mother was Mexican-American. The girl, who eventually became one of my roommates, was Mexican-American as well; she was from El Paso. We all bonded over food. At first it was mostly outer-borough ethnic cuisine—the usual “authentic” Chowhound stuff. But soon the guys were telling me about their favorite enchiladas from home; some nights, my roommate would cook up a homemade batch of Chico’s legendary rolled tacos.

By the time I finally made it to Texas for work, I probably spent more time inhaling breakfast tacos at El Primo, carne guisado fajitas at Polvos, and Bob Armstrong Dip at Matt’s El Rancho than actually, you know, doing my job. And eventually Texas followed me back to Brooklyn, where breakfast tacos and Frito pie are now more plentiful than bialys.

The reason I’m recounting my own Tex-Mex history here is not because it’s exceptional. In fact, quite the opposite—I suspect that my own experience epitomizes, in miniature, the Tex-Mex revival as a whole. The equation is pretty much the same. Texas expats wax rhapsodic about the Tex-Mex food of their youth. Technology makes it easier for outsiders to learn more about these distant delights. Austin’s profile rises on the national stage, especially among coastal urbanites, who start to swing through the Texas capital more often, perhaps for South by Southwest. Technology makes it easier for them to eat the good stuff when they’re in town. They return home with a new appetite for real Tex-Mex—superior renditions of the shopping-mall nachos they ate as kids and the enchiladas they drunkenly consumed in college—which neatly aligns with the larger trend toward casual, low-brow dining (food trucks, ethnic street food, and so on). “In their eternal quest to be authentic, the hipster set always tries to appreciate how poor people live,” Gustavo Arellano told me. “And I think that’s what’s happening to Tex-Mex now. They want to eat like working-class folks.” Soon chefs and restaurateurs—many of them Texas expats themselves—begin to take notice.

Briana Valdez certainly did. After a stint at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bistro in Beverly Hills, Valdez decided to strike out on her own and open the restaurant she’d been fantasizing about since 2009: a little slice of Austin in Los Angeles, complete with the migas, breakfast tacos, kolaches, Frito pies, and queso she grew up with in Texas. Valdez sensed that L.A., a city with no shortage of life-altering indigenous tacos, was ready for the concept. “I made the point to my investors that exposure to this food was bigger than just Texas now,” she told me recently. “People visit Austin, then come back to L.A. and say, ‘Why can’t that stuff be here? In a town where I can get everything—where I can go to North Korea for lunch—why can’t I go to Texas?’”

HomeState is Valdez’s solution. The small East Hollywood restaurant, which opened last December, was fairly sleepy when I stopped by to chat one recent Tuesday morning, but every other time I’ve visited—and I’ve visited plenty—it’s been packed with precisely the sort of so-called hipsters that Arellano identified above.

They—we—come, of course, for the Frito pie (a Caesarean’ed bag of Fritos filled with chili con carne, cheddar, lettuce, sour cream, and pickled jalapeños) and the comforting charro beans (pintos, bacon, chiles, tomatoes). But most of all we come for the breakfast tacos. I wasn’t particularly hungry after my interview with Valdez ended, but I made sure to get one anyway. “The simpler, the better” tends to be the rule with these things; mine was just refried charro beans and melted Monterrey Jack. Wrapped in one of HomeState’s fresh, dusty flour tortillas and doused with both red and green salsa, it was mellow perfection—a visceral, invincible rebuttal to any purist who says that a great taco must be served on corn.

“I started with those tortillas,” Valdez explained as I was leaving. “That was my first solid food. I remember a few years ago, trying to make flour tortillas for the first time. It’s a family recipe. I put a photo of my grandmother in the kitchen and blasted Tejano music. Let me tell you: it wasn’t easy.”

*** 

Authenticity is a contentious thing; it’s always easier to find in the past, or in another country, or in people who don’t look and talk like you. After I left HomeState, I drove downtown, to Bar Ama. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in L.A.: a deliciously bipolar take on Tex-Mex, with sophisticated, produce-driven dishes such as spaghetti squash with persillade, lime, cotija, and yam on the one hand—dishes that “channel,” as one critic recently put it, “an almost psychedelic vision of border cuisine”—and cheesy, greasy, outrageously flavorful (and not too “elevated”) Tex-Mex classics on the other.

Bar Ama wasn’t up and running yet, so I couldn’t revisit the ethereal puffy tacos (with spicy beef guisada), or the narcotic Frito pie (with crema and lengua chili con carne), or the earthy enchiladas (with carrot sofrito and queso fresco)—and believe me, I would have, even though it was only 10 a.m. when I arrived. So I made do with talking to chef Josef Centeno instead.

After Bar Ama opened in late 2012, Centeno—whose previous restaurant Baco Mercat was named one of the best newcomers in the country by Esquire—caught some flack from Angelenos and Texans alike. The former accused him of cooking inauthentic Mexican food; the latter accused him of cooking inauthentic Tex-Mex. I asked Centeno, a native San Antonian who’s part Spanish, part Mexican, part German, part French, and part Polish, how he felt about the criticism.

“Growing up, my grandmother always had fideo going on her simple four-burner stove,” he said. “Pinto beans, too. She made corn tortillas to order, as we were eating. My dad was a butcher, so on holidays, we’d have 40 or 50 family members out back cooking cabrito and tripa in these big barbecue pits. Puffy tacos were just normal. I never thought about it ‘til I left. Then I realized the food I missed was the flour tortillas, the enchiladas, the fajitas.”

Centeno paused and adjusted his glasses. After a second or two, he continued. “With Bar Ama, what I wanted to do, conceptually, was to take the ideas around Tex-Mex and make them my own,” he said. “I wanted to recreate these dishes in the way that I remember them—not necessarily exactly how they are. Do the puffy taco, but make it better, the way I remember it. Better ingredients, better technique. Do the enchiladas, but do them the way that I remember them. The most authentic thing about Tex-Mex is that it’s not ‘authentic.’ The melting pot is what’s authentic.”

That sounds about right to me. Ultimately, the current Tex-Mex revival is too specific, too local, and too personal to change the way America eats. But it could change the way some tuned-in diners think about Tex-Mex cuisine—and that, in turn, could change the way they think about culinary authenticity as well. Other chefs are already approaching mongrel cuisines with the kind of respect and creativity usually reserved for purer foods: Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, who amplify red-sauce Italian-American classics at Parm and Carbone in New York; Danny Bowien, who transmogrifies Chinese-American take-out at Mission Chinese in New York and San Francisco. I’m not against another slavish temple to Thai street food. Not in the slightest. But at this point, wouldn't a Bar Ama for Hawaiian-American cuisine, a HomeState for Basque-American cuisine, or an El Real for Native American cuisine be a lot more exciting?

Next time I talk to Gustavo Arellano, I'll remind him to keep delivering those death notices.