Mexican food confused me when I first moved to Texas. What I considered to be quintessential Tex-Mex, like sizzling fajita platters and enchiladas smothered in yellow cheese, were on the same menu as "traditional" Mexican favorites, like tacos al pastor and chiles en nogada. I even encountered a restaurant serving the Lone Star state's famous queso dip next to cochinita pibil (a specialty from the Yucatán Peninsula) wrapped in flour tortillas. I didn't know what to make of it. But after talking to several chefs, I learned that the distinction between Mexican and Tex-Mex food has actually been evolving for years, and has even recently started to blur.
The cuisine we now call Tex-Mex is rooted in the state's Tejano culture (Texans of Spanish or Mexican heritage who lived in Texas before it became a republic) and also Mexican immigrants who hailed largely from Northern Mexico. Until the 1970s, though, most people referred to it simply as Mexican food. In The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Texas food expert Robb Walsh credits Diana Kennedy with removing Tex-Mex from the discussion of traditional Mexican cuisine.
Rick Bayless, however, recently told me at the Austin Food and Wine Festival that when he wrote the draft of his first cookbook, Authentic Mexican, he featured seven culinary regions of Mexico, including the Southwestern United States. "You could even break that down further into the cuisines of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and even the ranchos of California," he added. Perhaps his view differs from Kennedy's because he grew up in Oklahoma eating Tex-Mex two or three times a week.
If you're looking to identify the distinguishing characteristics of Tex-Mex, enchiladas are a good case study. In the classic Tex-Mex version of cheese enchiladas, grated yellow cheese is wrapped in tortillas, and then covered in a dark red chili sauce mixed with ground beef. You'll also find other typical Tex-Mex ingredients like pinto beans and rice served on the side.
But Iliana de la Vega, the chef and owner of the Mexican restaurant El Naranjo in Austin, never ate cheese enchiladas while growing up in Mexico City. She recalls eating foods like chiles rellenos and salads composed of chayote or nopales. Beef was a bit of a rarity. "In traditional Mexican cooking, we eat a lot of chicken and a lot of pork," she explained. If they had enchiladas, they were usually smothered in a green tomatillo sauce or mole, and sprinkled with a white cheese. "My mother was from Oaxaca, so we had mole maybe twice or three times a month," she said.
Although Carlos Rivero, owner of El Chile Cafe y Cantina and several other Mexican restaurants in Austin, ate traditional Mexican mole and other dishes while growing up in San Antonio, he and Bayless both spoke nostalgically about cheese enchiladas in chili gravy. "They were probably one of my favorite dishes my mom made when my sister and I we were young," Rivero recalled.
Another difference is the abundant use of cumin in Tex-Mex cuisine. "We use it a lot in the north, but it's not a spice we use much in the southern part of Mexico," says de la Vega. Robb Walsh links the heavy use of cumin to the first wave of Canary Islanders who emigrated to San Antonio in the 1700s. Today it's still a key ingredient in chili con carne, along with chili powder, which, according to Walsh, is a uniquely Texan invention developed by a German immigrant in New Braunfels in the late 1890s. In the late 1800's, chili con carne was regularly ladled out at bargain prices in the streets of San Antonio at its famed chili stands. "Tex-Mex was never the cuisine of the upper echelon of society," Bayless observes. "It's a peasant, working class cuisine."
The Tex-Mex that most of us think of, full of Velveeta cheese and pre-made taco shells, was shaped by the development of convenience foods in the 1950s. That time period left Tex-Mex, and even Mexican food in general, with a reputation as "just a cheap cuisine, full of sour cream and processed cheese, and that everything is greasy," says de la Vega.
Fortunately, that perception has changed. "Tex-Mex has now evolved to a different stage," says Bayless. "It was once a very simple cuisine, but now there are a variety of dishes on the menus."
Carlos Rivero agrees. "'Mexican' is a very broad term because that profile encompasses so many different flavors and ingredients," explains Rivero. "When you come to El Chile, you can have a modern take on Mexican or you can have the die-hard fajita platter. It's up to you."
As the line between traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex continues to evolve, it may become harder to separate the two. As Iliana de la Vega notes, "Either Tex-Mex or traditional Mexican, we can all live together. As long as it's well-executed food, then, why not?"
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.