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I don't know about you, but basically all the Mexican dishes I grew up devouring weren't technically Mexican. Fajitas, chili, nachos—these are all cornerstones of Tex-Mex cuisine. To be fair, for years people living in Texas did refer to these as Mexican food, and it's only been in the past 40 years or so that the term Tex-Mex started to be widely adopted. Sometimes the term is used dismissively, mostly to set it apart from what people think is "real" Mexican cuisine. This seems like a silly argument to make. While there are some real differences between the two, Tex-Mex is a varied and fascinating cuisine. Plus, living in a world without chili is not something I want to consider.
So what is Tex-Mex? Here are some basics. As Meredith Bethune recently explained, Tex-Mex food is rooted in Texas'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." Key characteristics include the heavy use of cheese, cumin, chili powder, and beef. But that's just the beginning of this ever-evolving cuisine.
If you're looking for a place to start, here are 8 essential Tex-Mex dishes that everyone should know.
Real Texas Chili Con Carne
Let's start with what is easily the Lone Star state's most iconic dish, chili. Thanks to years of chili cook-offs and competitions, some people think that the dish requires dozens and dozens of ingredients, including a few secret ones, and numerous days to make correctly. (We certainly have a few of those recipes scattered around our site.) But while pushing the limits of chili is a fine and noble pastime, it's important to remember that the dish originated as chili con carne, which is almost as simple as its title suggests. This is Tex-Mex at its most essential and brawny, and is all about celebrating the alluring combination of beef and chilies, without a whole lot else to get in the way.
Where chili is all about slower conjuring up beef's more luscious side, fajitas celebrate the meat's immediate appeal. Just cook some skirt steak over a hot grill, slice across the grain, and serve. But how do you make exceptional fajitas? As Kenji explained ever-so eloquently in his post on the subject: "There's one golden rule to cooking skirt steak: make sure your grill is hot as hell."
Patricia Sharpe writes in Texas Monthly that cheese—and yellow cheese in particular—is one of three pillars of Tex-Mex cuisine. This partly explains the enduring popularity of queso, which as Sharpe notes is "so beloved" that it's the "national party dip of Texas." Of course, love for gooey yellow cheese punctuated with chilies is kind of universal at this point, having firmly become a menu staple for watching sports at home. Joshua Bousel took a few liberties with his taco queso dip, adding in ground beef and loads of seasonings, but it's hard to argue with the results.
Few dishes are as ubiquitous as nachos, but what you might not know about this Tex-Mex classic is that it started its life as a very stripped down and basic recipe. The original is just triangles of fried tortilla chips covered in cheese and topped with pickled jalapeños. But as Joshua Bousel found out when he had a "grand nacho awakening" while researching the dish, there is something truly appealing about the simplicity of the original. Of course, the version that most of us know and love is this overloaded and ridiculous variation, and Daniel Gritzer has you covered there. His recipe layers on all the usual suspects, but in a methodical way. Where some versions trend towards wet and sloppy, this one ensures that chips still have integrity and structure.
It's hard to imagine a Tex-Mex meal without a side of refried beans. Pinto beans are usually the bean of choice, resulting in a dish that is creamy, earthy, and slightly sweet. While you can make a quick version by starting with canned beans, cooking the beans from scratch results in much more flavorful dish.
Tex-Mex enchiladas differ in a number of ways from their Mexican counterparts. They look cheesier and saucier, which they most definitely are. But there are other distinctions, including how the sauce is made. The recipe I posted a month ago skips the chili powder that is usually called for in favor of freshly toasted dried chilies. But the sauce is still thickened with a roux made of flour and oil. The result is an intensely flavored sauce, with a rich base and a slightly spicy background of heat.
Puffy tacos are a peculiar taco specialty from San Antonio. Fresh masa is pressed into discs and fried quickly until it literally puffs up into a crackly, airy shell, so delicate it shatters when you bite in. (Compare this to the hard-fried u-shaped taco shells, which mostly focus on crunch.) The tortillas are then stuffed with any number of meats, along with lettuce, cheese, and salsa. Chef Diana Barrios-Treviño of Los Barrios in San Antonio actually showed us how to make them from scratch a few years ago.
You'd think that "breakfast taco" simply refers to just anything wrapped in a tortilla and eaten in the morning, but since you can eat one at any point in the day, this isn't quite right. Instead, a breakfast taco seems to require eggs, usually scrambled. But from there, it's all fair game. Potatoes, cheese, and beans are all common additions, with chorizo close behind.
While you can find breakfast tacos all over Texas, Southern food scholar John T. Edge wrote in the The New York Times that "Austin trumps all other American cities" when it comes to the dish. Kenji's favorite version is served at Veracruz All Natural, a food truck in East Austin. He also has a recipe for breakfast tacos with crispy potatoes, chorizo, and fried eggs.