The Joy of Mex

From sopa azteca to enchiladas zacatecanas, the food at these restaurants will make your taste buds shout, "¡Ole!"

Deep within the psyche of every Texan is a primal memory of the quintessential Mexican dinner. For my generation—growing up in the fifties and sixties—that was a combo platter (“Hot plate! Hot plate!”) with a pair of oniony yellow-cheese enchiladas, a crispy taco, a sodden tamale, refried pinto beans, Spanish rice, corn tortillas in a cute sombrero-shaped basket, and a pecan praline or sherbet for dessert. Of course, there were regional differences (I have friends who never ate corn tortillas, only flour), but the broad outlines were all but universal. Fast-forward thirty years to the present, and the picture becomes vastly larger with quesadillas, black beans, pico de gallo, tomatillo sauce, chiles rellenos made with poblano peppers, sizzling piles of fajitas, tacos for breakfast, and flan for dessert.

Mexican food in Texas, once monolithic, is all over the map, and if you think it’s different now, just wait. Some of the little taquerías and cafes I visited traveling around the state were exactly like those I went to in Texas’ sister cities across the border. I felt like I was in Mexico. And the food—amazing: In Fort Worth I had a chicken tamal cooked in a banana leaf, in San Antonio a heavenly salsa made with roasted morita chiles, in Houston a torta de lengua (a sandwich of spicy beef tongue on a crusty bolillo), and in Dallas quesadillas of huitlacoche (smoky-flavored corn-ear fungus). Are such dishes and such restaurants everywhere? No, but consider this: A dozen years ago they were all but nonexistent.

The border is moving steadily north, and as it does, the Mexican food in Texas is becoming more like the Mexican food in Mexico. Immigrants arrive, they open shops and restaurants, and their food ways mingle with ours. But if Mexican food is changing from the grassroots up, it is also changing from the top down. In a handful of restaurants—mostly upscale places like Austin’s

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