With Gini Garcia (San Antonio), June Naylor (Dallas and Fort Worth), and Robin Barr Sussman (Houston)
How things change. When I was a kid growing up in Austin in the fifties, “Mexican food” meant one thing: a Tex-Mex combination platter groaning under yellow-cheese enchiladas, lavalike refried beans, and hamburger-meat tacos in shells fried so hard they could deflect bullets. In the eighties, my friends and I regularly ate our weight in the latest border craze: platters of sizzling fajitas. Last week, at my new favorite taquería, I had a hard time deciding between cochinita pibil (achiote-rubbed pork in a banana leaf) and tlacoyos (masa tarts topped with queso fresco and salsa verde). What is my point, exactly? Just this: Mexican food is the richest and the most dynamic native cuisine in Texas, and it’s getting more Mexican all the time.
Over the decades a tide of immigrants from south of the Rio Grande has traveled north, building upon our Tex-Mex base with dishes from deep inside Mexico. At first, some of these delicacies seem novel, even outlandish. Um, you’re going to eat cactus and corn fungus? In time, though, the shock wears off. We try them. We like them. And a new reality emerges.
A phenomenon of such cultural import must be studied on a continuing scientific basis, of course. So as this magazine did in 1995 and 2004, we marshaled a band of valiant food writers and sent them on an eatathon through Texas’s six major cities, plus Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley. When the salsa settled six months later, we had visited 138 restaurants (including a food trailer) and we had arrived at the opinionated, subjective, and hopefully controversial list of fifty places (beginning with our top five picks) that appears on the following pages.
Yes, we will always love our yellow cheese. But as dishes from Mexico’s heartland apply for permanent residency in Texas at an ever-increasing rate, we’re on the threshold of a new culinary era: the time of Mex-Tex.
LOS 5 MEJORES
Fonda San Miguel, AUSTIN
salsas: The ultra-smooth purée of oven-roasted Roma tomatoes and jalapeños tastes subtly different from any other in town; in fact, so does the green, equally silky mix of tomatillos and serranos. vibe: On the greenery-filled covered patio, vividly upholstered pillows invite you to sink into colonial Mexican–style sofas; overhead, a wood-and-iron chandelier looks as if it came out of One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the dining room, which showcases art by Mexican masters, punched-tin lamps cast bursts of light on stucco walls.
How many restaurants have endured 35 years with not only the same chef and owner at the helm but with their defining goal intact? Fonda San Miguel was birthed during the seventies, when America emerged from the bipolar decades of the parochial fifties and the psychedelic sixties to embrace global cultures and cuisines as a national pastime. In its infancy, Fonda dazzled customers with then-unheard-of dishes like cochinita pibil and pescado tikin xik (Yucatán-style fish rubbed with brick-red achiote). So intent on authenticity was co-owner Tom Gilliland that early on he had chiles shipped across the border because they were not obtainable locally (the feds once impounded a batch because it didn’t have the right papers). Three decades later, Fonda continues to dazzle. Founding chef Miguel Ravago and young chef de cuisine Jeff Martinez do a stellar mole, dark as espresso and redolent of chiles, chocolate, and aromatic spices. Another specialty, the brilliant chile relleno San Miguel, substitutes a dried ancho for the usual poblano and stuffs it with shredded chicken, green olives, capers, and almonds, a combination that is classic and avant-garde all at once. If a few dishes are merely very good, like pork loin with pineapple and chayote, the overall thrust is so accomplished and so aspirational that even after all this time, Fonda remains the grande dame of interior Mexican cuisine in Texas.
2330 W. North Loop Blvd., 512-459-4121. Dinner Mon–Thur 5–9:30, Fri & Sat 5–10:30. Brunch Sun 11–2. Fonda San Miguel
salsas: The rich, rustic red sauce is tomato-forward, with just enough jalapeño for punch; the tomato-and-onion mix is basic and fresh. vibe: Yes, you’re in a strip center, but you quickly forget the mundane location, thanks to a giant Aztec calendar, strung garlic clusters, and pottery decorations on the sunny yellow walls. A small bar in the corner has a TV quietly tuned to soccer games.
This unpretentious neighborhood joint, owned by Enrique and Elizabeth Villafranca, may be a hub for political organizers—Elizabeth made a run for city council last year—but when you’re here, it’s all about the food. Witness the made-on-the-spot corn tortillas, which arrive before the meal still so hot and featherlight from the comal that it’s exciting just to dredge them in salsa and take a bite. They’re so good, in fact, that when our plates arrive, our first move is always to slather some bacon-rich refried beans on them too. Only then can we contemplate dinner. The pozole sends us into a swoon, its lusty rust-hued broth filled with hominy and big chunks of pork, some still clinging to bone (garnish with cabbage, white onion, and lime to really bring out the bowl’s extraordinary flavors). And, oh, the gorditas! These fresh masa pockets are sturdy but soft, one filled with queso blanco and strips of roasted poblano, another with shredded beef in a bright-red sauce. Finally, the traditionalist in us revels in the chile relleno, an ample, golden-crisp poblano we slice open to reveal a beef picadillo of peas, carrots, bell pepper, and tomato. This, folks, is bliss.
13260 Josey Ln., Farmers Branch; 972-243-1491 (and two other locations). Open Mon–Fri 10–9, Sat & Sun 9–10.
Salsa Fuego, Fort Worth
salsa: Dark and stubbly with roasted tomatoes, onions, chiles, and jalapeños. vibe: Built in the seventies as a Kentucky Fried Chicken, this joint on the far west side of town was more recently a hamburger stand. There is almost always a crowd, so go early to grab a seat.
Salsa Fuego certainly looks like a