Our Lady of the Taco

1887; Her name is Tula Borunda Gutierrez, and she has blessed us with the tamale, the taco, the enchilada, and the bounty of Tex-Mex food.

With the opening in 1887 of the first Tex-Mex restaraunt, Marfa’s Old Borunda Cafe, the culinary history of Texas emerged from the dark ages and entered the renaissance. Forevermore, any Texan whose imagination becomes overoxygenated contemplating enchiladas, tacos, or beans refritoed will measure life as B- NOD or A- NOD, Before and After Number One Dinner.

Tula Borunda Gutierrez took the basic Mexican diet—corn, beans, chiles—that dated back to five thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish, intermarried its flavors with a few new things, and sold the results to her astonished neighbors, who were used to nourishing themselves mainly on a stock of tortilla, bean, and red pepper. Like all good cooks, she added her own topspin, taking special care with the corn, for from corn come tortillas, and from tortillas, enchiladas, tacos, chalupas, flautas, and other dishes whose warmed content is like a stroll in the sun. Simple food then: robust, thermally rich, stoutly regional.

The classic Tex-Mex plate presentation is an enchilada, tamale, or taco served with rice and beans, a dollop of guacamole salsa optional, known to millions as No.1 Dinner. At the Old Borunda it was prepared on a mesquite-wood-burning stove, and the result was an ecumenicity of smells, textures, and flavors that caused diners to experience a pleasure so intense it could have been a Pentecostal visitation. The aftereffect, lasting hours, was a blissful lethargy that lullabied as well as wind or water.

For a while the Old Borunda Cafe was the grand arcanum of Tex-Mex, but the young, vigorous cuisine traveled well. The new style suited the climate, land, and temper of Texans. In 1900 O.M. Farnsworth opened the Original Mexican Restaurant on Losoya Street in midtown San Antonio with an expanded menu that added chiles rellenos, pescado, and other exotica like mole poblano to Tula Gutierrez’s basics.

Sixty per cent of the country’s Mexican Americans lived in Texas before and just after World War I, and they helped spread the glory as they migrated to urban areas around the state: Delfino Martinez’s Original in 1922, Austin’s first (Martinez’s son, Matt, would later gain Hall of Famoso status with his El Rancho restaurant and Mexican seafood); Cuellar’s Cafe in Kaufman six years later, ancestor of the huge El Chico chain; Houston’s Felix Mexican Restaurant on Main Street the next year, still serving essentially the same menu today; Joe T. Garcia’s family-style in Fort Worth, which opened Independence Day, 1935 and is still in business.

All food appeals to some senses, only great food to all senses. Along with chicken-fried steak and barbecue, Tex-Mex forms the Holy Trinity of our state’s official cuisine. It is multileveled and richly dimensional, giving us taste, nutrition, and history. It is soul-binding, brotherhood food that has done more to entwine us with our Southern neighbors than any politician in history. On the darker side it is responsible for unfortunate aberrations like Taco Bell and chili cookoff warfare.

And what of the Old Borunda Cafe, the fount, the navel of the universe to any Tex-Mex fanatic? It continued to serve simple, near-perfect No.1 Dinners at its 75-year-old location on U.S. Highway 90 in Marfa until last August, when an illness in the family forced Carolina Borunda Humphries, whose sister-in-law bought it in 1910, to at last close the doors. Bow your heads and pass the tortillas. An era has ended.

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