IT WAS TWO SUMMERS AGO IN ANN ARBOR, as I stood on State Street, staring at a menu taped in the front window of the Red Hawk Bar and Grill, that the full force of the realization struck me. Listed there among the usual soups, sandwiches, and pasta salads were—crab cakes grilled with red and green chiles in red mole sauce. Here I was in Michigan, home of—well, I’m not sure what, but definitely not mole sauce—and I could walk into a restaurant and order as if I were in Dallas or Houston. A dozen years ago, this would not have happened. A dozen years ago, Southwestern cuisine barely had a name. To the degree it existed at all, it was a glint in the eyes of a handful of young chefs in Texas (plus a couple in California) who were holed up in their kitchens inventing amazing new things to do with jicama and habaneros. Today the culinary craze that started in the Lone Star State is a national, indeed, an international phenomenon.
There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when cilantro was just a weird Mexican herb. When a chile relleno was a bell pepper stuffed with spiced hamburger meat. Now, the popular Zagat restaurant guides routinely include a category for “Southwestern.” In March Dallas’ KERA will air the pilot of a potential thirteen-part public television series by Dallas chef Stephan Pyles on his style of Southwestern cooking—and this, mind you, comes hard on the heels of PBS’s “Southwestern Supper” by Moosewood Cookbook author Mollie Katzen. The Great Southwest Cuisine Catalog mails out 40,000 to 50,000 copies a year hyping its salsas, turkey chorizo, and piñon brittle. Last year a United Airlines in-flight video featured Dallas’ Southwestern virtuoso Dean Fearing as one of the top reasons to visit the city. In October the Hotel Al Khozama in Riyadh held a Southwestern food festival. In its winter 1996 catalog, the William Morrow publishing company announced three new cookbooks on “the cornerstones of Southwestern cuisine.” Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe chef and owner, Mark Miller, reports that his cookbooks are selling like tortilla chips in, among other places, Australia. Not only that, the peripatetic Miller is now massaging a deal to do Coyote Cafe spin-offs in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Southwestern cuisine is everywhere. Even restaurants with other national affiliations will slip a little tequila-marinated salmon or ancho linguine onto the menu, or use “Southwestern” as a buzzword to hype dishes that have precious little to do with the genre. It all made me wonder, how did the real thing actually start, and how did it become a national rage? And so it was that last November I found myself once again standing in front of a building, except this one was not in Ann Arbor but in Dallas, on University Avenue. The edifice was a generic duplex of orangy-brown brick with fifties-style casement windows, and yet in a way it was a historic building because it was here that the idea for Southwestern cuisine was born, or perhaps I should say hatched.
Beside me in the circular driveway was Anne Greer, a petite, energetic blonde in a red blazer, spotless white turtleneck, and black-and-white-checked skirt. A cookbook author and restaurant consultant who seems to operate on perpetual fast forward, Greer lived in this house in the eighties, and as the five o’clock traffic swirled past us, she told me, “This is where we met. We would have dinner out back by the grill and then we’d plot about how to get people to notice us.”
The “we” that Greer referred to was herself and a loosely knit group of six other young Texas chefs, and the bond that united them was the realization that each, in his or her own restaurant or hotel kitchen, was doing something exciting and very new with Texas food. “We started meeting in about 1984 because I could see that we were all doing something similar,” Greer told me later over ceviche at Café Pacific as we leafed through her file of old clippings, “and we wanted to get the word out about it.”
The group that came together at Greer’s and several other homes over the next few months read, in part, like a future who’s who of Southwestern cuisine. Five of the participants were from Dallas: Greer, then 40, was a consultant for the Loews Anatole Hotel and the author of The Cuisine of the American Southwest . Dean Fearing, 29, was the chef at the Anatole’s Verandah Club. Kevin Hopkins, 30, headed the Anatole’s Nana Grill. Avner Samuel, 28, was in charge of the restaurant at the Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel. Stephan Pyles, 32, was the chef and co-owner of Routh Street Cafe. The other two attendees were from Houston: Robert Del Grande, 29, was the chef at Cafe Annie, and Amy Ferguson, 28, was at Charley’s 517.
The meetings centered on dinner, a kind of glorified potluck at which all the dishes were fabulous because all the cooks were pros. The seven of them ate what they had brought, hoping to impress each other, and traded tips, but mainly they schemed and plotted ways to get attention. They knew each other only vaguely, but they had traits in common that were to prove the foundation of the nascent cuisine. They were roughly the same age, they all had classical training, and they all were fascinated and inspired by Mexican food. They knew The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy, and some of them had taken her classes. Indeed, the influence of the feisty ex-Brit on the Southwestern phenomenon cannot be overestimated. In the lessons she gave across the country and in the harangues she delivered on authenticity and purity, she paved the way for a generation of cooks. Even though the newcomers’ riffs on Mexican cuisine overstepped what Kennedy deemed acceptable, she was the one who showed them that there was life beyond the No. 2 Dinner.