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True Tex-Mex Cuisine’s Long Adios

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Is Tex-Mex a fading cuisine? It sure seems that way in Houston, where it’s getting harder and harder to find the authentic stuff with each passing year. Indeed, judging by the most recent lists of Houston’s top Tex-Mex restaurants, I would say that people have even forgotten what true Tex-Mex is.

Patricia Sharpe elucidated the Platonic Tex-Mex Restaurant Ideal at length here, but in the interest of brevity, I will quote a few participants in a recent online symposium I hosted (read: a Facebook chat) on the subject along with some of my own thoughts and favorite definitions.

Dave Hickey, the Macarthur “genius grant” art critic and Fort Worth native, expressed it about as succinctly as it can be done when he called it “the absence of f—ing vegetables.”

I will grant some leafy exceptions—including a few shreds of iceberg lettuce on the tacos or a single wilted leaf of it under the scoop of side-dish guacamole, thus rendering the dish a “guacamole salad”but Clay Wisner speaks truth when he says: “When everything seems to be the same 4 or 5 ingredients rearranged, that’s Tex-Mex. If there’s actual variety on the menu, I consider that Mexican.”

Also speaking truth: Alese Pickering, who remembers that all true Tex-Mex waiters will warn you, “hotplate-hotplate,” while serving your meal and as a kid, you will fail to heed that warning over and over again. Andrea Greer picks up on the minimalist menu options. “The enchiladas can have cheese, ground beef, stringy chicken from questionable parts of the bird. They cannot have crab, lobster, or baby squash.”

Speaking of the menus, the PT-MRI’s entrees will be numbered, as in #1 dinner, #2 dinner, #4 combo meal, et cetera, though some more “modern” variants will have nicknames, like Pancho Villa Special or the Matador Platter. Walker Dollahon says that the laminated menus will sometimes sport shockingly racist images of life in Old Mexico, and the tall marquees out front will be red and green and often feature a serape-clad man taking a siesta against a saguaro cactus, a sombrero pulled down over his eyes.

Houston food writer Albert Nurick fills in more between the lines:

Tex-Mex is the cuisine of Texas, not Mexico. It is blissfully inauthentic “Mexican” food. Ground beef tacos, enchiladas (beef or some sort of horrible, lab-created cheese) and pork tamales. These aren’t the lovingly crafted versions you’ll find at Hugo’s, but more the down-home renditions that use inexpensive ingredients combined masterfully.

Chips and salsa before the meal, and they must be complementary. Combination plates must be on the menu.

Fajitas are a modern affectation that are tolerated, but shouldn’t be encouraged. Margaritas are de rigueur, and (you’ll see a pattern) the looked-down-upon frozen version is an acceptable option.

As did Jay Francis, another Bayou City food scribe:

Tex-Mex is: a bowl of chips with red salsa delivered before the large glass of iced tea; guacamole, chile con queso (yellow), a puffy crispy taco with ground meat seasoned with salt and pepper and onions and lots of shredded lettuce, a bean tostada, followed by a combo plate with a tamal, cheese enchilada with chopped onions, frijoles refritos and Mexican rice, orange or lime sherbet and a pecan praline. A half dozen corn tortillas on the side.

To some, including Sharpe as well as Jeannie Lomax, a Dallasite raised on Joe T. Garcia’s and the original El Chico’s (and who happens to be my former stepmother), the bowl of chips is an innovation—and not a welcome one. Before they arrived, diners were treated to plates piled with warm, soft corn tortillas wrapped in a cloth napkin to keep them warm, served with pats of butter. “Heaven on earth,” Lomax calls it.

Sharpe pegs the cuisine’s golden age as beginning in the postwar years and petering out some time in the seventies, and it’s hard to argue that point today. In Houston the twenty-first century has been tough on authentic Tex-Mex. Sixty-nine-year-old Leo’s fell to Washington Avenue gentrification in 2001 (just as Los Dos Amigos did earlier this year), leaving as its enduring legacy perhaps the most famous and salivating example of Tex-Mex food porn of all-time: the inside cover of ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres, pictured at the top of this article. (Stuck in Nashville as a kid, seeing that spread could move me to the verge of tears.)

Seven years later, it was Felix Mexican Restaurant’s turn, the 1948 flagship (and last remaining) location, home of day-glo queso that beamed the color of the sun and the scene of most celebrations on my mom’s side of the family for generations. Now remodeled all sleek, L.A.-style, it houses Houston’s location of Uchi, the renowned Austin-based sushi house.

Cafe Adobe was forced to beat a retreat from its prime spot across the street from St. Anne’s church, and the aughts were even more unkind to the once-mighty Ninfa’s empire, some of the remnants of which fell into the clutches of Carlos Mencia, who promptly rebranded them as “Maggie Rita’s” and ran them into the ground. (No such tragedy befell the original Ninfa’s on Navigation. Under different ownership, the flagship weathered a subpar patch about ten years ago and has rounded back into excellent form.)

Tellingly, the Ninfa’s location with the most desirable locationRichmond at Kirbyis now the home of Pico’s. Born in the Gulfton barrio 25 years ago, Pico’s did more to introduce interior Mexican cuisine to Anglo Houston diners than any other establishments not named Otilia’s or Hugo’s. And now it is residing in the former home of a Tex-Mex icon on one of Houston’s ritziest thoroughfares, just a mile or two south of River Oaks.

But by the time we get to Ninfa’ssizzling platters of fajitaswe are talking about second-generation Tex-Mex anyway. The same goes for Mama Ninfa’s family’s successor chain, El Tiempo. Fajitas, which Ninfa’s did so much to popularize and are now the staple of most Mexican restaurants statewide, were not an option on most Tex-Mex menus even in the eighties. The same goes for charro beans; it’s always been refritos or bust in real-deal joints. Back in 2003, our own Patricia Sharpe also pointed out that skirt steaks and margaritas were relatively modern additions to the Tex-Mex repertoire. As a 45-year-old, I can still remember a time when you never knew if a Mexican restaurant would offer fajitas, and there’s a hilarious scene in an early season of Dallas, wherein Cliff Barnes attempts to woo Sue Ellen astray with the offer of, as he clearly and painstakingly enunciates, a then-newfangled “marg-yew-ree-tahh.” Such a sophisticate, that Barnes kid (also, an enabler, but all’s fair, et cetera).

Since the fajita-rita revolución, it’s been evolve or die for old-school Tex-Mex places, many of which have also had to contend with shifting attitudes about nutrition. Mere mention of the word “lard” is enough to give many people a coronary these days, so to survive, the old guard has both broadened and lightened up their menus. Molina’s, Houston’s oldest surviving Tex-Mex establishment, now offers redfish, campechanas, black beans, tortilla soup, and, gasp, taco salads. So much for the absence of fing vegetables. Los Tios, another popular old-school chain, now offers both shrimp enchiladas and fish tacos, that most Cali-mex of folded-tortilla offerings.

With the exception of El Real, Tex-Mex swami Robb Walsh’s and chef Bryan Caswell’s cavernous emporium in Montrose, I can’t think of a single true Tex-Mex place to open in Houston in years—and El Real was deliberately founded as a preservationist tribute to a disappearing style.

While the likes of Leo’s and Felix were closing down, chef Hugo Ortega’s interior Mexican restaurant, Hugo’s, and Caracol were the talk of the town and the nationeven the world.

But that’s just on the high-end. Interior fare is chipping away at Tex-Mex on the budget dining level too, as I saw when I returned to Texas after eight years away, in 1997. During that time Houston’s palate shifted tectonically. Charro beans came from nowhere to supplant refritos. Hip kids in Montrose were spending as much or more of their Mexican food dollar on tacos al pastor and micheladas at authentic interior-style taquerias like La Tapatia or Ruchi’s than they did in the stodgier, greasier fare at places like Leo’s.

And in the mid-range, for many modern Houstonians fajitas and ’ritas is what passes for Tex-Mex. This is where you find the hugely popular Pappasito’s, Lupe Tortillas, and Escalante’s of the world. Jai Cruz calls mid-range chains like Jimmy Changa’s “white people Mexican restaurants.” Gwendolyn Zepeda, Houston’s poet laureate, elaborates on the term. “I don’t think ‘white people Mexican food’ is meant pejoratively,” she says. “It just means the restaurant made the food to suit the palates of Americans who don’t like or know real Mexican food. (Same thing happens with Chinese food—there are sweet-n-sour buffets that only white people like, and that’s fine. No hate!)”

Most recently, Houston (and DFW) have been invaded by Torchy’s Tacos. Since December of 2011, the hipsteriffic fast casual Austin-based chain has gone from zero locations to five (soon-to-be-six; Austin has eight) greater Houston locations. In a city of thousands of taquerias and authentic, extremely inexpensive taco trucks, many Houstonians will drive miles out of their way to wait up to an hour in line for Vespa-driving, food-truck graduate chef Michael Rypka’s uber-Austin take on “Mexican street food.”

These include the Vagabond: “grilled fajita beef on a bed of sexy bacon topped with grilled onions, Chimichurri sauce, feta cheese, and pico” ($5.50); the Brush Fire: “Jamaican jerk chicken, grilled jalapeños, mango, sour cream, and cilantro” ($3.75); and the Crossroads: “smoked beef brisket with grilled onions, jalapeños, cilantro, jack cheese, and a slice of avocado” ($4.25).

All served up with hipster attitude, Rypka’s tacos (and even more so his queso) are tasty, but Mexican street food they are not. Torchy’s success bewilders and even enrages some Houstonians; the Austin-ness of this taco shop you can’t call a taqueria is a blow to Houstonian pride, the very mention of its name enough to stoke the embers of the Houston-Austin rivalry. “Austin-Tex without the Mex,” Erin Kline brands it; “güero taco,” says Dan Castillo. Their tacos create cognitive dissonance; Houstonians and Torchy’s are in one of those “it’s complicated” relationships. “I want to call it Ersatz-Mex but the food isn’t bad,” says Owen Ford. “It just isn’t Tex-Mex or Mexican. Quasi-Mex?”

“Austin, Tex-Mex for hipster dufuses,” snarls Randy Wall, who promptly changes tack, adding, “I do like the food.” Then Wall doubles back again to ire: “But the beards and ‘ironic’ T-shirts, well, it’s not unique if EVERYONE is sporting a beard and a Saved By the Bell T-shirt you paid too much for at Taxi Taxi. But who am I to judge? Go get yourself a (cli-)Che Guevara tee and an overpriced ‘taco.’” And then it’s back to praise: “The queso is pretty good.” And he closes on an ambiguous note: “Very high cheese factor at Torchy’s.”

Others are more direct in their criticism. “Overpriced art tacos,” pronounces Chris Henrich. Dallasite Jacqui Marciacq brands it a “cult” and moves on. “I’d call [Torchy’s] a blight upon humanity, along with any other place that sells $4 tacos,” says Houston-born Austinite Joe de la Fuente. “To expensify a proletarian street food grates against my cheap Mexican soul like few other crimes. I don’t care how good they are; they’re tacos. I feel the same way about two-hundred-dollar jeans and seventeen-dollar bowls of pho.” Suffice it to say, it’s hard to think of a single Houston eating establishment capable of sparking more charged debates.

To circle back to my original question, when did Tex-Mex start to decline? By the early aughts, most Texans had switched to other Mexican-based cuisines. On my most-recent trips to purist Tex-Mex temples like Felix and Spanish Village (one of the few still standing that has not compromised much at all on its menu), I started noticing that there were almost no diners there between the ages of 18 and 45, and many, perhaps a plurality, were 65 and older. And all my fellow diners looked vaguely familiar to me. These were not newcomers to Houston, but natives, friends of friends of friends, parents and grandparents of school buddies, people I’d been seeing in grocery stores and at the post office all my life.

Greasy cheese enchiladas were not winning new fans. My ten-year-old daughter hates them. Any newcomers to Texas or visitors from out of town that I have made the mistake of taking to a place like Spanish Village have been appalled by everything except the margaritas.

On the other hand, my dad, a Houston native who left Texas in 1974, regards any innovations since then as “not real Mexican food” no matter how many actual Mexicans would try to convince him otherwise, just as generations of Texans have lamented the disappointing quality of the Mexican food south of the border. (“Honey, there’s no nachos on this dadgum menu! What’s wrong with these people?”)

But here’s the dirty little secret we can all admit to now: in most cases, old-school Tex-Mex was, and is, objectively bad food. It’s bland by modern standards, overly filling, heartburn-inducing, and coronary-breeding. In the big cities of modern Texas, it’s so easy to find authentic Mexican meals that are cheaper, tastier, and healthier, all at the same time.

And yet, for me, if it came down to a death row last meal choice of Hugo Ortega’s Mariscos al Ajillo (sautéed lobster, shrimp, scallops, and octopus served with arroz blanco), or Spanish Village’s Enchiladas a la Taylor (“prepared with Many Spices, Cheese, with Chile Con Carne and Rice, Beans and Guacamole Salad”), um, yeah, I’ll take column B, Mr. Warden.

But I’m betting that in another generation, even though you can still sample it everywhere in the state today minus far West Texas and south of San Antonio, where bland Mexican restaurants have never been much in demand, the likes of Enchiladas a la Taylor will be extinct.

But it’s still out there today and wherever you find it, as Albert Nurick puts it, “it’s probably not very good, but it is in fact good enough.”

(Tres Hombres photo: Galen Scott; Felix Mexican Restaurant: Wikipedia.com.)

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