Q: As a native San Antonian, I’m used to a few constants: a competitive Spurs team, limited traffic congestion, and the best Mexican food in the state. While the former two have certainly changed in recent years, I am still proud of the latter. But several restaurant visits of late have been thwarted by requests for chips and salsa that have ended with waiters responding (as if by coercion) with “$2.49” or, in one case, “$4, is that okay?” I understand being charged for chips in cities where a fair amount of the population doesn’t know better, but in San Antonio a charge for chips typically means that you’ve somehow ended up on the Riverwalk. Austin has changed a lot in my lifetime and I’m wondering if, perhaps, it all began with someone charging for chips. What does this mean for San Antonio?
Collin Newton, San Antonio
A: The Texanist is, of course, no stranger to Mexican cuisine. His experience in this particular gastronomic arena is, in fact, vast. Embarrassingly vast, if he’s being honest. To the Texanist there are simply few things as satisfying as cheesy enchiladas generously sprinkled with jalapeños and raw onion and sided with flavorful Spanish rice and soothing frijoles refritos served on a big piping hot platter. Rare are the times—if ever—when such a feeding does not commence with a basket of warm, crispy, well-salted tortilla chips and a dish of zesty salsa. Such appetizing appetizers are a universally appreciated part of the Mexican repast.
Indeed, time was when an offering of chips and salsa by a restaurant was considered to be a lagniappe, a gratis perk presented to the diner as a sort of greeting. “Hello! And welcome to this dining establishment! My name is so-and-so and I am here to serve you all the delicious Mexican food you could possibly desire. Please look forward to guacamole, queso flameado, tamales, tacos, flautas, enchiladas, fajitas, chiles rellenos, and so forth. And margaritas and Mexican martinis and the coldest cerveza in all of the town. And flan and sopaipillas and cakes and cookies and sherbets and pralines. But first, please enjoy this simple but satisfying starter, compliments of the casa. Humble though it may be, it’s the least we can do. Enjoy!”
Alas, Mr. Newton, the Texanist is sorry to report that the golden age of complimentary golden-fried tortilla chips and homemade salsa seems to be behind us. And your dismay over your recent experiences there in the River City notwithstanding, the trend of charging for chips and salsa is not new. The Texanist knows this because he’s been shelling out a modest number of simoleons for them for some time now. He actually chimed in on the matter way back in 2008, when a fellow from McAllen, who’d been accused of being a cheapskate for even raising the issue, wrote to suggest a boycott of restaurants that charge for chips and salsa. “Boycott? A boycott is too good for these vultures,” the Texanist replied at the time, his anger just getting started. “Their wanton disregard for old-fashioned hospitality makes the Texanist sick. You, my friend, are not the tightwad. The tightwad is the Tex-Mex restaurateur who puts the grubbing of a few measly dollars ahead of the social good.”
Having apparently surrendered to the inexorable tides of change, the Texanist’s stance has softened somewhat since then and he has become less intolerant of charges for chips. But this doesn’t mean that he favors them, especially exorbitant charges. Exorbitant charges really get his dander up—if not his dukes.
In considering your query, though, the Texanist conferred with his trusted colleague José Ralat, Texas Monthly’s taco editor. José, that lucky son of a gun, butters his bread by writing about the tacos he consumes, and as such he visits a lot of Mexican restaurants. The Texanist was curious to get his take. José says that, because he can’t afford the stomach space, it’s not his practice to order chips and salsa. Still, he told the Texanist that that his general observation is that most counter-service establishments charge for chips and salsa. Newer sit-down places, he said, are split down the middle. Older Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants, by and large, are the lone holdouts. “They are fixed in their ways and service and are not charging for chips and salsa,” he reports.
All of this pretty much jibes with the Texanist’s anecdotal findings. Austin’s Julio’s Café, where he takes the majority of his Mexican fare (as well as his martinis), is, if you’ve never had the pleasure, one of those counter-service/sit-down hybrids where you order at the counter but are served at the table. And though chips and salsa appear on the menu, billed at a reasonable price of $2.50, oftentimes the good folks who work the register don’t even ring them up. The list price seems to be a defense against freeloaders who might order a beer or a glass of tea with the aim of making a meal of the restaurant’s generosity. You’re not a freeloader are you, Mr. Newton? The Texanist sure hopes not.
Either way, and back to the question at hand, what do the charges for chips and salsa you incurred at several Mexican restaurants mean for San Antonio, generally? They likely mean what they likely mean everywhere else in Texas: that the economic pressures on the food service industry—think of how much rents have gone up in recent years, or the difficulties the pandemic has created for the food services sector—have forced proprietors to find ways to add to their bottom lines in order to keep their enterprises afloat. Which, for Mexican restaurants, may mean implementing a charge for chips and salsa. And the Texanist, despite believing in his heart of hearts that chips and salsa ought to come without a surcharge, certainly wants his—and yours and everybody’s—local Mexican joint to stay in the business of serving up those delicious enchiladas.
Now, that said, the Texanist does not like, and will not accept, the notion that anyone should have to pay an exorbitant $4 for a basket of chips. Sure, $2.49 or even—hang on to your hat—$2.50? Okay. But $4?! That wouldn’t even fly in Austin.
Thanks for the letter, Mr. Newton. May your chips be always fresh and your salsa bowl perpetually full—if not free of charge.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.