Just like pork is the other white meat, El Paso is the other border town. When people think of the Texas -Mexico border, their minds invariably jump to Brownsville/Laredo. Rarely do the far west Texas twin cities of El Paso and Juarez even cross their mental landscape. After all, what’s so interesting about a place where Marty Robbins made a bar famous and Johnny Cash went to jail? I don’t blame these people. Having grown up in the Austin area, I, too, was geographically unaware. Yet, here we are living on the border, crossing back and forth between cities (despite a fence that John Cornyn doesn’t seem to know exists) and blending cultures seemlessly. I think that in many ways, our food and restaurants suffer from the same lack of identity.
It’s not that El Paso doesn’t have its own style of really good Mexican food – its just that San Antonio (which is not even ON a border) has defined what Texans (and thus – the whole world) think an enchilada should look like. This is even a bit unfair to Brownsville, where you know there’s authentic Tex-Mex. But my point is – when a visitor from Atlanta recently told me the best Mexican food he ever had was in San Antonio, I choked on my gordita and launched into a defense of El Paso’s food which readily absorbs flavors and styles from Mexico and New Mexico. Namely, its hotter than Tex-Mex and some forms of our enchiladas are flat and not rolled, but all the same – its just as legitimate as a food group.
The argument goes something like this: Texas A&M University — which is periously close to South Texas — is inventing peppers so mild that Pat Sharpe compares them to sweet bell peppers. In contrast, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, NM, 40 miles west of El Paso, developed the world’s hottest serrano. El Pasoans like their Mexican food spicy – really spicy. So if you’re expecting Tex-Mex you’re liable to burn off a few taste buds trying salsa that no one thought to tell you might be hotter than you’re used to.
I agree that El Paso Mexican food has all the same elements as Tex-Mex but the interpretation is different. For example, almost NEVER do you find a dish called “Mexican Plate” on a menu here. In South Texas that’s one taco, one enchilada, one tamale or chile relleno and rice and beans. If you were to order a Mexican Plate here you’d receive a plate that had “hecho in Mexico” stamped on the bottom. And, while all the old Mexican food standards remain, restaurants here also go with pit-roasted cabrito, velvety mole sauces over lamb shanks, and of course, extremely hot salsa that’s always fresh and never wears the label “Pace Piquante Sauce.” El Pasoans are probably the only people who make fun of those comercials. Made in New York City, indeed, it might as well say Made in San Antonio.
So at the risk of having offended people in the Tex-Mex Capital of the World, I offer a way to end the contest of who has the better Mexican food. Perhaps its a nomenclature thing. Tex-Mex is found in East, Central, North and South Texas, while Southwest Mex (repleat with the world’s hottest serranos) is king on the Far West side of the state. Yeah, that’s right. King. (Somehow this argument is reminescent of comedian Ron White’s joke about Cincinnati being the Chili Capital of the World – it’s highly possible that San Antonio and South Texas didn’t even know there was a contest…)