More than 700,000 Californians have moved to Texas in the last decade, and they miss the taste of home. Some transplants claim that California Mexican food, or Cal-Mex, is superior to Tex-Mex. Social media sites like Reddit and Facebook are awash with examples. I even informally polled members of my own Taco Trail Facebook page, and there were a lot of tantrums.
What’s the difference between Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex? It’s subtle. To chef and co-owner Christopher Haydostian of Reunión 19 in Austin, it’s a matter of flavor profiles. “Our flavors are more focused on central to western coastal Mexican, where Tex-Mex is more northern to northeast and border flavors,” says the California native. “We’re lighter in flavor. We focus on light and fresh, and Cal-Mex does more fusion styles due to the large melting pot of cultures in the state, specifically Southern California.” Reunión 19 is an excellent example of Cal-Mex. Its home, Austin, is also a major magnet for Californians.
Thankfully for these newcomers and their brethren across Texas, there are many great Cal-Mex options in the Lone Star State. Los Angeles and Southern California are sometimes called Oaxacalifornia, referring to the significant Oaxacan Mexican immigrant population and the restaurants and food stands they operate. Oaxacan restaurants are thriving in Dallas, Austin, and Houston. West Texas is littered with ace burritos, and Tijuana-style birria de res is nearly ubiquitous across the state. Valerie’s Taco Stand, which opened its Princeton location just over a year ago, is another standout option for homesick Californians and curious Texans alike—even if San Diego–born owner, Marc Robledo, has some strong ideas about the superiority of his native state’s cuisine.
“In Southern California, we have a bunch of different regions from Mexico. So you can get very diverse Mexican food. Tex-Mex is more Americanized and that’s what [California transplants] refer to as not-good Mexican food,” says Robledo. The chain boasts eleven locations across Southern California and Utah, and a couple here in North Texas, in Plano and the aforementioned Princeton. With the latter, Robledo says he’s going for the feel of a traditional taco stand with Tijuana and Baja California leanings. Hence the name, a change from its sister locations, which are known as Valerie’s Taco Shops. Robledo thinks the concept is missing in Texas.
Although that might be true of the suburbs, it’s not true of Houston, San Antonio, or Dallas. I live in the latter. Within a few miles (and sometimes within walking distance) of my house, I can reach for Mexican dishes from Jalisco, Baja, Sonora, Zacatecas, Nuevo León, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Mexico City, Oaxaca, and the borderlands. There is also plenty of K-Mex and Tex-Mex.
Founded in 1997 by Robledo’s mother, Valerie Swanson, the family-owned chain opened the Princeton branch because the Robledos have relatives in the Dallas–Fort Worth suburbs. The Plano location began serving customers in March. It’s a quick-serve, fast-food operation, while the Princeton location offers a fantastic array of handmade tortilla-based treats. I recommend you try the latter.
Prime among its dishes is the chicharron en salsa verde topped with frijoles de olla and a flurry of raw onions and cilantro. This taco is available at only three Valerie’s locations, the two in Texas and one in California. The Cali Taco is a fist-size take on the french fry–stuffed California burrito. The carne asada is roughly chopped, beautifully charred, and tender. The taco is finished with an aggressive portion of orange cheese and a large dollop of cooling sour cream. Another carne asada taco with whole beans offers a well-seasoned lesson in degrees of chewiness. The next time you hear a Californian claim that there’s no good Mexican food in Texas, send them this menu.
Mexican food runs deep in the Robledo family. Marc’s grandparents, Roberto and Dolores, immigrants from a village in San Luis Potosí, established Roberto’s Taco Shop in 1964. Its first iteration was a tortilleria in the San Diego County border town of San Ysidro. It now has more than sixty restaurant locations across Southern California and the Las Vegas area. Roberto’s is the stuff of Cal-Mex legend, or as Robledo puts it, “My family is the one who created that regional Mexican food.” He goes on to distinguish Valerie’s from two large chains. “Everything is made fresh to order. It’s not like Taco Bell or Taco Cabana, where it comes vacuumed-packed, thrown into a heating tray, and that’s it.”
Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex are both regional, Americanized adaptations with deserved places in the larger Mexican culinary canon. They share folded and rolled fried tacos, especially the drowned or smothered fried rolled taquitos famous at Cielito Lindo (established 1934) in Los Angeles and Chico’s Tacos (established 1953) in El Paso. The tacos dorados at Milta Cafe (established 1937) in San Bernardino, California, inspired Glen Bell to create the world’s best-known Mexican fast-food business, Taco Bell.
Tex-Mex, meanwhile, is often unfairly stereotyped as “heavy,” and “processed”; the term “gut bombs” pops up in reference to bowls of Velveeta-based chile con queso, enchiladas blanketed with chile con carne, and nachos. (Nachos were actually invented in Mexico.) There’s too much cheese and sauce is one complaint. Another is that Tex-Mex caters to Anglos. I would argue that isn’t true, beginning with the first Tex-Mex restaurant, the Old Borunda Cafe established in 1887 by Tula Borunda Gutierrez in Marfa. That beloved bygone eatery fed vaqueros, ranch hands, and locals with dishes cooked over a mesquite-burning stove. Now Tex-Mex has embraced Cajun and Japanese elements, while retaining its border roots in tacos such as the beef-filled, queso fresco–topped taco estilo Matamoros, and breakfast tacos (including the Laredo mariachi, distinguishable in name only). I’ve gotten into arguments with Californians who insist the platter-length breakfast tacos of South Texas and northern Mexico are in fact burritos. They’re not. They’re just big.
But at Valerie’s, burritos are plentiful. They’re also heavy. One is a gleeful gossamer tube crammed with beef and curled shrimp. Its heft is amplified by pico de gallo, fries, more cheese, and more sour cream. Veins of rice are woven through each burrito. Lighter are the crispy taco and taquitos, which offer a happy crunch. The folded and fried tortilla opens with a frilly edge obscured by layers of shredded, snappy lettuce, and more cheese and sour cream. At the bottom rests a just-firm-enough potato filling. The rolled, fried taquitos are filled with thin threads of beef concealed under more cheddar cheese and sour cream. Guacamole is plopped atop the platter for color.
California Mexican food isn’t confined to hard shells and burritos. Both Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex have embraced combo platters, and both have evolved with immigration and historical touchstones. For example, Los Angeles is home to K-Mex, the Korean taco-based cuisine made popular by Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ, and the Alta California culinary movement led by classically trained Southern Californian chefs who blend their Chicano heritage, formal training, seasonal ingredients, and Mexican artisan techniques to push the boundaries of regional Mexican food. Birria de res has also made a significant impression, as it has in Texas.
In Texas, there are Monterrey-style tacos de trompo, a regional twist on tacos al pastor. Barbacoa is slick, tender beef cheek evoking the state’s ranching history, and barbecue has returned to its Mexican roots too. Filipino, Caribbean, and Pacific Islander styles of Mexican food are available too, and more intermingling is happening at a rapid rate. There is also carne asada, something Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex share.
Californians seem to like their fries loaded, especially with carne asada. At Valerie’s Taco Stand, the carne asada fries are a delightfully messy must-order. Despite evidence to the contrary, Robledo would have you believe his restaurant’s food is unadulterated Mexican food. There is no such thing. Carne asada fries are Cal-Mex—that is to say, Americanized Mexican food through and through. But Robledo justifies their place on the menu because “those are literally perfection,” he says.
The fries are indeed pretty good, and thankfully, Valerie’s Taco Stand is open to satiate the appetites of homesick Californians and open-minded, taco-loving Texans.