texasmonthly.com: After your “Joy of Mex” article from November 1999, why did this seem like the right time for an update?
Patricia Sharpe: We felt like a lot of new, interesting restaurants had opened in the intervening five years, and also, some of the old ones had closed, so the previous article was a little out of date. Plus, “five” is just a good number for an anniversary story.
texasmonthly.com: What lessons did you learn from that article in approaching such a massive and beloved topic to Texans as Mexican food and how did you integrate them into your approach for this article?
PS: I found that some people like Tex-Mex best, and others really want more unusual, interior-style dishes. I grew up eating Tex-Mex, so I love it, but there is so much excitement and variety in the regional Mexican dishes that I naturally gravitate toward them. We made a point of including both styles.
texasmonthly.com: What keeps Texans’ love affair with Mexican food so vibrant?
PS: For one thing, Mexican food is constantly changing in Texas because we have so many new immigrants arriving every day. If we were still serving the same old yellow-cheese-and-brown-gravy Tex-Mex combination plates, Mexican food would be more like a museum piece. But we are adding new dishes all the time—dishes like fajitas, ceviche, enchiladas verdes, mole poblano—and they keep it fresh.
texasmonthly.com: In what ways have you seen Mexican food evolve in Texas over the years?
PS: Mexican food here has become much more like Mexico and less like Texas. That’s hard for people to understand, because they think it would have gone the other way around. But once again, new immigrants constantly add to our repertoire of regional dishes.
texasmonthly.com: What is the most unusual or inspired food manifestation of this symbiotic relationship of Mexican restaurants in Texas?
PS: The most important food movement in Texas—in fact, in the United States, in my humble opinion—was Southwestern Cuisine. It was, when it was born in the early eighties, a blend of Mexican ingredients and French techniques. It was created by chefs who were operating at the highest level. Of course, Southwestern Cuisine eventually evolved into something very mainstream and almost clichéd, but it was groundbreaking when it was new. And it has spread all over the country.
texasmonthly.com: In your experience, are there any initial telltale signs of a good Mexican restaurant without using the sense of taste?
PS: Often you can tell by the menu—if it looks routine and the descriptions are mundane and not very imaginative, the restaurant is probably mundane too. I never trust a restaurant that serves jalapeño poppers—stuff like that is so often commercial frozen food. I always perk up if I can smell the aroma of good cooking in the dining room. If the waiters and waitresses seem genuinely interested in the food and telling the customers about it, that is a good sign.
texasmonthly.com: Since the categories in “Some Like It Picante” tend to focus on urban areas, where are the best places worth driving out of the city for?
PS: Every little Texas town has a Mexican restaurant—so many we could not cover them. I’m afraid folks are on their own for that.
texasmonthly.com: What category would you like to see on this list that didn’t make the final cut?
PS: People love Mexican breakfasts. So, even though we do cover the best migas on texasmonthly.com, we will probably do a big breakfasts story in the future.
texasmonthly.com: In researching the “respuestas” to frequently asked questions, was there anything that surprised you?
PS: I was surprised that there are several different chemicals that cause the burning sensation in chile peppers. I thought it was just one, capsaicin. But turns out that there are specific compounds (called capsaicinoids) that cause the “front of the mouth,” “back of the throat,” “lingering heat,” and other different aspects of the burn. We didn’t have much room to go into that, but I found it fascinating.