Culinary purists and many Mexicans have long denigrated Tex-Mex as a bastardization of regional Mexican cooking (which is one reason why I started my Tex-Mexplainer series). At the late Urban Taco in Dallas, owner Markus Pineyro, a Mexico City native, had a cheeky doormat at the taqueria’s entrance that read “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Tex-Mex.” Now Pineyro, who also cofounded ghost kitchen Oomi, says he’s come around to it. “I have an appreciation for everyday Tex-Mex,” he says.

That attitude has recently taken hold in Mexico City as well, especially at Coyota, a casual restaurant from chefs Cristina Rubio and Juan Escalona, who’ve come to understand Tex-Mex as a chapter in the greater narrative of Mexican food. Their friendships—such as one with Monterrey, Mexico–born, McAllen–raised cultural anthropologist and masa wunderkind Luna Vela— have inspired them. “We underwent a paradigm shift to accept that Tex-Mex is more than Mexican food for American palates,” Rubio says. “It’s the food of Tejanos and Mexican Americans. We should respect that.” During our recent conversation at Coyota, which opened in 2022, I felt Rubio was on the verge of paraphrasing the old adage “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us.”

The sentiment was evident in Coyota’s recent Selena-inspired Tex-Mex menu, which was on offer for two months as part of the restaurant’s rotating menu system. I caught it at the end of its availability, in mid-April, and I loved it so much I visited twice to sample as much as I could. And it just happened to be the week of the late tejano star’s birthday. “She’s an icon,” Rubio says. “She was the perfect pretext to talk about Tex-Mex in a proper way.”

I especially enjoyed the crispy dog, an homage to Vela’s version of the San Antonio classic. “Obviously it’s not a dish I invented, but it’s a dish I love, a great conversation starter to talk about [Tex-Mex], and I’m happy it’s finding a home in more menus across the U.S. and now Mexico,” Vela says. Of course as chefs, Rubio and Escalona put their own spin on the San Antonio after-school snack.

Coyota’s crispy dog, like many of the restaurant’s dishes, came out of its rigorous research program, Sexto, whose mission is to explore food as a form of cultural communication, such as painting or music. The result was a hot dog stuffed with cheese (in this case, cheddar and queso menonita), wrapped in a blue corn tortilla, and deep-fried. The frank was then garnished with squiggles of ketchup (made with salsa panela, a mix of piloncillo and guajillo chiles) and yellow mustard. It was finished with a pico de gallo made of serrano and tomatoes.

Coytoa co-owners and chefs Cristina Rubio and Juan Escalona.
Coyota co-owners and chefs Cristina Rubio and Juan Escalona. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Barbacoa de res at Coyota in Mexico City.
Barbacoa de res at Coyota, in Mexico City. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Left: Coyota co-owners and chefs Cristina Rubio and Juan Escalona. Photograph by José R. Ralat
Top: Barbacoa de res at Coyota, in Mexico City. Photograph by José R. Ralat

The restaurant’s Guacamole Tejano was mousselike, and the chile-spiked, lime-brightened dip was served with blue corn tortilla chips. Another dish, the dedo de queso, was a more fun version of a mozzarella stick. A rectangular block of queso panela was wrapped in corn masa, dunked in tempura batter, and rolled in panko before frying. The finished appetizer was served with salsa panela. The cheese inside was not gooey but chewy—a true Mexicanization of an American classic.

The tender, light Barbacoa Fronteriza, made with ternera (veal) head and leg meat steamed and smoked over mesquite, was garnished with edible flowers that gave the South Texas specialty a sanctified appearance worthy of the traditional Sunday meal. 

A dish dubbed the Chile Queen was an ode to the Mexican and Mexican American cooks who worked street food stands in San Antonio’s Military Plaza. It wasn’t a traditional bowl of red “sin frijoles, como in Tejas” (“without beans, like in Texas”). It wasn’t even like the chili con carne gravy that comes atop cheese enchiladas. Perhaps that would’ve been far too much cumin and processed cheese for chilangos (the demonym for denizens of Mexico City) to consume. Instead, the Chile Queen was a costra-covered tortilla hiding juicy ternera. There was a lot of cheese. It was also very good. I just wish the dish had been a more literal interpretation.

Rubio and Escalona honored Selena, equally famous in Mexico, with drinks and dishes named after hit songs, “Amor Prohibido,” “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” and “Dreaming of You” among them. The Como la Flor platter of shrimp albóndigas (meatballs) was based on a family recipe from food blogger, recipe developer, and Corpus Christi–area native Vianney Rodriguez. (Of course, readers may know that Selena is Corpus Christi’s favorite daughter.) The dish’s potent aroma evoked visits to the Selena statue near the Gulf of Mexico. The meatballs were small and served in an opaque but thin chile broth with a subtle spicy kick. 

While Coyota has given Tex-Mex a worthy, respectful platform, it isn’t the only restaurant—nor the first—to highlight the cuisine. Around the corner from Coyota is La Tonina, which specializes in northern and border guisados and dishes wrapped in small flour tortillas. It opened in 1946 and is well-known as a place for folks craving a taste of the border. My visit to La Tonina took me home as well, as its tortillas are reminiscent of those in Monterrey, McAllen, and El Paso.

More recently, restaurants such as Taqueria Orinoco, Taqueria Gabriel, and Tacos Domingo have shone a fresh spotlight on norteño food. Taqueria Gabriel offers carne asada tacos de trompo, burritos, and volcanes—cheesy, meat-topped crispy tortillas. The flour tortillas had frilly, hard edges and soft interiors, but they were greasy. Orinoco offers cold, mushy tacos de trompo alongside small potatoes glistening with chiles. But both taquerias are extremely popular, so it’s clear chilangos are hungry for food from the north and the border.

Tacos Domingo, on the other hand, taps into Mexicans’ love of carne asada, with ribs, bistec, and beef chops served with thin flour tortillas rolled out from dough from La Tonina. There’s plenty of white cheese to add to orders, especially on the snappy volcanes. The offerings are exquisite examples of border food from a taqueria that’s just over a month old. 

There is clearly a concerted effort to push border food and Tex-Mex into the culinary conversations of Mexico City. Mexican food isn’t a monolith in which only foods of beloved regions—such as Michoacán, Jalisco, Oaxaca, and Puebla—are accepted. No one group is the arbiter, not even Mexicans themselves. “There is a lot of racism and cultural misunderstanding about what Mexico really is,” Escalona says. “Mexico isn’t just one thing.” But minds are changing, thanks in part to Coyota, individuals such as Luna Vela, and the restaurant that perhaps started it all, La Tonina. “There is more awareness of what Tex-Mex is,” Escalona continues.

And this embrace is long overdue.