This article is part of Texas Monthly’s special fiftieth-anniversary issue. Read about the other icons that have defined Texas since 1973.

When I was growing up in Austin, in the fifties and sixties, the Señorita platter—which I ordered every time my family and I ate at El Toro—was Mexican food, at least to me. Saturday night at the big, two-story limestone building (now the site of the Clay Pit Indian restaurant) was a ritual both familiar and exotic. On the left side of the platter—as best I remember it—were two glistening crispy taco shells filled with seasoned hamburger meat, chopped tomato, and iceberg lettuce. In the middle of the plate sat a fat yellow-cheese-and-onion enchilada flanked by refried pinto beans and rice. When the food arrived, the waiter warned “Hotplatehotplate!” as he set each dish in front of us. 

In that long-ago time, neither I nor most of my Anglo friends knew anything of the complex, enticing fare that existed south of the Rio Grande. We were perfectly satisfied with Tex-Mex, our very own, very quirky regional Mexican cuisine, a rowdy mix of ingredients and seasonings focused on the elements of the Señorita platter along with lots of cumin and commercial chili powder. Those ingredients had been carefully selected over the previous two or three decades by Mexican restaurateurs as a practical matter, primarily because authentic ingredients such as fresh and dried chiles and Mexican cheeses and spices were basically unobtainable in Texas. But they had also been chosen because their in-your-face flavors appealed to the American customers whose repeat business was crucial for economic survival. Yet even as the chili gravy flowed and the yellow cheese glowed, change was afoot. 

Immigration from Mexico was picking up, and the many new arrivals who worked in restaurants brought with them a knowledge of dishes that had rarely been seen on this side of the border. At the same time, Texans were traveling to Mexico more frequently and returning home hungry for the dishes they had enjoyed on vacation.  

One of the first big cracks in the benevolent dictatorship of classic Tex-Mex came in 1973, when a widowed mother of five named Ninfa Laurenzo opened a tiny cafe inside her struggling tortilla factory in Houston’s East End. The menu wasn’t purely “interior,” but it did offer dishes such as pork with pico de gallo, avocado-tomatillo salsa, and freshly made corn tortillas. It was her introduction of fajitas, though, that created a sensation. The tacos al carbón didn’t seem that unusual—just simple strips of nicely seasoned grilled skirt steak (faja in Spanish) served with flour tortillas. But something about the food, the neighborhood, and the affable charm of “Mama” Ninfa herself created a feeding frenzy. By the time she added a second location, a thousand or more customers a day were clamoring to get a table. Texans were figuring out that there was a lot more to Mexican food than the Number One Dinner. 

At about the same time that Ninfa’s was trying to manage crowds, something uncannily similar had been brewing in the Rio Grande Valley. In 1969 a restaurant owner from Mercedes named Juan Antonio “Sonny” Falcon hit on the idea of setting up food booths at small-town fairs and festivals around Central Texas. His specialty was skirt steak, a cheap cut popular in the Valley. He and his crew quick-grilled the meat so it wouldn’t get impossibly tough, then cut it into strips and slapped them into flour tortillas. By the early seventies he was selling thousands of fajita tacos every weekend. 

Meanwhile, in McAllen, skirt steak was getting a further makeover. In 1977 Otilia Garza, the owner of Tila’s, which was doing a steady business selling whole skirt steaks, came up with a way to make the humble meat even more appealing and profitable. Her waitstaff served each steak on a super-hot plate, accompanied by piles of nachos, scoops of guacamole, flour tortillas, and mounds of diced tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños. The sizzling fajita platter was born.

Soon fajitas were everywhere—not just at Mexican restaurants but at Dallas-based Chili’s and Jack in the Box too. (Ironically, they were hardly ever made with skirt steak. To keep up with demand—skirt steak supplies dwindled and prices went through the roof—restaurants routinely substituted other cuts, usually better ones.) I didn’t understand the appeal until I sat at the Austin Hyatt Regency Hotel one Saturday night, watching platter after platter of fajitas go by, popping and crackling and smelling divine. After a few minutes, the idea of ordering anything else had gone straight out of my head. 

But change in the Texas Mexican food scene wasn’t happening only at the casual level. Just a year before the opening of Ninfa’s and the beginning of the fajita craze, two friends and idealists—entrepreneur Tom Gilliland and chef Miguel Ravago—decided to start a restaurant dedicated to the food and culture that Gilliland had fallen in love with while studying law in Mexico City. Ravago was living in Houston, so they made their initial foray there, even engaging the celebrated cookbook author Diana Kennedy as a mentor. 

They had modest success, but when they moved the operation to Austin three years later, in 1975, the stars aligned. Fonda San Miguel‘s kitchen dazzled its customers (and me) with dishes such as Yucatán-style pescado tikin xik, the fish marinated in citrus and brick-red achiote, and black beans—not pintos!—properly cooked with herbal epazote leaves. When Kennedy gave a cooking class on-site in 1980, every seat was taken. (My now dog-eared copy of The Cuisines of Mexico is inscribed: “For Pat. Buen provecho. Diana Kennedy. 7-IV-80.”) Nearly fifty years later, through a succession of chefs (Ravago died in 2017; Gilliland is still there many evenings), Fonda San Miguel—with its hacienda-like building and splendid original Mexican art collection—remains a standard-bearer for interior dishes and the Texas restaurant most likely to make you feel as if you were dining in Mexico. 

In retrospect, Texas’s version of Mexican food was gradually being overshadowed by the diversity of Mexican cuisines. And the more exposure the public and the restaurant community had to complex moles and sauces, such as pipianes and adobos, the more interested they were in learning more. That awareness helped motivate a group of young, ambitious Texas chefs with a rebellious spirit and big ideas. Encouraged by a high-profile national movement in the eighties known as the New American cuisine, they began to ask themselves serious questions: Why are Texas’s fine dining restaurants still in the shadow of French and European traditions? Why aren’t we creating versions of traditional, homey Southern and Mexican dishes that draw on European techniques? Aren’t our grits as good as polenta? Can’t a Mexican guisado be as complex and interesting as a French ragout? 

Soon the diners at white-tablecloth restaurants such as the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas, and Cafe Annie, in Houston, were eating goat cheese quesadillas with cilantro pesto, grilled antelope with cactus-pear glaze, and, the biggest hit of all, lobster tacos. A Dallas food writer called the movement the “new Southwestern cuisine,” and the name stuck. When the New York Times covered the phenomenon, even skeptics were impressed. I remember eating my first lobster taco—it was delicious, by the way, with a little fresh spinach, Monterey Jack, and yellow-tomato salsa—and feeling as if I was in on something truly revolutionary. Rules were being broken that I hadn’t even known existed. By the mid-nineties, chefs Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, and Robert Del Grande had won awards from the James Beard Foundation, bringing national attention to a quintessentially Texas cuisine, perhaps for the first time. 

But even as the Southwestern movement reached its peak, one omission was glaringly apparent: no Mexican chef had been part of it. The reason was obvious. Few if any Latinos were in charge of major restaurants. That state of affairs lasted far too long, but the seeds of change were being planted. In 1984, a year after Southwestern cuisine got its name, a jobless and broke teenager named Hugo Ortega arrived in Houston from Mexico City, hoping to find work. He settled in, got a job at the popular American restaurant Backstreet Cafe a few years later, and eventually decided to attend culinary school. He also fell in love with and married his boss, owner Tracy Vaught. As time passed, whenever the couple would go out for Mexican food—which was still largely Tex-Mex—Ortega would say, “This isn’t Mexican food.” Finally, Vaught said, “Well, maybe you could open a restaurant that does serve Mexican food.” 

In 2002, after years of planning and recipe testing, Ortega and Vaught opened Hugo’s, a lovely, high-profile venue with a lineup of dishes showcasing the flavors he knew from long ago. On one of my first visits, I sat in that lofty room, with its formal Spanish-style furniture, and ate a gorgeous rendition of chile en nogada—a poblano stuffed with pork and topped with walnut cream sauce and ruby-red pomegranate seeds—that was every bit the equal of the one I’d had on a visit to the city of Puebla, where the dish was created. More restaurants came along from Ortega and Vaught over the next few years, and in 2017 he won a well-deserved James Beard Award, making him the first Mexican-born chef from Texas to be so honored. 

While Ortega was concentrating on fine dining, a San Antonio chef and restaurateur was focusing on everyday dining. When Johnny Hernandez looked around, he saw celebrated local venues such as El Mirador, La Fonda, La Fogata, Los Barrios, and Mario’s trying out truly interior dishes, including sopa Xochitl (a chicken and avocado soup that attracted fanatical weekend crowds), sopa azteca (a spicy tomato broth filled with chicken, avocado, spinach, peppers, potatoes, cheese, and tortilla strips), and sweetbreads grilled and served with pico de gallo. But he had something livelier, with more street credibility, in mind. So in the early aughts, whenever he could spare the time, he’d take a trip to Mexico for inspiration. 

In 2010 he opened a small, hip cantina and restaurant named La Gloria in the popular Pearl retail center overlooking a bend in the San Antonio River. Its menu was wide-ranging, but Hernandez’s favorite dishes were sopes, tlayudas, and panuchos—tortilla-like cakes in various sizes and shapes—that were sold by street vendors and in little cafes from Oaxaca to the Yucatán. That “of the people” feeling was exciting, and in the early days, I had excellent food, although eventually the bar-hoppers and tourists crowded some of the groundbreaking street fare off the menu. Hernandez hopes to revitalize the concept at a new downtown location and is changing his event space, Casa Hernán, into a bar and restaurant with Mexican botanas and what he says will be the most extensive list of tequilas and mezcales in the city.   

Where is Texas Mexican food today? All over the map, in the best possible way. It’s a buffet of past, present, and future. Tex-Mex maintains its status as our best-loved comfort food, having avoided obsolescence by drafting new dishes as they entered the mainstream—hello, fajitas and carnitas. Tacos have become our most popular Mexican dish, vessels for creativity as well as goodwill ambassadors for other countries’ cuisines. 

Chefs at ambitious restaurants are exploring the global dimensions of contemporary Mexican food. Regino Rojas, head of Dallas’s Revolver Taco Lounge empire, has been jamming on international hybrid dishes like oyster shooters zapped with spicy michelada mix and white soy sauce. At San Antonio’s Mixtli, the innovative Diego Galicia and Rico Torres are delving into historic cookbooks and plumbing their own imaginations to come up with garlicky bay scallops poached in ajo chile butter and presented dramatically over clouds of dry ice. Mexican restaurants around the state are on a corn kick, processing white, blue, and red kernels in-house to make superior tortillas; among their number are places in Austin (Comedor, Este, and Suerte), El Paso (Taconeta and Elemi), Houston (Hugo Ortega’s four destinations), McAllen (Salomé on Main), and San Antonio (La Gloria). 

And the wider culinary world is paying attention. Last year two Latino chefs from Texas won James Beard Awards. Iliana de la Vega, of Austin’s El Naranjo—renowned for its duck breast in a Oaxacan-style, thirty-ingredient black mole—was named Best Chef: Texas. Fellow Austinite Edgar Rico, of Nixta—the tiny taqueria that makes its own masa in-house to produce dishes like superlative roasted-beet tostadas with avocado crema—was named Emerging Chef for the entire country.

Texas is having quite a moment. For many years, the Mexican food served in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, with their large Latino populations and ability to draw the media spotlight, has gotten a lot of attention from restaurant critics. But Texas, with its deep-rooted traditions and high-flying ambition, is currently presiding over what just might be the most vibrant Mexican food scene in the United States. 

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “To ‘Interior’ and Beyond!” Subscribe today.