If you follow Lisa Fain on social media, then you already know: the Homesick Texan has come home.
During the past few months, the food blogger and cookbook author—who has captivated Texpats and Texans alike with her recipes and memories of such classic Texas dishes as enchiladas, chicken-fried steak, chili, and chile con queso—had been hinting that it was time. There were references to traveling around the state, investigating big cities and little towns. Then, in February, came this slightly cryptic tweet:
Hey @asktsa, can you bring a cast-iron skillet onto a plane?
— Lisa Fain (@homesicktexan) February 23, 2019
Not long after that came an Instagram post featuring her new kitchen. Fain, who’d been in New York City since 1995, is now living in Dallas, where her family’s roots go back seven generations (though she was also raised in Houston). The first dish she shared on her website as a no-longer homesick Texan was mushroom soup; her mother passed down the recipe from the Grape, the longtime bistro and wine bar on Dallas’s Greenville Avenue.
Fain launched her website in 2006 and has been a full-time food writer since 2010, during which time she’s published three cookbooks (The Homesick Texan Cookbook, The Homesick Texan’s Family Table, and Queso!) and won a James Beard Award for best food blog. Last December, her site began offering memberships, with a partial paywall and subscriber-only content. Now that she’s back in the state, Fain also has plans for a podcast, cooking lessons, and another book. “It is something that I’ve been obsessed with for a while,” she says. “I can’t really tell you what it is, but it’s something that would be much easier to do now that I’m in Texas.”
A sometimes homesick Texan himself, Texas Monthly’s Jason Cohen rang up Fain from his current residence in Montana, where he used her recipes to make flour tortillas, refried beans, nachos, and fajitas before turning in this interview.
Texas Monthly: This is our fourth or fifth interview since 2011, and the subject of returning home was always on the table. ‘I just haven’t figured out where I want to put down stakes in Texas yet,’ you said in 2014.
Lisa Fain: It was a very whirlwind, sort of spontaneous decision. I’ve been thinking about moving back to Texas for quite a while, but I never knew where I would go, and to be honest, Dallas was not even on my radar. The last place I lived was Austin, and Austin’s cool. I had friends there, and it’s pretty and everything, but I didn’t want to live in Austin, just because of the traffic situation and the price. And I wanted to try something new.
For a long time I was really leaning towards El Paso, but I don’t have any connections there. And, y’know, I was born in Dallas. My family’s been in the Dallas area since the 1840s. Most of my family’s still here. My best friends are here, so for the last three to four months, I was just pulled towards Dallas. And I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to live in Dallas.’
So I looked at Fort Worth, and I looked at Houston, and I looked at Bastrop and Lockhart and all these places, but I kept kind of returning to Dallas. I don’t know Dallas, even though I was born here and lived here until I was 9. So it was like a new, fresh place for me, and I just fell in love with it.
TM: You tweeted about taking a cast iron skillet as carry-on luggage. Was that your actual move?
LF: That was the beginning of my move. I had bought a car, and there were all these rebates and stuff, so I had to sign my papers by the end of February. I’ve never bought a car! I’d found my place, so I bought a bed online, and I came to Texas with a cast-iron skillet, a chef’s knife, a couple of tools, and a fork and a spoon. Then I went back to New York for two weeks and packed up everything.
TM: Did you actually cook with that temporary set-up?
LF: Yeah! I was here for Texas Independence Day, and I made chili.
TM: So, kind of a moment.
LF: Oh, yeah. I was thinking, OK, this is my ‘return to Texas’ kitchen. What am I gonna make? I’m gonna make chili. That’s what I have to make. I thought about doing chicken-fried steak, but my palate and my desires always skew towards Tex-Mex, and I didn’t have a very complete kitchen. I could get the basic ingredients for a simple chili dish and do it well, so I did.
TM: You’ve been the Homesick Texan full-time for a few years now. Ironically, I guess that actually gave you the freedom to come home.
LF: Pretty much. But for a long time, people told me, well you can’t be the Homesick Texan if you’re in Texas, because then you’re not homesick. And I was like, well, that makes sense. But I talked to my agent about it, and she was like, nah. Nobody cares! I mean, truthfully, I’m not homesick anymore, but everyone knows the blog as Homesick Texan, so it’s not really about me being homesick necessarily. But if you are homesick, here’s a bunch of recipes. And, of course, I still have that empathy for what it’s like not to be in Texas and not to be able to get these things that you love. And I will always have that.
TM: I gather you are making some of those out-of-state social media followers jealous.
LF: Yeah, I went to Central Market the other day, and I was showing my trip on Instagram stories, and I got all these sad faces in the DMs from people who weren’t in Texas. I felt almost bad, like I was gloating: I’m back in Texas, look what I can do! That said, a large portion of my readership has always been in Texas. I sell the most books in Texas. I get the most traffic from the major Texas cities. So a lot of the things I want to do now besides writing the blog are more experiential: cooking classes and things like that. I could never have done cooking classes in my New York kitchen—it was tiny.
TM: Are there things in New York that you’ll miss?
LF: I’m too green in Texas to miss anything about New York. But I’m sure in a couple of months I’ll be ready to go back. I did love being able to walk to the Whitney … but on the flip side, I live close to the Katy Trail, and I can walk to the Nasher Sculpture Garden or the DMA! I have all these new things to explore.
TM: What about food-wise though?
LF: Oh, yeah. I’m gonna miss pizza the most. That was what I’d do a lot of times on my day off, was just go out and get pizza. And I ate a lot of bagels before I left. I’m sure if they’re not very good here, then I’ll miss bagels. And, y’know: Russ and Daughters. Egg creams. But it’s not like I did that every day anyway. Those will be fun things to revisit when I go back.
TM: What about the Texas food scene in New York by the time you left?
LF: Well, that was kind of the thing at the end: it felt like you could get just about anything you wanted. That was completely different from when I had moved there in 1995. If I had a craving for really good barbecue, I could go to Brooklyn and go to Hometown. There were kolaches, really good kolaches, in Brooklyn. I wasn’t even seeking out Texas food outside of my home, because I was cooking it so often. But I felt like if you wanted something, it was available. Even Topo Chico was in stores by the time I left. So, I went, oh, my work’s done!
TM:What’s the dish that you won’t have to make any more now that you’re in Dallas?
LF: Well, I think I probably won’t be making brisket tacos very often, because I live pretty close to Mia’s and Avila’s. I can get brisket tacos on tap, without waiting hours for the brisket to cook. I mean, I might still do it for special occasions, but that’s probably something I’ll go out for. And the crazy nachos at Herrera’s, which is the place where I went growing up. They’re fun to eat, and they’re fun to make. But, on a regular basis, much easier to just sit at a table and have someone deliver them to me (laughs). So I probably won’t make those two things very often. But maybe I will. Even now that I have all the access to my favorite restaurants and things, I still find myself cooking Tex-Mex (see recipe below) here in Dallas. I love to cook.
So far, in my new kitchen I’ve made chili, nachos, guacamole, and migas. I’d say it’s off to a good start!
— Lisa Fain (@homesicktexan) March 21, 2019
When I was young and growing up in Dallas, our favorite Mexican restaurant was a family-owned hole-in-the wall called Herrera’s. It’s now expanded to a much larger location, but in the 1970s it was in an old adobe building that had ten tables, and to reach the dining room, you had to walk through the kitchen. Dallas went crazy for its soulful cooking, and the waits to get in were often long, but it was worth it. We all had our favorite things to order. For my dad, it was the enchiladas. I loved the tamales, and my mom always went for the Crazy Nachos.
It always surprised me that Mom would order nachos, since she ate them at home almost every day for lunch. She explained that, while hers were good, Herrera’s Crazy Nachos were the best. Nachos were once a refined, simpler dish, with each individual tortilla chip topped with just cheese, beans, and jalapeños. So when Herrera’s added taco meat, guacamole, and sour cream to theirs, it was considered quite daring. Yet the Crazy Nachos were still elegant: each chip was a self-contained bite of all these fantastic flavors. Now that we live in an age when nachos are most often served as a sloppy pile of “chips and stuff,” the dish’s name is a bit dated. There’s really nothing crazy about these nachos. But no matter what you call them, they’re a fully loaded treat that’s great to enjoy when watching games or sitting around and visiting with family and friends. And, if you’re like my mom, they make a fine meal too. —Lisa Fain
Chipotle taco meat
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ripe plum tomato, about 2 ounces, seeded, cored, and diced
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 chipotle chile in adobo minced, or 1⁄2 teaspoon chipotle chile powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon masa harina or cornmeal
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Vegetable oil, for frying
4 corn tortillas, quartered
1/3 cup refried beans
2 cups (8 ounces of weight) shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup guacamole
1 cup sour cream
16 pickled jalapeño slices
Salsa, for serving
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-low heat. Add the beef and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is lightly browned and the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, and cook for 30 seconds more. Add the tomato, chili powder, cumin, oregano, cayenne, chipotle chile, salt and black pepper. Stir until the spices are well distributed, turn down the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the masa harina until well combined, then taste and adjust the seasonings, if needed. Stir in the lime juice, and remove from the heat.
To make the chips, pour 1⁄2-inch of oil into a heavy skillet and heat to 350 degrees F. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, after five minutes of heating, you can stick a wooden spoon into the oil to see if it’s ready. If the oil bubbles around the spoon, it should be hot enough. In batches, fry the tortillas for one minute, until golden brown, turning once. drain on a paper towel, and sprinkle lightly with salt.
Place the chips close together, but not overlapping, on a baking sheet or large cast-iron skillet, and top each with 1 teaspoon refried beans, 2 tablespoons chipotle taco meat, and 2 tablespoons cheddar cheese.
Bake for 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted. After removing the nachos from the oven, top each with 1 tablespoon guacamole, 1 tablespoon sour cream, and 1 pickled jalapeño slice. Serve warm, with salsa on the side. Serves six.