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Welcome to Texas!

What to Eat and How to Eat It

A user’s guide to the culinary landscape of Texas. 

Barbecue

Save the breakfast tacos for the weekdays. Leave the doughnuts for the vegetarians. Saturday morning is meant for feasting on brisket and sausage at Snow’s, in Lexington.

The joint is open only on Saturdays, starting at eight o’clock sharp. You’d do well to beat the line and arrive at seven-thirty, though you will have finished your dessert (do not skip the banana pudding) before most teenagers have rolled out of bed. Your friends say that’s too early for barbecue? Tell them to have a frittata for dinner if they seek dietary balance. Bring those skeptics along and let them be enraptured by the smoke and the sound of sizzling meat as you all dine alfresco on picnic tables so close to the barbecue pits they’ll warm your back.

At nearly eighty, pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz shows off her barbecue artistry with nothing but oak and seasoned meat. One of her specialties is an uncommon thick-cut pork steak that is perfumed by the aroma of fat crackling on the coals beneath. It might as well have been brushed with fire.

Owner Kerry Bexley gets credit for the tender brisket that emerges from two behemoth smokers he built in his spare time. He’ll serve as your affable host when Tootsie needs to shoo away the photo seekers and flip a rack full of chicken with a flick of her barbecue fork. Soak it in, but don’t despair when it’s time to leave. You can always come back next weekend. 516 Main, Lexington; 979-542-8189 —Daniel Vaughn

Tacos

Texans LOVE their tacos. Versatile, portable, and quick to wolf down, tacos are made with either corn or flour tortillas. In their different styles, you can trace more than half a century of Texas’s Mexican-food history:

Classic Mexican: Close to what you would find in Mexico, these tacos—sometimes called street tacos—are usually made with one or two thin corn tortillas. Traditional fillings include pollo (chicken), barbacoa (beef cheek), lengua (beef tongue), and al pastor (pork and pineapple).

Modern American: Offered on either corn or flour tortillas, new-style tacos might include roasted corn, Monterey Jack cheese, fried plantains, New Mexico green chiles, or sour cream. 

Crispy: This retro taco is made with a corn tortilla fried into a U shape and filled with picadillo (seasoned ground beef), tomato, iceberg lettuce, and grated yellow cheese.

Puffy: Rare these days except in San Antonio, a puffy taco calls for frying a raw corn tortilla until it inflates with hot air. Fillings are basic, like chicken or picadillo.

Breakfast: Normally made with a flour tortilla, a breakfast taco is stuffed with a choice of scrambled eggs, pan-fried cubed potatoes, chorizo (sausage), cheese, and more. In Mexico their counterparts are called taquitos mañaneros (little morning tacos).

Crazy/Loco: A multicultural mash-up, it might combine tuna, orange, and black sesame seeds. Purists fume that they shouldn’t be called tacos at all. Fans just ask, How do they taste? —Patricia Sharpe

Steak

No doubt you have cattle where you come from, but the Lone Star State has many, many more. “In this great staple article of food supply,” wrote newspaperman George H. Sweet in 1871, “Texas has a mine of wealth far more extensive than the gold diggings of California.” Eleven million cows make a lot of steaks, and the ribeye is king, a gorgeous hunk of crimson-colored meat shot through with pearly fat.  

Buy It: The meat counter can be a little intimidating. Look for a cut that’s around 1 to 1 1/2 inches thick, and don’t hesitate to ask your butcher for advice.

Prep It: Bring your prize to room temperature, pat it dry, and then set about to seasonin’. All that beautiful beef needs is lots of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, followed by a nice massage with canola oil.

Grill It: Rustle up a hot fire and throw the steak on. Don’t wander off; it needs only 4 or 5 minutes per side. Then take it off the grill and let it rest for about 10 minutes, which is just about how long it will take you to plate your taters. —Courtney Bond

Spirits

True Texans stock up with more than Topo Chico and Big Red. A user’s guide on what to drink, courtesy of the Texanist: 

Beer: Time was, when a Texan had a hankering for a cold beer, he would pop a top on a frosty Lone Star, Pearl, or Shiner. Nowadays, thanks to a thriving craft-brew industry, the possibilities are limitless. May the Texanist suggest a refreshing Hans’ Pils by Real Ale Brewing Company, out of Blanco?

The Margarita: The margarita is the unofficial libation of Texas. Happiness can be found with a not-too-cheap and not-too-expensive tequila, fresh lime juice, and Cointreau, mixed at a 1.5-to-1-to-.5 ratio, shaken with ice, and served in a chilled glass with a salted rim.

The Harder Stuff: Today our liquor cabinets are stocked with fine products from a number of reputable Texan distilleries. Try Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka, Dripping Springs Artisan Gin, Railean Rum, and Garrison Brothers Texas Straight Bourbon Whiskey. 

Wines: Attention, Californians: despite what you may have heard, Texas wine will not cause blindness. In fact, the more than three hundred bonded wineries here produce some highly regarded offerings; the Texanist hears the 2012 Texas Tempranillo from Pedernales Cellars ain’t bad. 

The Glory of the Grapefruit

It’s not entirely clear where grapefruit originated, but one thing is certain: Ruby Reds are native Texans. Back before the Roosevelt administration (the first one), all grapefruit was of a paler persuasion. But because these golden spheres of goodness don’t cross-pollinate, mutant offspring eventually appeared and really hit the sweet spot.  The red variety—born of a mutation found on a pink-grapefruit tree in McAllen in 1929—has a skin like an Amarillo sunset. The flaming fruit flourishes in the temperate Rio Grande Valley’s sandy soils, its striking crimson flesh tinted from the antioxidant lycopene, also found in tomatoes.

A bit more citrus history 101: in 1934 the state’s beloved produce was the first grapefruit to be granted a U.S. patent, under the name Ruby Red. And in the early nineties it was designated the official fruit of the Lone Star State.

Impressed by its giant size and juicy countenance, one New York Times writer declared the Texas version “summer sunshine flooding into [his] winterbound kitchen.” Yet the dimpled orbs are more than a delicious way to survive the winter months; they have come to symbolize Texas itself—after all, everything is bigger and better down here. So as you scoop out wedges unadorned or slurp the lovely juice with a high-brow tequila, remember that Ruby Reds are just about as Texan as you can get. —Shannon Stahl

Eat Well Wherever You Are

One thing is for sure—a Texan knows what’s for dinner and where to get it. But if you’re new to the state, check out these iconic restaurants: 

Franklin Barbecue, in Austin: Aaron Franklin’s stupendously popular 2009 venture helped turn Texas barbecue into a national phenomenon.

Fearing’s, in Dallas: “Texas cuisine” is not an oxymoron at the posh dining rooms overseen by boot-wearing chef Dean Fearing. 

L&J Cafe, in El Paso: El Paso–style Mexican food has made “the old place by the graveyard” a local landmark since 1927.

Underbelly, in Houston: Three-year-old Underbelly understands that Houston is a city of immigrants and celebrates its vast culinary diversity.

El Pato, in the Rio Grande Valley: This Mexican-food empire serves tacos (known as patos) to hopelessly addicted residents in ten Valley cities.

Mi Tierra in San Antonio: It’s Christmas and Cinco de Mayo 24/7 at the gaudiest Mexican restaurant and bakery in the state. —Patricia Sharpe

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