Planet Texas: The Search For Texas Food Abroad
The good, the bad, and the under-spiced.
Back in the early 1990s, I spent three years abroad. I worked as a mail clerk and cut lawns in a small cities in Lancashire, England; I laid irrigation pipe, pruned tomato plants, boxed melons, peeled spuds, and chopped fennel on two Israeli kibbutzim; and I engaged in that most stereotypical of Gen X slacker overseas tropes: doing the Prague thing, where I pretended to be a writer by swilling copious cheap-but-delicious pivo and acted moody.
That extended exile is the longest stint I have spent beyond the confines of the Red and Rio Grande, and as much as I pretended to be a rootless cosmopolitan, I was homesick. Plenty homesick for many things, but especially for the food of the Gulf Coast.
In Preston and Blackpool, the two English towns I called home, I had to slake my thirst for spice with Indian takeout. Prague was another dead zone—rare was the restaurant there that offered anything other than pork and potatoes done twenty different ways. Falafels and shawarmas are awesome, and I had an unforgettable pizza in Jerusalem’s Arab Quarter, but save for one glorious meal, for the most part Israel also did little to scratch that Texas itch.
So, I did what any lonesome Texan would do, and searched for a substitute. On a weekend trip away to Krakow, Poland with some visiting Texas friends, we decided out of desperation to give that city’s one and only Mexican restaurant a try. I have repressed the memory of that revolting meal.
At the other extreme, the Hard Rock Cafe in Tel Aviv was the closest thing to home I ever did find. After a steady three months of bland, mostly kosher fare at Kibbutz Yahel, my sizzling beef fajita platter (complete with emphatically unkosher cheese!) forced a lone, manly tear down my cheek.
That was what I had been reduced to. Welling up over a mouthful of what was perhaps the most generic fajita platter on the planet.
I know full well what happens when you leave this state for any length of time: you miss it something fierce. But it looks like something has changed over the past twenty-five years. I spent a few hours on the Internet searching out Lone Star embassies—Tex-Mex cantinas and smokehouses, mainly—all over the world, and it seems like there are now little outposts of Texas everywhere. Some of them seem pretty decent.
Others are still mired in the category of early 1990s Krakow Tex-Mex, while you’d have to chalk up a third group as just plain surreal. What is certain is that our own homegrown ‘cue and Tex-Mex now have footholds on every continent, and a few of those places have earned native Texan approval.
Back in my wanderlust years, one of the many schemes I dreamed up was the Texas Embassy, a brisket house in the heart of London. Basically, my plan was to rip off the concept of Houston’s Goode Company (rustic, picnic tables, serve-yourself longnecks and delicious ‘cue) and plop it down on the banks of the Thames. My dad flipped over the idea. As a native Texan long marooned in Tennessee, he easily understood the sliced-brisket shaped hole in your soul that comes from subsisting on pulled pork alone.
The scheme never got off of the ground, largely thanks to my inexperience with smoking (I don’t think I’d even grilled a burger over charcoal at that point). Luckily, dozens of other people with the requisite expertise had the same idea. Today, you can get passable to excellent Texas brisket everywhere from Guatemala (Pappy’s in Antigua) and Argentina (El Tejano BBQ & Sauce, Buenos Aires) to Copenhagen (Warpigs, run by the former chef to Van Halen and Slipknot) to Vienna, where Texas-trained Austrians now run competitors Brickmakers and Big Smoke. There are now three Texas-style BBQ joints in Wales, and multiple natives raved about Reekie’s Smokehouse in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Buckaroo BBQ Joint in Ra’Anana, Israel smokes its brisket over citrus wood and offers a citrus-based sauce as accompaniment. Several Texans rave about the ‘cue at Amman, Jordan’s simply-named Brisket. (Beef purists take note: in Israel and the Muslim countries, the pork vs. beef debate was settled once and for all centuries if not millennia ago.)
But Australia, especially its second city of Melbourne, takes the cake. You can choose between seven esteemed smokehouses in the city, and that was enough to compel a local foodie to wonder in the Guardian if Texas barbecue in Australia had jumped the shark.
I’m betting the Gospel of Cue has been spread by SXSW. The parallel rise to world domination of both Austin’s mega conference and barbecue hardly seems like a coincidence. Still, it’s odd that for decades the Texas music industry has been enticing people into local band showcases and day parties with free barbecue, and it seems now that far more of our guests have taken our food with them rather than our music.
And that goes for fajitas, burritos, and quesadillas, too, which brings us to…
Some Notes on the (Mostly Bad) Tex-Mex World Takeover
Going by Tripadvisor reviews, it seems like most major European cities now have passable or even top-notch Mexican food. (Hell, even Krakow now has two highly-esteemed restaurants owned or run by Texans or Mexicans and cities like Prague, Budapest and Ljubljana, Slovenia offer both Tex-Mex and street tacos. The Slovenian iteration are said by a Angeleno to be as good as East LA’s.
I know, that’s coming from a Californian, not a Texan, but still. And yes, a lot of places have four- and five-star aggregate Tripadvisor reviews based largely on the dubious opinions of people from places like Lithuania, Ireland, and India, but you can usually find at least one Texan vouching for their “just like home” quality.
Because I read many, many horrific tales of awful Tex-Mex around the world. The food is bland. Plain old wraps pose as burritos. Tortillas are not fresh. Cheez-Whiz has been known to substitute for queso. Far too many canned black olives barge onto plates where they don’t belong. Any loosely-tomato-based red liquid is liable to pose as salsa. So-called margaritas (or “Margheritas,” as they are often spelled in Europe) are made with sweet-and-sour syrup instead of limes. In Irkutsk, Russia, an American was served tacos with tartar sauce. Germans have an annoying habit of sneaking things like carrots, green beans, cauliflower and spinach into quesadillas.
A few specific examples:
The highest-rated Mexican restaurant in Zagreb, Croatia is a yo-ho-ho-themed joint called Pirates Karaka where the salsa tastes “like marinara,” the chips were “cheese-flavored knock-off Doritos,” and the seafood enchiladas were stuffed with “krab” and canned mussels.
A Mexican-American reviewer reported that St. Petersburg’s Tres Amigos charged him extra for jalapeños and served tasteless fare. “This is not Mexican food at all and you can’t compare Mexican food with this,” he wrote. “Overall better go to an Indian place to get flavors closer to Mexican food.” (If only for convenience sake, he might prefer Los Bandidos in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s only Mexican/Indian restaurant, where he could abandon the apparently awful Mexican food at the drop of a hat.)
South Africa is home to the Mexican Fresh Tex-Mex Eatery chain. Corn dogs and buffalo wings are two of three appetizers on the menu. (Many an international Tex-Mex joint offers chicken wings and things like onion rings and potato skins. Gracias, Chili’s.) Their “grande burrito” comes stuffed with your choice of meat, grilled mixed peppers, onions, rice, refried beans, guacamole, and sour cream. Although they really should have stopped there, they also pile on corn kernels, pineapple, and—wait for it—chopped broccoli.
The world just doesn’t understand Tex-Mex, which, as writer Dave Hickey once put it, can be defined succinctly as “the absence of f***ing vegetables.”
Under-spiced Tex-Mex is a worldwide crisis, but that is not the Texas Honky Tonk & Cantina, a hotspot in picturesque old town Tallinn, Estonia, and perhaps the most popular Tex-Mex joint in the former Soviet Union. The menu is a delight to read and has some odd twists, such as a “mustard-mayonnaise” sauce for tacos; “Daily made fresh GUACAMOLE served con CHIPSES;” a Cowboy Breakfast of fried eggs on toast, bacon, pico, potatoes, “cactus salad,” and a slab of pork ribs for good measure; raspberry jam dip for mozzarella sticks; the “Nice as Yo’ Face burrito,” and habaneros rellenos. Yes, these people are serving stuffed habaneros to their Baltic and Scandinavian clientele. Small wonder there is a “911” on the menu next to this item.
The best Mexican food in Asia seems to be in two countries with warm climates and close ties to Texas (and yes, California too): Vietnam and the Philippines. Some Texans vouch for Tex-Mex and interior Mexican in Vietnam; I am equally intrigued by the fusion street tacos in Da Nang and more high-end versions in Hanoi. El Chupacabra in Manila offers both barbecue and tacos—the latter Tex-Mex style or street style—and the fajitas at Frontera Tex-Mex in Angeles, Philippines look legit.
Chili’s might be your best bet in India and decent Mexican in China seems like a one in a billion proposition. As for Thailand? Their fajita-Rita game seems weak.
Still, for all of the bright spots, there are far more international Tex-Mex places that seem to miss the mark. (And you also get the feeling that some of those Texans who praised those places might have been away from home too long.) And that’s a problem. Bad Tex-Mex sullies the good names of both Texas and Mexico, and we can’t have that.
We need to take a page from the government of Thailand’s book. Some years back, its prime minister came across bad Thai meal after bad Thai meal on her travels around the world. They were not spicy enough. They failed to adequately balance the quartet of flavors—salty, sweet, sour, and spicy—that form the four cornerstones of Thai cuisine.
On her return to Bangkok, she raised the issue at a cabinet meeting, and the government acted on her discontent. They would send an emissary around the world to sample the food, and they would assign official government letter grades to all establishments calling themselves Thai. That emissary is, and I am not making this up, a robot named e-Delicious, which measures Thai dishes according to pre-programmed standards set by a committee of Bangkok foodies.
Why hasn’t Governor Abbott gotten cracking on a Tex-Mex Tasting Robot? The world really needs one, because the good name of Texas is at stake.
Time to sic our Tex-Mex robot on ‘em.