“Every region of the country has its comfort food, and Tex-Mex is ours,” says Trey Dyer, the CEO of Dallas-based Mesero restaurants, a growing chain whose five Dallas-Fort Worth restaurants specialize in a mix of Tex-Mex and Mexican-inspired cuisine. “Tex-Mex is a food group all its own. There are many styles of barbecue, but there’s only one Tex-Mex. Everybody knows what Tex-Mex is because we all grew up eating it.”
“Crispy tacos, chimichangas, an enchilada plate with beans and rice – this was popular Depression-era food that Texans used to call ‘Mexican’ food. But no one served this in Mexico,” says Pat Sharpe, a native Texan and the longtime food editor at Texas Monthly magazine. “If you went to Mexico in the 1970s and ordered chips and queso, you’d get blank stares and maybe a few chunks of cheese.”
“No one a hundred miles from Mexico had access to Mexican cheeses, fresh chiles or nixtamal (to make corn tortillas), so we did what we could with the ingredients we had around,” says chef Lanny Lancarte, a Culinary Institute of America graduate whose family’s 1,300-seat Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant in nearby Fort Worth has served classic Tex-Mex since the 1950s. “We called them ‘Mexican’ dishes, but it was something different that later became known as Tex-Mex. No one turned to a cookbook. We made everything the way my great-grandmother made it but improvised with American ingredients.”
Even today, as you move north from the Texas-Mexico border to Dallas, “Tex-Mex becomes less Mexican and more American,” says Dallas chef David Pena, a skilled Tex-Mex chef from San Antonio who grew up eating Tex-Mex staples like tacos, nachos, chimichangas, cheese enchiladas smothered in chili con queso, and combo plates overflowing with rice and pinto beans.
Pena says as Tex-Mex restaurants hired chefs in the 1970s to fancy things up, they introduced new items to the Tex-Mex playbook like beef, shrimp and chicken fajitas; gourmet tortillas; and frozen margaritas pulled from machines. The edges of what constitutes Tex-Mex today continue to blur.
“People don’t want cheap Tex-Mex that tastes cheap,” says Julian Rodarte, another CIA-trained chef who co-owns the two-year-old restaurant Beto and Son with his father, who is also a chef. “We’re using better ingredients and culinary techniques to create Tex-Mex with a modern twist.” What’s on his menu? Vegan tacos constructed with cashew cheese, “stacked” enchiladas whose corn tortillas are made with fresh nixtamal, and frozen margaritas whizzed up tableside from fresh juices, aged tequila and liquid nitrogen.
“It’s getting harder to find classic Tex-Mex because everyone’s idea of Tex-Mex is evolving,” says Lancarte, whose family owns Joe T. Garcia’s (the restaurant won the inaugural “American Regional Classic” James Beard Award award in 1997). “Everyone is more educated about Mexican ingredients and Mexican cuisine, and authentic Mexican ingredients are easy to find. Tex-Mex has morphed into nuevo Mexican food because people want fresh, light, healthy food that reminds them of Tex-Mex but without the calories of Tex-Mex.”
Yet Lancarte, Rodarte and Dyer all admit a fondness for tortilla chips and queso, enchiladas topped with chili con carne, and crispy tacos.
“When I was growing up, we were never allowed to call Joe T.’s food ‘Tex-Mex’ because that was considered derogatory,” Lancarte says, “but now we all call it ‘Tex-Mex’ with pride. It’s a highly regional cuisine that’s unique to Texas, and we should embrace just like we do Texas barbecue.”
Scroll through the gallery above to see where you’ll find the top Tex-Mex in Dallas, both old-school and new.
Michael Hiller writes the Dallas restaurant blog EscapeHatchDallas.com. He was a restaurant critic for the Dallas Morning News and Modern Luxury magazine and recently wrote about Dallas steakhouses for USA TODAY.
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