If you were to ask someone on the street anywhere in the northern states what the word “Tex-Mex” means to them, the answer would likely be some variation of “Texas-inspired Mexican food” or “fake Mexican food.” What a lot of those who aren’t native to the Texas area don’t know, is that the history of Tex-Mex is actually much more complex than some poached and reinvented dishes from across the Mexican border.
Tex-Mex is admittedly and traditionally known for being a “Texas” version of Mexican food, but should rather be acknowledged as a regional food that has expanded itself across neighboring states and even across the United States, morphing and changing along the way as it is influenced by different groups of people.
Today, Tex-Mex is the most prominent genre of food in the Dallas area. Restaurant-goers are almost never more than a couple blocks away from their favorite Tex-Mex foods. While Tex-Mex can be found nationwide, there isn’t anything quite like what you find in Texas, leading visitors and tourists alike to the area just to try the world-famous Tex-Mex staples.
One such place is Matt’s Rancho Martinez or “El Rancho” for short. El Rancho began in Austin before making its way to Dallas in 1985. Founder Matt Martinez Sr. was the self-proclaimed “Kind of Mexican Food.” He and his son Matt Martinez Jr. were both inducted into the Texas Restaurant Hall of Fame. Since it first began as “El Original” in 1925, El Rancho’s menu has grown, but all items on the menu are the recipes of Martinez Sr. and his wife, Janie.
Today the family business has continued with Matt Martinez III. According to him, Tex-Mex changes based on seasonal ingredient availability, but Tex-Mex foods are always based on traditional Mexican spices and flavors, so the food never truly “warps” and has stayed more or less consistent.
It is equally interesting and important to note that before Tex-Mex began to spread across the state of Texas, Native Americans living in the state had a significant influence on the food of the area, lending culinary influence of spices and techniques to famous Tex-Mex dishes today.
Additionally, Spanish qualities can be found in Tex-Mex from before Texas gained its independence and joined the United States and was still a part of New Spain, after the conquistadors invaded Mexico. Cumin is one spice in particular that is used heavily in Tex-Mex food that descends from this Spanish heritage.
The term “Tex-Mex” was originally coined in the late 19th century as an abbreviation for the Texas and Mexican railroad and then eventually was used to describe those with Mexican heritage who were living in Texas.
However, by the early 20th century, the term began to refer to the Mexican-style food in those communities as well, even though the food many would describe as Tex-Mex was already making its way around Texas, starting for the first time in San Antonio.
Martinez III said “Tex-Mex was created on what working class Mexican families that moved into cities had as ingredients to their disposal.”
It began with a signature Tex-Mex dish of chili con carne that was cooked by the “Chili Queens,” a group of women known for making this dish in the plazas around the San Antonio city that soon expanded and started to include the famous dishes we know today, including: enchiladas, fajitas, and nachos, which were born nearly 50 years after the Chili Queens.
Up until the 1970s, these dishes were known as Mexican food, but that all changed when cookbook author Diane Kennedy detailed the difference between authentic Mexican food served in Mexican and the version that was sweeping the United States in her book “Cuisines of Mexico,” essentially separating Tex-Mex into its own category.
In Dallas, chain restaurants began popping up around the 1930s, with those traditional dishes of chile con queso and the combo plate at the forefront (which included rice and beans with a large dollop of sour cream) before nachos had even entered the scene.
Today, there are certain quintessential dishes that make a restaurant truly Tex-Mex. “In my opinion, what three dishes do Tex-Mex restaurants have to be Tex-Mex? So many answers here but in my opinion, they are enchiladas, a crispy taco of some sort, whether folded, flat or puffy, and chile con queso,” said Martinez III.
* Header image courtesy of Ben Sutherland | Flickr