At times, when it seems the only tradition in Dallas is change, there is one constant, one fiddler on our roof – the Tex-Mex restaurant. It might be the late, lamented but still not forgotten El Taxco, which stood on the corner of McKinney and St. Paul for some 40 years. It might be the El Chico and El Fenix chains, which both started here and which have been dueling for customers for more than 60 years. And it might be the neighborhood restaurant like Matt’s. Tex-Mex refuses to go away – despite changing diets, population and demographic shifts, and all of the assorted ailments that plague the Mom and Pop restaurateur.
In fact, talk to chefs, food critics, and people who are supposed to know about these things, and they’ll tell you that Tex-Mex is not authentic, that it has gobs too much cheese and sour cream, that it’s a bastardization of what Mexican and Southwestern food should be. But a fiddler on the roof doesn’t make any sense, either.
A fellow I know, who has lived here all his life and had some of those 99-cent dinners when the Inwood Village Cantina Laredo was an El Chico in the 1950s, doesn’t understand the fuss. If you stop to think about it, he says, Tex-Mex is Dallas’ native cuisine. It may have been invented here (by whom depends on who tells the story, though most of the evidence suggests the Cuellar family, which founded El Chico, and the Martinez family, which started and still runs El Fenix, played key roles), and there really isn’t anything else like it anywhere else in the country. So if we don’t appreciate it, who will?
The first question everyone asks, of course, is what makes Tex-Mex Tex-Mex. One of the most eloquent answers comes from cookbook author Linda West Eckhardt, who notes “trying to define Tex-Mex is something like trying to define love. It’s hard to say what it is, but you sure know it when you see it.”
The more sensible explanation is that it’s Mexican food that has been adapted to Texas sensibilities and ingredients over the past 100 years. Or so says Victor Gielisse, who owned Actuelle, a very chic restaurant in town during the Reagan and elder Bush years. Today, Gielisse works for the Culinary Institute of America and has very definite ideas about Tex-Mex and how it got to be what it is (and he’s not a big fan of all that cheese).
Tex-Mex, Gielisse says, shares much in common with Italian-American cooking. The Italian immigrants who brought their recipes with them couldn’t find the same ingredients here that they used in Tuscany, Piedmont or Sicily, so they had to make do. Hence, spaghetti with meatballs, which is probably more American than Italian.
As Mexican food moved north from Mexico, Gielisse says, not only did ingredients change – did anyone here know what a jicama or tomatillo was before the Southwestern food craze of the mid-1980s? – but so did the palates of the people eating the food. Consider that tacos with potatoes and chorizo are a staple in the Valley, but have never made much of an impression up here. Or that our quesadillas bear little resemblance to the quesadillas described in Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz’s authoritative “The New Complete Book of Mexican Cooking,” which use a dough made with eggs and masa harina, and are flavored with dried chiles or even beef marrow.
Traditional Mexican cooking is full of stews and moles, with ingredients like pumpkin and sesame seeds, chipotle chiles, Mexican-style chocolate and stale tortillas. Would this have appealed to Anglo restaurant-goers as Tex-Mex took hold here in the couple of decades after World War II?
Says Gielisse: “The El Chicos and the El Fenixes had to sell what they thought people would eat. It’s a fact of life: We always Westernize our food.”
Though not necessarily authentic, we have made Tex-Mex our own. According to the Yellow Pages, there are as many as 400 Mexican restaurants in Dallas, compared to 200 pizza places. And consider that a typical El Chico, according to figures from Hoover’s Online, probably does $2 million to $3 million a year in sales, especially impressive given that the menu is mostly items less than $10. Dean Fearing sells tortilla soup at the ritzy Mansion on Turtle Creek, and Ciudad, the Oak Lawn restaurant that specializes in Mexico City cuisine, serves chips and salsa.
Almost everyone knows the standard Tex-Mex menu by heart: Nachos and quesadillas, cheese enchiladas with chili gravy, beef tacos, tamales, chicken enchiladas with sour cream. There might be some variation from restaurant to restaurant, a taco salad here or a flauta there, and the combination plates might go by different names (though not always), but once you’ve seen one Tex-Mex lineup, you’ve seen them all. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem, as with most problems in the restaurant business, comes in execution.
And this, according to a thoroughly unscientific survey I took in conjunction with this article, isn’t much of a problem. There may be some Tex-Mex restaurants in town that aren’t good, but there aren’t many that are awful, and even most of the chains are perfectly acceptable. We know Tex-Mex, and the awful ones close. And there are quite a few that are very, very good (especially when you consider that two people can eat dinner, with a couple of beers each, for less than $40 at many of them).
Plus, given how many Chinese buffets and chrome and plastic corporate eateries keep popping up, despite their wretchedness, the fact that you can walk into almost any Tex-Mex joint and leave after a more than satisfactory meal is almost too good to be true.
So what defines a good Tex-Mex restaurant?
- It’s a family business, even for many of the chains. Because, when the boss’s name is one the front door, someone usually takes responsibility. Owners tell me that one of the worst things customers can tell them is: “This never would have happened if your daddy was still here.”
- It’s a place for families. They’re always there, parents and children and grandchildren, often at noon on Sunday, sitting at long tables with blue-haired grandmas next to teenagers with bare midriffs and a baby or two gurgling on a parent’s lap.
- It’s in the neighborhood. This is more than not having to drive very far. It’s the atmosphere that the restaurant has, a reflection of the people who eat there. How else to explain why the Mi Cocina in Lake Highlands is decidedly different from the Mi Cocina in Far North Dallas on the Dallas Tollway? The menu is the same. The food is the same. But the neighborhoods aren’t.
- It’s a tradition. These places stay in business for decades, somehow beating the statistics that say 70 percent of all restaurants close in five years. This means that the 5-year-old Don Pepe’s Rancho at Coit and Arapaho can shoot for Mario and Alberto, which has been at Preston and LBJ for more than 20 years. And they can both shoot for El Fenix, which has existed in one form or another since 1918.
- It’s the chips and salsa. Gene Street, whose company bought El Chico from a company controlled by the Cuellars in 1998, once told me that in a perfect world, no one would get free chips and salsa. It’s just too expensive. So even Gene Street, who knows the restaurant business as well as anyone, can be wrong. Tex-Mex without chips and salsa – and especially when the salsa is more than canned tomatoes – is unthinkable.
So what’s next? Will Tex-Mex survive into the 21st century, in an era when restaurants are becoming more authentic, as well as more expensive? Even around here, there are signs that something is changing. Prices for basic platters are starting to creep up to the $10 level, which seems like a lot to pay for enchiladas, rice and beans. Case in point: El Chico converted most of its Dallas locations into the more upscale Cantina Laredo to take advantage of that trend. Then there is the influx of chi-chi concepts like Tin Star and Taco Diner, with their portabella mushroom tacos and Mexican-Parisian cobb salads.
Still, I wouldn’t bet against the durability of Tex-Mex. Rick Bayless, whose Chicago restaurants are at the forefront of popularizing authentic regional Mexican cuisine, grew up in Oklahoma City. At last count, there are four El Chicos in Oklahoma City. If that’s not a sign from the food gods, I don’t know what is.