Redefining A Cuisine
Mexican Food Goes Back to Basics
From peasant victuals to fast food fave to haute cuisine to ethnic traditional in half a century, Mexican food has never stopped changing. The world of nachos, fajitas and hard shelled tacos is also a world of shrimp cooked in lime and chile, braised chicken with Oaxacan black mole and queso fundido. In 2016, the return to its roots continues to turn the page on the most authentic chapter of all.
Mexican cuisine crosses both international borders and state lines, with Cal-Mex’s burritos, New Mexico’s green chilies and Arizona’s bragging rights to birthing the chimichanga. But Texas is indisputably the pivotal player. The Lone Star state earned its own appellation, Tex-Mex, and launched thousands of restaurants. Today, every small town in Texas has at least one Tex-Mex-centric eatery, says Marvin Bendele, executive director of Texas Foodways. “Even in a town of 4,000 people, five or six Tex-Mex restaurants are thriving.” Pioneers like Matt and Janie Martinez (Matt’s El Rancho) and Viola Barrios (Los Barrios) moved the cuisine forward in a country that was neither warm, nor welcoming at the start.
Segregation of Mexican-Americans in the early decades of the 20th century was the norm, says Adan Medrano, author of the Truly Texas Mexican cookbook and chronicler of the cuisine’s history. “In San Antonio, Anglos didn’t feel safe coming to the barrios, so Otis Farnsworth opened ‘The Original Mexican Restaurant’ in 1900,” he relates. The upscale environment, with men required to wear jackets, and a menu featuring generously laden combination plates, was hugely successful, and duplicated all over the state.
By the 1950s, restaurants like Austin’s beloved Matt’s El Rancho were opening their doors, but still finding it a slow start. The Martinez duo worked front- and back-of-the-house tirelessly for decades, growing their 40-seater to a 500-seat venue with 130+ employees. Everything is still cooked from scratch — warm comfort food like cheese enchiladas, stuffed chile relleno and their famous Bob Armstrong dip (a meat, guacamole and chile con queso mix eponymously named after a state representative who requested ‘something different for an appetizer’ back in 1965) are constantly flying out of the kitchen. But grilled gulf snapper, ultra-lite vegetable fajitas and non-GMO corn tortillas are now just as likely to be served up on Matt’s generous plates, belying the common misconception that Tex-Mex can’t be healthy, says General Manager Paul Counter.
Another Texas legend, Los Barrios, began modestly on the site of a former Dairy Queen in San Antonio in 1979, when newly widowed Viola Barrios introduced her casero (home-style) cooking, and quickly built a following of loyal locals. Now part of a mini-empire of three thriving restaurants run by the family’s next generation, Los Barrios continues to serve up “dishes in the way Mexican moms cook for their families,” says daughter Diana Barrios Trevino. “We use the basics from my mother’s repertoire – classic enchiladas with roasted red pepper sauce and crumbly white Mexican cheese; guacamole made with creamy, buttery Mexican avocados; enchiladas verdes with tomatillo; chicken-fried steak, with fresh squeezed lime juice; a great mole.” Very little has changed on the menu over the years, she says, but they’ve created a chipotle cream sauce and added more shrimp selections and vegetarian enchiladas to the mix in response to customer demand. That she’s getting it exactly right was confirmed by Emeril Lagasse, whose praise serves as the introduction to her bestselling Los Barrios Family Cookbook: “The dishes they have created contain amazing combinations and flavors that many people don’t get to experience. I want the rest of the country to sample what I was tasting. I want people to realize that true Tex-Mex cooking isn’t just fajitas and burritos.”
Both Matt’s El Rancho and Los Barrios are counted among the many restaurants that champion the roots of Texas Mexican food. Medrano sees a focus on native ingredients like fresh fish, Mexican herbs and cheeses, Texas pecans; authentic cooking methods that place nuanced flavors over one-note dishes; and an emphasis on texture without high fat. “You’ll find the innovators making their own corn tortillas, baking them, adding a layer of beans – no lard – and roasting slowly to develop the flavor,” he explains. The other big difference is in the enchiladas. “Instead of the focal point being molten cheese, it’s now the dried chiles, and the lovely fresh sauce.”
Melissa Abbott, vice president of Culinary Insights at the Hartman Group, is delighted to see the cuisine’s resurgence in the last few years. “Tex-Mex is finally getting the respect it deserves, as people realize that being a hybrid doesn’t make it any less authentic.” The shift from highly processed to thoughtfully sourced ingredients is what makes the cuisine so exciting now, exemplified by places like El Real in Houston and Bar-Ama in Los Angeles, she says.
The bold flavor combinations will continue, predicts Ed Avis, publisher of el Restaurante magazine. “Look for Asian-influenced Tex Mex, already happening in southern California, and I think we’ll see that moving east. Think burritos with sweet and sour sauce, tacos with crab, and spring rolls filled with fajita-style chicken.” It’s the natural evolution of this fusion concept that takes on the narrative of its creators, and “makes something good into something even better,” says Avis.
It may well be that the most influential lesson of Mexican cuisine lies in its deep respect for family, for carefully curating ancestors’ treasured recipes to share with customers who are considered honored guests at the table. It’s why Paul Counter doesn’t concern himself with gaining critical acclaim, even for Matt’s enviable Tex-Mex offerings. What he cares about is pleasing the generations of diners who continue to seek out “the type of food you feed your family again and again.” He’s rewarded with an intense customer loyalty unique even among today’s avid foodies. Some of his guests refuse to fly into Austin on a Tuesday, the day the restaurant is closed. “They tell us that a trip to Matt’s El Rancho has to be their first stop when they arrive!” laughs Counter. And it’s why Barrios Trevino has ‘career waiters’ who remember every detail of their customers’ preferences, from the six-year-old boy who likes his tomatoes sliced, not diced, to the grandmother who wants her soup steaming hot. “We’ve had customers who moved away 16 years ago and come back to visit us,” she relates. “Their old waiter came up to them and asked if they wanted their ‘regular.’ They were speechless! Here, our customers are royalty and we’re never going to forget that.”