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What's the Deal With... Tex-Mex

Alex Van Buren
Food Features Editor
March 10, 2014

You know that thing? That thing that sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.

Photo credit: StockFood

When in Texas, eat Tex-Mex. That’s the rule. (Oh, and barbecue, of course).

Mexican-American, Austin-based chef Rene Ortiz was born in Houston, has lived in Texas for half his life, and has loved Tex-Mex for all of it. The co-founder of Austin’s La Condesa and New York’s La Esquina knows his way around “regular” Mexican food, too, which he showcases right alongside Tex-Mex cuisine at the restaurant he currently co-owns, Fresa’s Chicken al Carbon

Tex-Mex is on display in all its glory here at SXSW, so we asked Ortiz to explain to us what exactly it is…including the drippy, lovable queso shown here.

What is Tex-Mex and where did it come from? 

Tex-Mex for Texas is the norteño approach to cooking, or the north-of-Mexico approach, and how Mexicans acclimated in Texas. In the American part of a defining border, how were the Mexicans who were migrating going to acclimate to the changing food? Oftentimes you see [the Mexican influence] in the cheese parts of [Tex-Mex dishes], but sometimes it’s also fun parts like barbacoa in tacos. As you gradually go up from Mexico into Texas, it completely changes. I think Tex-Mex here in Texas is a funny part of so many demographics coming together, trying to work with each other, and fit into one cuisine. A lot of Americans don’t ever get to [experience] that [melding of cultures]. Queso, for example, is the chop suey of Texas. 

What’s its defining characteristic?  

Queso. It is 75% oil and a small part of dairy protein from cheese curds. It’s not healthy, it’s not good for you, but it IS tasty. We sell it at Fresa’s now, and it’s absolutely amazing. We use the white queso fresco, melt that down with a bit of tomato, garlic, onion, cilantro and jalapeños. 

How did queso come into being?

What Mexicans brought with them was the skill for the actual making of the cheese. But also, the Native Americans, like my mother, knew how to make cheese. [Mexicans thought], “Hey, let’s add tomatoes, let’s put pico de gallo in there, let’s eat it with chips!” 

What are other Tex-Mex staples? 

A puffy taco is one. That’s masa with a little bit more baking soda, and so it puffs in the fryer and looks like bembe, big lips. You fill them with meat and cheese and they get crunchy, soft, all these textures. They’re delicious because it’s texturally involved. Then there are enchiladas that are dipped in the sauce, rolled with cheese, and not fried. You heat them up in salsa, with carne on top, and add more cheese on top of that. The combo plate is big; like, a crispy shelled taco, rice, beans, a little bit of guacamole, or the super combo plate that comes with a tamale. A tamale in there makes it even better. It’s a hungry man’s dinner, like the American hungry man’s breakfast. Quesadillas, on flour tortillas, always with chicken, cheese, sour cream or guacamole, very simple, always cooked on a griddle. 

Will Texas always have Tex-Mex?

It’ll always be here, since there are a lot of people in Houston that love it, and in San Antonio they love it. But here in Austin it’s a trend that’s slowly starting to dry because as a city it’s very fit. 

Will you always have a soft spot for it? 

Mi Tierra, one of the oldest Mexican restaurants you can eat at in, with velvet paintings and a beautiful bar. I went there with my brother, and you feel grounded, not only because of your weight—ha!—but you feel grounded in spirit. 

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