For some time now, the lines between Tex-Mex and Mexican food have been blurred. You probably don’t even know the difference anymore. That’s fine. We’re not here to make anyone feel foolish. But here at Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, we’re proud of our heritage and think it’s important to pay tribute to it. Kind of like Ancestry.com, but for tacos.
Tex-Mex stems from Texas’ Tejano population, the southern Texans of Mexican or Spanish descent who lived in Texas before it became a republic, as well as Mexican immigrants from northern Mexico. It was improperly lumped in with Mexican food until 1972, when Diana Kennedy corrected lingering misconceptions between the two in her book The Cuisines of Mexico. Get it, girl.
Mexican food was popular among Texans, who tried to recreate it in their homes using traditionally Texan ingredients. So basically, a complete inattention to authenticity created Tex-Mex. What a wonderful lapse it was, though.
So what are the main differences? Are those greasy nachos you got at 2AM Tex-Mex or Mexican? What about the breakfast burrito you got at that hole-in-the wall last week? To answer these important, life-changing questions, we have to examine the ingredients.
Mexican food is tough to describe, as it encompasses the cuisine of an entire country. It’s akin to saying American food is just hamburgers and hot dogs. We’ve got more going for us, right? It’d almost be easier to pinpoint what’s not Mexican food than what is.
Iliana de la Vega, chef and owner of Mexican restaurant El Naranjo, and Carlos Rivero, owner of El Chile Café y Cantina, both in Austin, have very different childhood memories of eating in their native land. Foods such as chiles rellenos, salads of chayote or nopales, tomatillo sauce, mole, white cheese and cheese enchiladas covered in chili gravy were more likely to be found on the Mexican dinner table.
If it’s got beef, yellow cheese (e.g., cheddar or American), black beans, wheat flour, canned vegetables (e.g., tomatoes) and cumin, well, pal, you’ve likely got yourself some Tex-Mex on your hands. Beef is popular in Texas (as it should be) but was never a common ingredient in Mexican cuisine. The folks down south were more the chicken or pork type. “Wheat tortilla” sounds as American as apple pie, and cumin was imported to the United States from India and certainly wasn’t being used by traditional Mexican cooks way back when.
The melting pot (not queso; think immigration) gave us Tex-Mex classics such as nachos, chile con carne, fajitas, queso, chimichangas and American-style enchiladas and tacos. Classic sides of pinto beans and rice are also of Tex-Mex origin.
Over time, Mexican food and Tex-Mex have spread into other states and taken on different personas, including our personal fave, the Baja style from California, which focuses on fresh ingredients and seafood.
When convenience food boomed in the 1950s, Tex-Mex became associated with American cheese, sour cream, pre-made taco shells and overly seasoned meat. It took a while for Tex-Mex to gain some respect, as chefs evolved it into a more palatable and dynamic cuisine, instead of just a cheap meal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
So that’s your history lesson for today. Come on in to your nearest Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and taste the heritage yourself. We promise it’s delicious.