Tex Mex

History of Tex-Mex: A Delicious Cultural Blend

Tex-Mex Origins

Close to the close of the nineteenth century, the railroad entered Texas. Along the gulf of Mexico, a railway over fifty miles long was built to carry sheep from Mexico to Texas, and vice versa. This was the birthplace of Tex-Mex. Not in the way you might think, of course; this was just the birthplace of the term. However, the railway did play a major role further on down the line by bringing new spices back and forth along the way.

A railroad splitting into two directions
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The cuisine grew as Mexicans and Americans mingled and influenced each others food. By the sixties, Tex-Mex was an American staple, even introducing the first Taco Bell! The phrase “Tex-Mex” was commonplace by the seventies, and America fell in love.

But we all know about the delicious Americanized Mexican food. There are hundreds of articles that go into the history of major dishes, or even the most popular restaurants to visit. This will look at the key ingredients to the cuisine, and see the journey they’ve made. Then, we’ll see the impact that fusion food can have on a group of people.

Tex Mex Flavor

Spices in a cabinet
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Most Tex-Mex dishes function with a similar set of spices. Whether you’re enjoying chile con queso or a steaming burrito, you’re going to find a similar selection of spices. From paprika, to oregano, and from garlic powder to cumin, you’ll find a variety of delicious and familiar spices. Each of these spices has a history as unique as their flavor, and this history can help us better understand the story behind the food!

Oregano

Fun fact: there are two kinds of oregano! Want to know something even more interesting? You’ve probably been using the wrong one in your Tex Mex seasoning!

Now, don’t worry. This doesn’t mean you’re uncultured, or that your fajitas have tasted bland. No, this just means it’ll taste a little sweeter. The Mexican oregano has a citrusy vibe, whereas “plain” oregano has a licorice flavor to it. The citrus flavor works really well in Mexican food, as they usually add a little bit of lime to their dishes. There’s a scientific reason for that, but that’ll be later in the article.

Cumin

If you read one of my past blogs, you have probably read a little bit about cumin. Related to parsley, this is a dried herb that most Indian and many African dishes use to tie their flavors together. Although it originated in West Asia, trade brought it through the Mediterranean, all the way to Spain. Through Spain, it was introduced to the Americas and our food hasn’t been the same since.

Cumin was incorporated into the Tex Mex cuisine, most notably through chile con carne. The spice accents the peppers and chili powders with its slightly smoky taste. It’s delicious and you can’t have a meal without it.

Paprika

This spice is native to Central and South America, as it is just dried, ground peppers. Paprika comes in all different colors, and will also have different flavors, depending on the peppers used. It’s used to give dishes that extra kick we all know and love in Tex-Mex cuisine.

Fun fact: Paprika was considered medicinal in early, southern Mexican traditions, and they believed it had healing powers. What’s fascinating is that they might have been slightly correct. The thing that makes paprika spicy, capsacin, has pain-relieving abilities, helps monitor your diet, and can prevent some forms of cancer!

Garlic

Garlic has its roots in Central Asia, but civilizations all over the world have been using it for over five thousand years! It’s a delicious ingredient in almost any recipe, and has had superstitions surrounding it for ages! It can ward off the undead, it’s magical, it’s healing…these are all fairly questionable. However, one thing is for sure; garlic is a necessity in all Tex-Mex meals.

Lime

This citrus fruit originated in Malaysia, and, as trade routes expanded, the lime reached the Americas. The navy used it to treat vitamin deficiencies, and used it to slow fermentation. It quickly became a defining feature of Mexican food.

We all love Tex-Mex for its rich flavor, but it sits heavily on our stomach afterwards. Lime is used to help our bodies process food, since the acidity from the citrus engages your saliva and ensures the breakdown of food. Not only are limes great for digestion, but they also encourage weight loss, aid with sleep, and help with breathing.

Cilantro

Chances are, you’ve probably tried a taco or salsa with cilantro as a key ingredient. This spice is related to parsley, but don’t think the two can be used in each other’s stead. Cilantro has a stronger, citrus-like flavor, and it really compliments the lime flavors in the Tex-Mex food. Originating in southern Europe, this plant was brought over to Mexico like all the others. The leaves take work to harvest, and many grind up the seeds to create coriander, a very different spice.

Tex-Mex Recipes

Food being prepared in a mortar
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Chile Con Carne

Originating in San Antonio, this dish is easily one of the first Tex-Mex fusions. While both cultures had been influencing each other for years by the time chile con carne came to be, this is the first dish we can really note. As islanders were being encouraged to move inland to San Antonio, they created a small community where their dishes became a mixture of their cultures. The Canary islands, where this community originated from, always cooked fairly heavily with cumin, and they made this a key ingredient in their chile con carne.

When it became clear how easy this was to cook and how delicious it was, the dish quickly made its way across America. Prisons serve it to their inmates, cowboys serve it out on the trail, and people line up for blocks to try the Chili Queens’ recipe.

If you’d like to make your own, be sure to check out Chili Pepper Madness’ recipe! They have a delicious chili recipe, complete with tips on how to personalize your spice level, whether you should add beans or not, and if tomatoes are really worth the extra effort.

Mexican Please also has a wonderful recipe for you to try! Don’t be scared to play around with how you like your chili. Personally, I like to serve mine on top of corn chips with a little bit of cheddar.

Refried Beans

Refried beans are one of those foods that you can’t escape from, no matter what you order. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, refried beans are going to find their way onto your plate sooner or later. Knowing this, it comes as quite a surprise when we find out that they’re a fairly recent addition to the Tex-Mex cuisine.

They’re cooked by letting beans, usually pinto beans, soak overnight, before you eventually cook and mash them. Once you reach this point, you fry the beans in lard or some other sort of fatty substance. Now, the name implies it’s fried twice, but this is actually just because of a loose translation. Refritos means well fried in Spanish, and, well, you can see what happened from there.

Inspired Taste has a lovely recipe to try if you’d like to cook your own refried beans at home. Since not everyone has the time or the patience to let the beans soak over night, they do give you the option to cook with canned beans. Even better, this recipe comes with a list of suggestions on how to serve it. Would you like them with tacos, nachos, tostadas? The list is yours to choose from!

Kevin is Cooking also has a delicious recipe, complete with helpful timing notes. He also suggests using bacon lard to increase flavor and decrease how much salt you have to add manually. Whatever your preference, both recipes are certainly worth looking into.

Burritos

The “little donkey” is a classic. Everybody wants a burrito. Honestly, if I could have a burrito for breakfast more often, I would be a very happy foodie. However, I’ll settle for special occasions. With mysterious origins, ranging from Mexican Revolution era take out, to just popping up in a small town, this food has kept people entertained for over a hundred years.

If you’re looking to make a burrito, don’t worry; it’s easy to do! All you have to do is steam up a tortilla, fill it with whatever sounds good to you, and then roll. If you’re looking for a good recipe, Once Upon A Chef has a delicious breakfast burrito option, complete with avocado salsa and scrambled eggs. Another delicious burrito recipe can be found at Taste of Home. This recipe walks you through how to make a delicious beef burrito, and, to wrap it up, gives instructions on how to make a healthier burrito option, if you’d like.

Tex Mex Restaurants

Magarita at a Mexican restaurant
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Cooking your own Tex-Mex is always fun, but nothing really beats the atmosphere of good, old fashioned Tex-Mex. The rich smell of sauce wafting into the dining room from the kitchen, the chattering of families celebrating, the hot tortilla chips, and, of course, the salsa verde! The customer service is always welcoming, and the restaurant is always a little too cold, so that way you can enjoy the heat from the food. It’s 2021 and we’re finally able to fully enjoy these things again! So let’s look at some of the best places to find delicious Tex-Mex food.

If you’re ever in Austin, Texas, Matt’s El Rancho has a wonderful menu to try! Selling Tex-Mex since the 1920s, Matt Martinez has a menu that’s truly stood the test of time. Starting off with just his wife and himself, the restaurant has grown more than ten times its original size, and is still family-owned!

Not too far away, in San Antonio, Texas, Mi Tierra’s is the place to go if you’re in the mood for a classic spot. Eighty years old and still going strong, twenty-four hours a day, with a bakery and live entertainment, this restaurant is a must!

Houston Strong

Now, Houston also has its share of delicious Tex-Mex. The Original Ninfa’s is a delicious spot from the seventies that is still going strong! When Mama Ninfa opened this restaurant, fajitas were non-existent. Through her small, ten-table restaurant, Mama Ninfa introduced America to Tacos Al Carbon, and we fell head over heels!

Another location, El Patio, located off of Westheimer, opened in the sixties, and quickly became a popular night spot for those looking for a good time. This place is especially notable because of its delicious magaritas (the blue magarita goes extremely well with their cheese enchiladas), and what it did for a historical Houston location.

In 2008, Felix Mexican Restaurant closed its doors after running for sixty years. It came as a shock to many in the area, as it had grown to give a sense of home to many people, as well as a source of delicious Tex-Mex food. When they closed their doors for good, El Patio purchased many of the recipes, and still offers the classic Felix menu to Houstonians craving some nostalgia.

Why Felix?

Felix Mexican Restaurant goes beyond just food. When Felix opened the Tex Mex restaurant, he did so because he wanted to encourage the two cultures to bond. Born in Sugar Land, Felix worked hard all his life. He got his first restaurant job at thirteen, and he opened his own restaurant ten years later. The restaurant came and went as he grew his family, and he eventually opened up Felix Mexican Restaurant in 1937, which remained open until 2008.

His influence goes far beyond just Tex-Mex food. Felix worked with LULAC throughout his life, serving as a president on a local and national scale. When Felix’s educational program was approved to encourage bi-lingual education before first grade, he provided the funding necessary to make it happen. He continued to work with educational programs all his life and his program lasted all the way through his death. To this day, there’s still a scholarship named after him to encourage education on all levels.

Felix fought for everything fusion food stands for. Food can open doors and allow people to soften towards each other. It can encourage strong bonds and happier relationships, not to mention it greatly affects your mood. Felix also saw how important the two cultures working together could be. He knew that offering a fusion of the two foods could encourage a bond between the communities, and he fought hard to make that happen on every plane. So be sure, if you’re ever in Houston, to stop by El Patio, in honor of Felix Tijerina.

Historical Marker talking about Felix's influence on education and his role in the community.

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One thought on “History of Tex-Mex: A Delicious Cultural Blend

  1. All thst is well and good but the food from the Valley is just as good as those from upper Texas.

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