By David Hammond
Authenticity is a contemporary touchstone of culinary quality. All serious eaters claim to respect it, exclaiming that their favorite restaurants are “authentic,” even if they’re not entirely certain what that high-powered praise even means.
Given this general reverence for the authentic, try extolling the joys of Tex-Mex cuisine to a group of self-styled foodies and then brace yourself for a collective eye-roll. Tex-Mex, a fusion of Texan and Mexican, is frequently considered a bastard—not-quite American, not-quite Mexican, a weak reflection of both culinary traditions. Inauthentic.
Tex-Mex gets about as much respect as, say, Americanized Chinese food, which may well be unrecognizable to people who grew up in the Chinese traditions that also gave us xiao long bao, Peking duck and stinky tofu. Similarly, Italian-American food is usually covered in about twice as much sauce as you’d find on a native-born platter of pasta, featuring big juicy meatballs you’d be unlikely to find anywhere in The Boot. Both those hybrid food traditions are recognized for what they are: blends of two distinct foodways that yield results that many appreciate, like egg foo young and Italian beef sandwiches. Tex-Mex, on the other hand, is not quite there yet. It’s still considered the love child, the whoreson, the bastard.
In “The Tex-Mex Cookbook,” a classic by Texas food writer Robb Walsh, Tex-Mex chow is referred to as “the lovable ugly duckling of American regional cuisines.”
Growing up in mid-century Chicago, however, we didn’t call it Tex-Mex: we just called it “Mexican.” At places like La Margarita restaurants (now mostly gone) and Pepe’s (some still around), we enjoyed the Tex-Mex classics: enchiladas covered in melted cheese, chimichangas, chili con carne, and so on. Those Tex-Mex menu items were pretty much what we considered the food of Mexico until Diana Kennedy’s epochal 1972 “The Cuisines of Mexico.” This grande dame of south-of-the-border cooking unceremoniously trashed the combo platters in “so-called Mexican restaurants” and snarled disdain upon the “overly large platters of mixed messes, smothered with a shrill tomato sauce, sour cream, grated yellow cheese preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy deep-fried chips.”
Ms. Kennedy’s vitriolic appraisal is not entirely without merit, but this was also the woman who literally threw the young Rick Bayless out of her car, apparently on account of his “brash” and overly eager questions about Mexican food. I like to imagine they were arguing about Tex-Mex food, which Bayless, having grown up in Oklahoma, knew quite well and would likely have defended. Kennedy, on the other hand, focused on “interior,” rather than border, Mexican cuisine; thusly was Tex-Mex cut out of the equation.
Still, dispassionately considered, Tex-Mex food seems undeniably a kind of Mexican food, just as Americanized Chinese is a kind of Chinese food, and so on. Food traditions are not static; they evolve. That’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to pin down what’s “authentic”—it keeps changing.
Texican opened a little before March of this year. This small restaurant on Larrabee, in the shadow of Groupon’s headquarters, is very upfront about where they stand, and they stand firmly behind Tex-Mex cuisine as a viable and worthy food tradition. I asked Chef Kim Dalton (formerly of Chicago’s Dodo) via email how she defines Tex-Mex food.
“Tex-Mex is commonly described as ‘Americanized Mexican.’ To a certain degree, that can’t be denied, though I hope it can be perceived as unashamedly so,” she writes. “Both cuisines have a wonderful history. Many staples we see in Mexican restaurants were inspired by Tex-Mex, one example being combination plates, a Tex-Mex innovation. Basically, nachos, fajitas and the pronounced use of cumin are not grounded in any one cuisine, yet they’re essential in the Tex-Mex repertoire we all know and love. As much as Tex-Mex is American, it is also proudly Mexican.”
In many ways, the Tex-Mex tradition and many of the items on the Texican menu (currently only breakfast and lunch selections; the places closes at 3pm) are quintessentially comfort food: high-carb, not shy about a few calories, a good amount of cheese, warm and filling, spiced with restraint and simple. Very simple. When you think about your own comfort foods, it’s likely that what comes to mind is maybe mac n’ cheese, beef stew, perhaps buttery pancakes or other dishes that fit this paradigm: carbs, calories, warmth, not too spicy and simple. Much Tex-Mex food fits that model. Its popularity, viewed in that light, is unsurprising.
I wanted to find out what Dalton believed to be the prototypical Tex-Mex menu item, if there even is such a thing.
“Chili con carne comes to mind as the quintessential Tex-Mex dish. Beef and a common topping of yellow cheese is definitely not indigenous Mexican except for chili peppers,” she says. “It’s often said that there should not be tomatoes. And Texans can get weird about beans in chili just like Chicagoans with ketchup on hotdogs. Yet there are so many versions and I think they’re all good in their own way. After experimenting with all kinds of fussy chili cook-off recipes, I came up with a cleaner and simpler version of chopped chuck steak in a spiced chili ‘gravy,’ beans available upon request. To me, that is a prerequisite to any prototypically Tex-Mex dish.”
With Dalton’s Texas Red Chili, the default mode seems to be to serve it without beans, and that’s fine by me, though I grew up in Elmhurst not Dallas, so I’m less sensitive to legumes in my chili. Velveeta, though loathsome, has its place (hopefully on your nachos, not mine); thankfully, Dalton chooses to use a decent cheddar on her chili, along with a moderate dollop of sour cream, a sprinkle of scallions, and a bag of Fritos on the side. Like many of the dishes at Texican, the peppery warmth is there, but dialed down, which is likely infuriating to heat-seeking chili heads. To mollify those capsaicin-addled maniacs, there’s some very good red and green sauce behind the counter that might help make things right. It’s a damn good bowl of chili.
Though many of us have learned, through the scholarly persistence of people like Bayless, that Mexican cuisine is not monolithic and that Tex-Mex has a place in the Mexican heritage, in much of the rest of the world, such distinctions are not made: Tex-Mex is still Mexican.
On my last night in Florence, Italy, a few years ago, I decided to go to a Mexican restaurant; I was hoping for some weird fusion of Italian and Mexican, but it was all pretty solidly Tex-Mex: we had nachos that were just about the same as you’d find at Chili’s.
Last year in London, we went to only Mexican restaurants, which may seem perverse, but we found it a cool way to see how this distinctly North American culinary tradition is interpreted in countries that didn’t evolve with Mexico right next door. Many times, of course, the Mexican food we had in Europe was not identifiably Oaxacan, Jalisciense or Yucatecan, but rather, you guessed it, Tex-Mex.
“It seems,” says Dalton, that “Tex-Mex dishes appear on just about any menu just about anywhere so it’s definitely relevant and liked. [But] it’s a mixed bag of how much effort and integrity of ingredients go into the cooking. In general, barbecue is looked upon as an art form, and Texas is definitely respected for that. ‘Americanized’ Mexican doesn’t sound so romantic. There was never any mystery to the taco kits many of us grew up with: a spice packet added to ground beef. Or maybe a trip to Taco Bell, a guilty pleasure. Any monkey can melt a log of Velveeta cheese with a can of Rotel tomatoes for chili con queso, a Tex-Mex staple. Yet Texans are fiercely proud of their cuisine. In a lot of ways, it’s justified because it’s an innovative American cuisine that mixes with the old world of chilies, beans and corn. Tex-Mex dishes are even found in ‘authentic’ Mexican restaurants. I think it’s a cuisine everyone likes because it’s humble and it’s going to be delicious and always hits the spot. Nothing much else. But why does there have to be more? It may not deserve to be elevated in the pantheons of food, but a lot of people often crave Tex-Mex and that’s a strong testament in itself.”
Though I wouldn’t presume to argue with Dalton on the topic, I don’t see any reason why Tex-Mex does not deserve to be elevated, while the food remains humble and true to its roots. Chicagoans love a hot dog and a juicy beef sandwich, and there isn’t much more humble food than that, and yet there’s no doubt that both have been elevated to legendary status in the minds of not only locals but the tourists who come to visit our city.
At Texican, a big bowl of Texas Chili Mac proves to be the “mess” Kennedy warned us about, but in the best way: you get the Texas Red Chili, elbow macaroni, chili con queso and pinto beans. When it was set before me, I thought, “No way I can eat all this,” but as I started into it, I realized, “Yes, I can eat all of this.” It’s so soft and easy and comforting. This bowl was not in any sense overly greasy, and it contained chunks of meat, so it was chewy and delicious and felt so right on one of this Chicago winter’s very rare cold days. There is some subtle spicing in there, as well as chili heat, but this hot factor was very controlled, tongue-tingling without becoming overpowering.
Eating at a place like Texican that tries to remain true to the spirit of Tex-Mex is a way for Northerners to get some idea of what exactly the people are eating in Texas and other border states where the influence of Mexico is still strongly felt—and that shouldn’t be too surprising, as much of this land was part of Mexico until 1845 (San Antonio is both the home of the Alamo and a center of Tex-Mex cuisine). During Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Texas exhibit featured chili con carne; soon, according to Walsh, chili stands and canned chili soon started appearing everywhere.
Though Dalton serves a very good chili, she’s working to push the limits of what we know of as Tex-Mex. “Everyone knows Tex-Mex dishes like chili, fajitas or nachos but somehow think of them as Mexican. Not so much is known about King Ranch Casserole (baked chicken enchilada layers), Texas sheet cake (chocolate) or chewy pralines. I’m currently experimenting with chow chow relish to go with pinto beans and corn bread which is not particularly thought of as Texan. I believe branching out has to happen gradually.”
The King Ranch Casserole looks kind of like a Mexican lasagna, layers of tortilla, chicken and sauce: I defy anyone who sees it not to dig in. The Texas sheet cake surprised me; not a fan of cake, I greatly enjoyed this moist, dense and flat Texas favorite, which cut like fudge, but was not overly sugary.
Probably my favorite bite at Texican were the guisado tacos, a beautiful stew of pork chunks, guajillo and tomatillo salsa, topped with pickled red onions, cilantro and onion and served on a flour tortilla, more popular than corn in northern Mexico/southern Texas. As with the chili, this dish managed the chili heat very well, highlighting the other ingredients rather than overwhelming them.
Texican is located in the midst of a towering phalanx of River North mid-rises and rapidly rising real estate prices. It’s on Larrabee, with lux condos on one side of the street and, on the other, public housing, split, like Tex-Mex cuisine, between two worlds.
The restaurant is now serving a mostly early morning and early lunch crowd, and if you’re in the area, it could be your chance to try some unabashedly Tex-Mex favorites as well as, perhaps, some new ones, like Dalton’s mangonadas. Mangonadas are, as described by Newcity writer Robert Gardner, made like this: “You take a clear plastic cup—and it must be transparent to reveal the composition of orange and red. The cup is coated with chamoy, a Mexican catsup only sourer, sweeter, redder and way spicier than Heinz. Fresh mango is added along with a few good scoops of mango sorbet; even with a small mangonada, you get a lot of mango. More chamoy is swirled in, then more mango, a hard squeeze of lime, and finally, a heavy dusting of Tajin, which is an intense Mexican chili-salt.” To this basic recipe, Dalton swirls in Greek yogurt to make a parfait, which is a beautiful example of how a tradition like Tex-Mex is, like all cuisines, always and forever evolving.
That fact that all cuisines are in a constant state of flux calls into question the legitimacy of claiming that some foods are “authentic” and that other foods are inauthentic at best, bastards at worst.
When L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold was in Chicago last year to promote the movie “City of Gold,” I asked him if he ever used the word “authentic” when talking about food. Gold said he avoids “authentic,” preferring instead the more general term “traditional.” In that sense, Tex-Mex is a regional cooking tradition, and as such, deserving of your attention and respect. You can start to pay that attention and gain that respect over breakfast or lunch at Texican.
Texican, 869 North Larrabee, (312)877-5441, texican-chicago.com