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Mexican Immigrants and Changing Demographics


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Thanks for all the great insights already.

I haven't eaten extensively in Texas but do love TexMex, Mexican and New Mexican food... (This is my disclaimer if these are silly questions... :smile: )

1. In Texas is there a distinction in restaurants between those serving TexMex and those serving primarily regional Mexican dishes (dishes not seen in TexMex restaurants or else made differently) ?

2. To follow up on that idea, I wondered whether the influence of larger numbers of Mexican immigrants, availability of ingredients, (or other factors) has resulted in a change, either increasing or decreasing, of restaurants serving TexMex "versus" dishes that hew more closely to regional Mexican cooking.

In brief, is there a "market" that drives the existence in Texas of both types of restaurants side-by-side and what is the dynamic?

Thanks in advance!

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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In Texas is there a distinction in restaurants between those serving TexMex and those serving primarily regional Mexican dishes (dishes not seen in TexMex restaurants or else made differently) ?

To follow up on that idea, I wondered whether the influence of larger numbers of Mexican immigrants, availability of ingredients, (or other factors) has resulted in a change, either increasing or decreasing, of restaurants serving TexMex "versus" dishes that hew more closely to regional Mexican cooking. 

In brief, is there a "market" that drives the existence in Texas of both types of restaurants side-by-side and what is the dynamic?

Thanks in advance!

There is a chapter in The Tex-Mex Cookbook titled "Mex-Mex: The Myth of Authenticity." In it, I explain that supposedly authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex have always existed side be side. Large numbers of Mexicans have been arriving in Texas and opening "authentic" Mexican stalls, stands, joints, and wagons for over a century. Proportionally, the largest influx was during and after the Mexican revolution from 1910 to 1930.

But none of this authentic Mexican food is really as authentic as people imagine. The chili queens' stalls in San Antonio were thought to be authentic Mexican food in the early 1900s. But they were most famous for chili con carne, a dish that doesn't even exist in Mexico. It was this authentic Mexican cooking that came to be called Tex-Mex.

Today, immigrants who run taquerias in the barrio insist they are cooking real Mexican food. But they buy their ingredients from the same Sysco truck everybody else in Texas does. Sysco doesn’t have any cheap goat. But they can give you an unbelievable price on fajita meat. So the taquerias are working with the same ingredients as the Tex-Mex places. Pretty soon, the differences begin to blur and those fresh-out-of-Mexico immigrants are serving a new Texas variation on Mexican food. It's just inevitable.

But without this steady influx of Mexican influence, Tex-Mex would drift toward the over-Americanized Taco Bell taste. The new immigrants keep Tex-Mex honest.

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Today, immigrants who run taquerias in the barrio insist they are cooking real Mexican food. But they buy their ingredients from the same Sysco truck everybody else in Texas does. Sysco doesn’t have any cheap goat. But they can give you an unbelievable price on fajita meat. So the taquerias are working with the same ingredients as the Tex-Mex places. Pretty soon, the differences begin to blur and those fresh-out-of-Mexico immigrants are serving a new Texas variation on Mexican food. It's just inevitable.

But without this steady influx of Mexican influence, Tex-Mex would drift toward the over-Americanized Taco Bell taste. The new immigrants keep Tex-Mex honest.

To take this one step further... Aren't we starting to see some Central American influences creeping in? This is totally unscientific and certainly not exhaustively researched... but I have the impression that some Central American cuisine is getting more common in the past few years and it is being "Tex-Mex'd" as well. I suspect this is happening for the reasons you have stated above.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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And what of places like Hugo's in Houston? I was under the impression that they were doing more interior Mexican, as opposed to Tex-Mex. Is this incorrect?

And down a similar path, what do you make of the more upscale Mex places we are starting to see?

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Hugo Ortega is a smart cookie.

He said that he named his restaurant Hugo's because he wanted the food to be considered his personal cuisine. His personal cuisine is inspired by his upbringing in Puebla, he says. But he doesn't feel compelled to recreate classical Mexican dishes exactly. He wants the freedom to improvise within the genre. So when an American-trained Mexican chef improvises for a Houston Texas audience with local ingredients, what have you got?

In the Mex-Mex chapter, I interview the owner of Fonda San Miguel in Austin who talks about the compromises they had to make there. Chips and salsa, nachos, frozen margaritas may not be authentic to interior Mexican cuisine according to Diana Kennedy, but Texans can't live without them. So authentic Mexican food in Texas is usually hybridized.

I love Hugo's food and lots of other modern Mexican food I've eaten. The New World Wine and Food Festival in San Antonio brings innovative chefs from Mexico in every year. I had some unbelievable dishes there last year. (Like a nopales cactus paddle stuffed with goat cheese, battered and deep-fried and topped with a bean sauce.) I was so impressed, I went down to Monterrey and visited Chef Guillermo Gonzales Beristain who is doing French/Mexican fusion, and upscaled Mexican there. Wow! (See June Saveur, Meat and Beer article)

There are great things going in the Mexican genre. But what many Americans can't accept is that there can be such a thing as upscale Tex-Mex too.

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Isn't the problem here the balance? In defending Tex-Mex, someone can easily make the mistake of implying that interior Mexican isn't important. I think it's sad that Fonda San Miguel needs to pander to Texans' expectations for Mexican food because of their own regional version's traditions. Going into a Oaxacan restaurant and expecting nachos reminds me of that episode of Sopranos where Tony and the boys go to Sicily and Pauley bitches about not having simple pasta and "gravy".

When some friends and I visited Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Bayless's restaurants in Chicago, one of them from Dallas bitched that we didn't get free chips and salsa. He considered that a major fault. Same when he visited Cafe Azul. I like chips and salsa as much as the next person. But why should we expect it just because Mexican-American food has made it a standard? Should we expect all-you-can-eat salad and bread sticks at our local trattoria?

For that reason, isn't it good that people like Kennedy insist on pointing out the differences? I don't think you have to make a judgment about the quality of Tex-Mex in doing so, though I realize Kennedy often does.

You wouldn't say that Tex-Mex is on an equal standing with Mexican as a cuisine, though, would you? At most, isn't it just a regional subset of Mexican?

PS It also seems ridiculous to say that taquerias have to use fajita meat, etc. If the taquerias here in Oregon can serve birria de chivo cheaply made of goat, certainly they can in Texas where if you go an inch over the border you can get cabrito. More than likely, it's expectations of Texans.

Edited by ExtraMSG (log)
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Thanks for the detailed answer Rob. I'm sure I could learn a lot more after getting ahold of some of your books and learning more about TexMex history past and present. (I plan on it; I'm intrigued by the discussion and other queries in your Q&A).

I have a few other thoughts but I'm on the road right now for work and probably won't get a chance to check back in until tomorrow pm).

Thanks again!

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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You wouldn't say that Tex-Mex is on an equal standing with Mexican as a cuisine, though, would you? At most, isn't it just a regional subset of Mexican?

PS It also seems ridiculous to say that taquerias have to use fajita meat, etc. If the taquerias here in Oregon can serve birria de chivo cheaply made of goat, certainly they can in Texas where if you go an inch over the border you can get cabrito. More than likely, it's expectations of Texans.

Tex-Mex a subset of Mexican cuisine? Sure--and Cajun is a subset of French cuisine. But I would also insist that both are also American regional cuisines.

Put Tex-Mex on an equal standing to Mexican food? No. I would say: Tex-Mex is rock and roll, authentic Mexican food as described in Diana Kennedy's Cuisines of Mexico is opera.

But as the LA Times explains, what we are calling authentic Mexican food in the U.S. is NOT what Mexicans really eat:

http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-12...ntic.story?null

As for the birria de chivo, I found some on a taco truck in Houston last week--the first time I've seen it in Texas. There is an interview with Rick Bayless in the chapter of the Tex-Mex Cookbook titled: Mex-Mex: The Myth of Authenticity. In it, Bayless theorizes that places with fresh Mexican immigrant populations, like Oregon and Chicago, have more "authentic" Mexican food than places like San Antonio or Santa Fe. That's because there is no indigenous Mexican-American population in Oregon or Chicago to show the newcomers how it's done. So it's not entirely a matter of taste.

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Yeah, I've read Bayless's opinion on that before. I just got back from Chicago where I ate in the Pilsen district. I hope to go to the Maxwell Street Market, possibly in September.

I think that assumes that Mexicans are stupid and can't figure out the tastes of the people around them, to say that these people opening taco trucks and taquerias need established communities to show them how the locals do it. More than likely, they're just making smart business decisions and pandering to the greater palate of the area. That pandering may not be necessary in Chicago or Oregon because there's not really as strong a presence of a competing, similar cuisine like there is in Texas. Although, nearly every taqueria in Oregon serves burritos, and many serve quesadillas made with flour tortillas.

I think your opera vs rock and roll analogy misses the point. Mexican cuisine is more like blues, be-bop, tribal music, '50s rock, etc, while Tex-Mex is rock and roll. In other words, the mother cuisine is a broad pallette with influences on Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex is more narrow and younger, truly, and less complex and varied as a whole (which is not to devalue it).

I agree that Tex-Mex is also an American regional cuisine, but to some degree it's only so because of national borders. Unlike Cajun's relation to French or Italian-American's relation to Italy, Tex-Mex is always there close to its mother cuisine. How often do Italian joints in NY or Cajun shacks in Louisiana get influenced by Italians or French anymore? Whereas, you say that Mexican immigrants continue to keep Tex-Mex honest. I would say that they also continue to keep it part of Mexican food, not fully American.

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I don't think stupidity is implied. And I agree with Bayless that Mexicans in the Pilsen are cooking for fellow Mexicans from the same regions of Mexico. So they cook stuff like they did at home. They will get around to making burritos and fajitas when more people come to the Pilsen looking for them.

In Texas, an immigrant taqueria is always across the street from some successful place that serves Americanized Mexican food. It takes a real effort to stay pure.

But you're quite right about the continuing influence of Mexican immigrants on Tex-Mex.

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