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How Tex-Mex Found Its Place As An American Cuisine

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018
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For thousands of years, Native Americans lived in what is now known as the state of Texas. The first European settlers didn’t arrive in the area until the early 1500s. Three hundred years after their arrival, what would become Texas was part of the Spanish colony. Mexico and Texas were linked as one until Mexico separated itself from Spain. Later, Texas won its independence and became part of the United States in 1845.

The history of this area is complicated, which has created a number of different cultures as well as cuisines. One style of food commonly referred to as Tex-Mex can be found in restaurants throughout Texas today. Tex-Mex started out as an abbreviation for the Texas and Mexican Railroad and later became a description for people of Mexican descent. It was also applied to Mexican-style food with some twists.

This cuisine is now considered an ultimate comfort food, but has struggled to gain respect as a regional cuisine rather than low-quality traditional Mexican food. The roots of Tex-Mex cuisine go deep into Spanish and Native American culture and have stories behind many of the famous recipes.

The birth of Tex-Mex as regional cuisine

In 1972, author of the cookbook Cuisines of Mexico, Diana Kennedy, inadvertently gave Tex-Mex its own regional cuisine title. She had spent decades transcribing and studying recipes and cooking techniques. She had no use for what she called “mixed plates” being served north of the border in Mexican restaurants.

In her cookbook, Kennedy made a clear separation between what she called authentic Mexican dishes and what she defined as Tex-Mex foods found north of Mexico. This characterization insulted chefs and Tex-Mex food fans, but her work is what popularized the cuisine and gave it its own category in American cuisine.

Another part of the complicated history surrounding Tex-Mex cuisine is the inclusion of Moroccan cooking. In the 1500s, the Spanish brought workers of Moroccan descent into the San Antonio region. With them, the workers brought the heavy use of cumin in their foods. Cumin and garlic are now widespread in many Tex-Mex dishes.

The combo plate

San Antonio is the birthplace of a famous Tex-Mex dish called the combo plate. This signature Tex-Mex cuisine was started in 1900 by Otis Farnsworth, a Chicago native who began serving an entree along with a side of beans and rice. He named this dish the Regular and many restaurants started copying the idea. An addition from other Mexican restaurants included a topping of melted cheese with sour cream.

Chili con carne

People of Mexican descent were commonly called Tex-Mex or Tejanos by the 1920s. Their style of home cooking was first introduced to audiences in San Antonio during the 1880s by women who served it in the city’s plazas. Known as Chili Queens, these women served steaming bowls of chili con carne along with a glass of water and bread for a dime to local crowds and tourists. These hot meals gained San Antonio a reputation as the capital of Tex-Mex cuisine.

Nachos

nachos the plaza restaurant

The origin of nachos is uncertain, but interesting. One story states a group of women whose husbands were in the military made a trip over the Rio Grande in 1943. They stopped at a restaurant called El Moderno located in the Mexican state of Coahuila during the cocktail hour for a small snack. The owner of the restaurant, known by his friends as Nacho, greeted them upon arrival. Since Nacho did not have anyone on staff in his kitchen at this hour, he prepared the snack for his guests by himself.

He began by throwing together a plate of sliced, fried corn tortillas and topped them with melted cheese, then added jalapeno slices to the top. The women devoured this food, and word quickly spread about the delicious dish known as Nacho’s Special.

At the Plaza Restaurant, we specialize in making fresh Tex-Mex food. Check out our Locations to find a restaurant near you and view our Menu to see the wide array of options we have available. We are family owned and operated and have been serving our guests quality Tex-Mex dishes since 1982.