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How Tex-Mex is Different from Mexican Food

Wednesday, February 27th, 2019

Is there a difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican food?

The answer is a resounding YES!

The feisty and bold flavors of Tex-Mex make it a standout sub-type of Southwestern cuisine. From the fast food of Taco Bell to the dinner menus of nearly every Mexican restaurant, these ubiquitous dishes have quietly gained a permanent foothold in American culture. So it’s interesting that even though the two cuisines frequently share a menu, Tex-Mex is entirely different from traditional Mexican food!

Part of what makes Tex-Mex so unique that it’s a fusion of several cultural influences and the end result is a truly American regional style of cuisine. It was adapted from the recipes created by the Tejano people of south Texas. Interestingly enough, the Tejano people were not Mexican, but rather Native Americans who had been acculturated by the Spanish missionaries.

The Tejanos adapted the traditional Mexican dishes and added their own elements borrowed from Spain and traders from the Caribbean. This budding new cuisine was adopted by the vaqueros that arrived with the cattle industry, and from there it evolved into the gravy-soaked meals blanketed with shredded cheese that we know and love today.

But back to the original issue at hand: What is the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican food? To get a good idea of what makes Tex-Mex so different from traditional Mexican cuisine, take a look at these four definitive culinary elements that are surefire ways to identify which dish is which.

Four ways Tex-Mex is different from Mexican food

Flour or corn tortillas?

Flour tortillas are strictly Tex-Mex. You won’t find any flour tortillas in any dishes south of the border, only corn. The tortillas used in Tex-Mex are larger and are meant to be wrapped around a heap of assorted ingredients, while their counterparts are typically served on the side in generous stacks to be used akin to an edible fork.

Believe it or not, crunchy taco shells are a Tex-Mex creation. And not only that, the ground beef and toppings of lettuce and diced tomatoes are a Texan twist on the Mexican original. If you were to wander into a Tijuana cantina and order a plate of tacos, they’ll come bundled up in a soft tortilla with onions and cilantro as toppings.

Is there chili powder?

Cumin is responsible for that smoky, spicy kick you’ll find in a plate of chili con carne or chimichangas. If you have a bottle of chili powder or chili seasoning, then there’s definitely cumin used in it. This is a spice with a bold flavor profile and wields serious clout. 

This spice is used liberally in just about every Tex-Mex recipe, but you’ll be hard pressed to find even a faint whisper of it in traditional Mexican recipes. South of the border, you’ll find less use of spices and much more of fresh herbs such as oregano, tarragon, and espozle, to name a few.

Tex-Mex has beef 

If there’s beef for meat in your dish, it’s likely to be Tex-Mex. It makes sense, Texas has always had a bustling cattle industry. That means there’s always been an ample supply of beef to use as a culinary ingredient. In the early days of Texas, The vaqueros who came with the vast herds of cattle probably had more beef than they knew what to do with. So, naturally, they added heaping amounts of beef to the savory chili they adapted from the Tejanos. In contrast, traditional Mexican dishes usually feature chicken, pork, and even fish in the coastal areas. Why? Because–you guessed it–these meats are more easily available and a more common meat ingredient in traditional dishes.

More cheese, please!

If it doesn’t have cheese on it, it ain’t Tex-Mex! True fact. Most Mexican dishes found in a cocina will have surprisingly scanty amounts of this beloved ingredient. And the recipes that do call for cheese will more than likely refer to white cheese (or queso blanco).

The yellow and gooey goodness cheddar and Monterrey Jack cheese is totally unique to Tex-Mex. This edible melted gold is laced throughout the refried beans, shredded atop the enchiladas, and served as a bowl of queso. It is the gold standard and the ultimate hallmark of an authentic Tex-Mex dish. So, if there is ever a doubt in your mind as to whether the dish in front of you is Tex-Mex or Mexican, the answer is in the cheese.

Test your knowledge!

When you take the four elements outlined above and think about the differences each one entails, it’s much easier to see how Tex-Mex differs from traditional Mexican cuisine. While there are die-hard fans for each culinary style, both are distinct and notable in their own right. And knowing the key differences and the unique origins can serve to make a truly enjoyable dining experience.