I’LL TAKE SOME TEX WITH THAT MEX
“Tex-Mex is the American original cuisine,” says Robb Walsh, food historian, author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook, and owner of Houston’s Tex-Mex El Real. “It’s not messed-up American food by a bunch of dumb gringos.”
In fact, no no no. It is not. Tex-Mex, Robb told us, is an intriguing culinary mash-up that began as early as the 1600s. The Comanche and Apache Indians consumed prickly pear pads and prickly pear fruit, mesquite tree beans, pecans, onions, wild game and chilies. Then the Spanish came on board with tomatoes, potatoes, sugar cane, rice, squash, goats and beef. Then Franciscans imported chocolate, almonds, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, wheat and corn. In 1731, Canary Island immigrants landed in Bexar (now San Antonio), introducing cumin, coriander, saffron, ginger, various other chilies, cinnamon and paprika. Cowboy culture and chuckwagon cooking brought beef and the chili to center stage – and in 1893 – the first Tex-Mex “export” hit Chicago at the Columbian Exhibition stand where the piquant meaty stew struck a nerve with Americans and chili stands and chili joints started popping up around the U.S.
Tex-Mex – a uniquely American cuisine with robust culinary influences that some call, “the lovable ugly duckling.”
These many years later, Tex-Mex dishes such as tostadas, chilaquiles, chimichangas, fajitas, nachos, quesadillas, mole, flour tortillas, enchiladas have become a ubiquitous part of American cuisine. A cuisine rich not only with history – but with lard and such beloved processed foods as Velveeta. A cuisine that continues to evolve as modern-day palettes demand lighter fare to the traditionally heavy cuisine and such dishes as ceviche and grilled chicken salad sneak onto menus alongside huevos rancheros, chile relleno and tacos.
So, back to Robb Walsh at his Tex-Mex restaurant, El Real.
“What we try to do here is vintage Tex-Mex from the ‘30s and ‘40s,” he said, noting that his incredible refried beans boast a base of heirloom pork fat. And though the roots of Tex-Mex rest in San Antonio, Robb contends that now, “Houston is the place to eat in America.”
In fact, his puffy chicken tacos have been voted some of the best in the nation by The Daily Meal. Yes, they’re good, but I could lose my soul over their absolutely incredible margaritas (mine was Cuervo Gold, Cointreau, Orange Juice and simple syrup, on the rocks with salt).
Showing us around his large restaurant, which is a converted movie theater, Robb guides us through his high-tech kitchen, his ZZ Top collection, his dining room and bar, and his warm deck, where he stops to point out something he’s very proud of – and in such a charmingly Texan way.
“We believe that’s the largest Tex-Mex sign in the universe,” he glows, pointing to the marquee and three-story neon sign boasting “Tex-Mex.”