What Tex-Mex is...and is not
The word Tex-Mex is often used to refer to the Mexican food served north of the border. The truth is that Tex-Mex only refers to one branch of Mexican-American cooking, and does not even include all of Texas. When I wrote La cocina de la frontera, Mexican-American Cooking from the Southwest in 1994, the book focused on the different schools of north-of-the-border Mexican cooking found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. In the meantime, popular dishes from those cuisines have been adopted in areas outside the Southwest, immigrants from Mexico have brought new recipes to this country, and interior Mexican food has grown more popular. To some extent those factors have blurred both the regional and national aspects of Mexican cooking, but the distinctions still remain.
When used accurately, Tex-Mex defines the cooking in a wide swath from the South Texas Rio Grande Valley up to Dallas and into Oklahoma. (Much of the cooking of West Texas is strongly influenced by the cooking of New Mexico). In true Tex-Mex cooking, ancho chiles are predominant as are the beefy, cumin-laced chile gravies served on enchiladas. Other typical items include: the beef stew called carne guisada, relatively thick but light flour tortillas, and the fairly small tamales filled with pork chile or beans that came originally from Nuevo León. One seldom finds the sopaipillas of New Mexico in this area. Also rarely encountered are the huge burritos and chimichangas made with paper-thin flour tortillas, or the fresh green-corn tamales that are so popular in Arizona. Also missing are the plethora of tacos and other dishes made with fish found in California. On the other hand, the Tex-Mex specialties of carne guisada and puffy tacos are seldom found outside of Texas!
These differences are based on the origins of the original Mexican immigrants who altered their regional recipes to conform to the ingredients and kitchens they found in the U.S.. Tex-Mex came from the neighboring states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Nuevo León. California’s Mexican cooking came from Baja California and Sonora, as well as the original Spanish settlers. Arizona’s cuisine derives almost entirely from the state of Sonora. New Mexico’s Mexican cooking is unique in this country, in that it was developed the same way as in Mexico’s interior, where the cooking of the Spaniards mixed with that of the local Indians; in New Mexico’s case that meant mixing with tribes that included the Navajos and Pueblos.
One of the greatest pleasures for lovers of Mexican food is to drive through the southwest, sampling regional specialties at each stop.