Food & Drink

The Surprising History of Tex-Mex, The Beloved Southwest Cuisine

The inside cover of ZZ Top's Tres Hombres features a tantilizing spread of Tex Mex food. Photo: Galen Scott

It’s the ultimate, carb-heavy comfort food. Whether you’re munching on nachos smothered in chili con carne or inhaling a chimichanga as big as your face, Tex-Mex cuisine can soothe what ails you.

These spicy, cheesy dishes didn’t just appear overnight. Like Texas itself, these recipes have evolved throughout the years. With a history full of legendary chili queens, innovative entrepreneurs and one disgruntled cookbook author, the scrumptious origins of Tex-Mex might surprise you.

Native Origins

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Flickr/stu_spivack

Before Lone Star flags waved proudly over the region, Texas was under Spanish rule. During that time, the local dishes were a swirl of native and Spanish cuisines. The natives frequently feasted on wild game while the Spaniards cooked recipes with pork and beef. However, what really changed the landscape of these meals couldn’t be hunted. The Spaniards’ introduction of wheat flour to the area is what ignited the new wave of flavors.

A tumultuous war and power struggle eventually forced Mexico away from Spain, and Texas soon sought its own independence. After a 9-year stint as its own state, Texas joined the U.S in 1845. With all of the new resources available to them, Texans were able to experiment with unusual ingredients such as cumin and cheddar cheese. Restaurants in the Rio Grande Valley started taking advantage of the new spices and foods available to them, and sizzling fajitas became dietary staples. The good news soon spread to San Antonio where these meals gained even larger fame.

Growth in San Antonio

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas
Flickr/Stuart Seeger

With their energy, charm and tantalizing meals, The Chili Queens of San Antonio ruled over Central Texas. Their pop-up restaurants full of tamales and chili con carne hummed with intricate conversation and lively music. Famous figures flocked to San Antonio just to experience this magnetic scene. Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, described the menu as “food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades.” Most visitors had never tasted spicy food before, and the sensation revved up their adrenaline. Word of mouth spread faster than the jalapeños’ heat and kept these restaurants in business until the 1940s.

While the Chili Queens reigned down south, The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair brought the scrumptious new flavors to the north. At the “San Antonio Chili Stand,” customers could purchase big bowls of piping hot stew full of peppers, meats, and beans.

Around the same time, chili powder became easily accessible for home cooks. When Willie Gebhardt started selling his hand-crafted blend of cumin, oregano and ground ancho chiles in San Antonio markets, the bags flew off the shelves. With the pre-packaged convenience, Tex-Mex flavors started infiltrating kitchens all over.

San Antonio also saw the first of what is now considered a Tex-Mex necessity: the combo plate. That’s right, this highly regarded menu element was once unheard of. Otis Farnsworth, owner of The Original Mexican Food Restaurant of San Antonio, had the genius idea of adding rice and beans to an entree and the concept took off. Known as “The Regular,” this dish soon became the most popular item on the menu.

Rise in Popularity

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Flickr/Earls37a

Chain restaurants started popping up in Dallas in the 1930s, and they hopped on Otis Farnsworth’s combo plate idea immediately. Places like El Chico and El Fenix served dollops of sour cream alongside their rice and beans, and the menu grew as time went on. Soon enough, nachos slipped into the Americanized Mexican food world.

According to legend, nachos entered the food scene when a group of American military wives stopped in at The Victory Club Restaurant in Coahuila, Mexico. They were greeted by Ignacio Anaya, also known by his friends as Nacho. The kitchen wasn’t open yet, but Anaya had to find a way to feed the hungry customers. In a moment of inspiration, Nacho concocted a genius recipe of cheese-coated tortilla chips covered with jalapeño peppers. The dish dazzled the diners so much that they brought the recipe back with them.

Even with the rising popularity of chili, nachos, and barbacoa, the term “Tex-Mex” still wasn’t part of 1960s vernacular. The term didn’t become popular until English author Diana Kennedy put her two cents in. In her book, Cuisines of Mexico, Kennedy poked at the differences between the meals served south and north of the border. According to her, the food found in Texas was an unsuccessful attempt at Mexican fare. Thinking it fake and low-brow, Kennedy aggressively insulted the Central Texas comfort food.

Her abrasive comment didn’t halt this cuisine’s popularity, however. In fact, Kennedy’s book helped bring Tex-Mex into the limelight. By differentiating between the two styles of cooking, she helped give this American-style Mexican food its own identity. Even if she considers it fake and inauthentic, you can’t deny the happiness a plate of nachos can bring.

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The Surprising History of Tex-Mex, The Beloved Southwest Cuisine