"Tex-Mex" and Mexican Food Menu Items, Explained

Tex-Mex cuisine, at least in the northern half of the state, starts with enchiladas. When I was a little kid growing up, enchiladas were always rolled by hand, and made fresh in the restaurant. Even today, having enchiladas on a menu is a signifier that this is a classy, sit-down, often family owned ( non-chain) restaurant  (which is why some of the more upscale fast food joints have added them to their menus). The basic enchiladas to be found when I was a kid, in the ‘60’s, were cheese and beef, and a traditional mom-and-pop restaurant serves these to this day. A cheese enchilada contains shredded cheddar cheese or a blend of cheddar with Mexican white cheese, chopped raw onions, and is rolled up inside a corn tortilla, which to a purist, has been dipped in hot cooking oil before this is all assembled, blotted dry with a paper towel, then placed in a casserole dish, side by side, covered in sauce, then more shredded cheese, and baked till hot and bubbly.  Beef enchiladas are the same thing, filled with sautéed ground seasoned beef in a vaguely chili flavored sauce.  These are covered in your choice of sauces, and you can mix ‘em up: queso (cheese), carne (meat), tomatillo, green chile, “red sauce” (theoretically, red pepper sauce, but more often than not, enchilada sauce from a can). The typical combo is a cheese interior with meat sauce chili style gravy, and a beef interior with a cheese, chili, or red sauce gravy. A little bit of shredded cheese, chopped cilantro or chopped peppers sprinkled on top are often the garnish. Oddly, an enchilada with both a cheese filling and a cheese sauce is called a cheese taco, not an enchilada. I do not know why. I have never known anyone to add salsa or hot sauce to their enchilada; they are always eaten as served. (However, you are welcome to swirl around on your plate any odds and ends of whatever you have left, and eat them all together.) I do have one finicky friend who always asks for the onions in his cheese enchiladas to be removed, as if that alone is going to make the difference in having bad breath: what about the cumin, the garlic, the jalapenos, the spices, bro? I think it’s just a way to ensure that his food is freshly made, or at least tampered with.

Enchiladas are always rolled fairly tight, like a big fat Cuban cigar, never gaping, like a cannoli. The end is not tucked under (see burrito, below). Really old-school restaurants will also offer you an option of flat enchiladas, with all the same ingredients layered flat like lasagna. While enchiladas are at least theoretically baked en mass, (perhaps ahead of time) they seem to have the additional requirement that when two of them are put on your plate in the restaurant’s kitchen, along with refritos (refried beans, pre-cooked pinto beans, mushed with lard into sort of a “bean porridge”) and rice, that the enchiladas be refreshed with more sauce and cheese and reheated; which is why your waiter will always say, “Hot plate! Hot plate!” as he brings your food to the table. The plate containing this wonderful gooey mess has been run under some sort of broiler, en mass.

Globalization changes everything, even Tex-Mex menus, and as a result we now have influences from New Mexico, California, and Mexican from Mexico cuisines. New Mexico Mex  food offers a chicken, bean or beef filling with a Hatch (type of chile) green chile gravy. California Mex  food also does a chicken version, (note: chicken is cooked beforehand, this is a great way to use leftovers) often with sour cream or spinach. Enchiladas aren’t as prevalent in Mex-Mex culture – they are mostly a gringo (white person/culture) Texican or what we call “Del Norte” (north of the Rio Grande) invention- but I have seen and eaten versions with a variety of fillings, most notably grilled cabrito (goat meat). There is a popular home-made Tex-Mex dish, called King Ranch Casserole, which is a staple of church and Junior League pot-luck dinners.  It is a type of flat enchilada casserole made with chicken; you can find recipes all over the web. It is considered a mark of high social standing to make and serve this, much like one’s choice of chicken salad or devilled eggs in the deep South. I always make one with turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving.
Note that enchiladas are always made with corn tortillas. They are not, as I have seen in some places, a lump of chopped up chicken, rolled and served dry (no sauce, no cheese) in a flour tortilla. Some authentic home-made enchiladas are “fluffed” with rice or potatoes, but if I got this in a restaurant, I’d complain.

I see a lot of recipes on the web that for some reason, have olives on them. I love Mediterranean food, especially Italian, Greek and Spanish   ....   and that's where I eat my olives. Note to self: Leave the olives off. They would taste hideous on Mexican food .(and I am a fan of olives.)

Tacos, including fajitas
If the enchilada is a signifier of an upscale dining place, tacos are clearly the hand –held portable fast food workhorse of Tex-Mex cuisine, much like burgers or a slice of pizza in other locales. Tacos come in dozens of varieties: The basic, old-school version is the standard sautéed ground beef seasoned meat inside a crispy corn tortilla that has been previously fried (is now cooled, drained and less greasy) and is shaped like a “U”. It is topped with thinly shredded lettuce and cheese at a minimum but often includes chopped raw tomatoes, hot sauce, jalapenos, pico de gallo, or other items. This was the taco of my childhood.

Somewhere in the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s, a restaurant in Houston named Ninfa’s invented or brought to public attention “tacos al carbon” or fajitas (same thing), using marinated grilled skirt steak, sliced into thin strips, served sizzling hot in an iron skillet, along with a stack of warmed soft flour tortillas. You took some bits of the meat and veggies and built your own soft flour taco at the table. This a “del Norte” adaptation of the classic cabrito taco of south Texas/Mexico- only now it is marinated sliced beef. (Note: flour tortillas are like bagels in this one regard: you buy them half- cooked. Just as a bagel must be toasted or else you have a mouthful of semi-raw dough, if you do not finish cooking a flour tortilla before you serve it/eat it, you also have a mouth full of semi-raw dough. The way to cook them is to lay them on a skillet for a few minutes,  like making a grilled cheese sandwich, heat on med, turning frequently, till they just begin to puff up. Pull them off then and serve. If you wait till the entire thing is puffed, they will be too tough.)The marinating liquid for the meat in fajitas often included tequila, garlic, cumin, spices, cilantro and who knows what else. Later, chicken fajitas were added as an option. Fajita garnishes include sautéed green chilies and onions for a start (this arrives on the sizzling skillet, sautéed along with the meat) as well as other add-ons (lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, salsa or hot sauce, jalapenos, etc) of your choice. The fajita craze swept the country and now you can find them anywhere, from a roadside diner on the New Jersey Turnpike (I told my dining partner not to order them, but he wouldn’t listen. They were sliced bits of pot roast, with carrots, in a pita bread.), to a chain restaurant in Boise that makes them in some corporate kitchen in China, ships them frozen, reheats them locally, and poof! Out they come, exactly the same, no matter where you are.

A welcome addition to the taco category is “street tacos”, brought to us from our neighboring country to the south.  An authentic street taco is served on a white corn tortilla that is much smaller than the typical size – typically one person eats 4 to 6 street tacos, where they might eat only 1-2 regular Tex Mex crispy beef tacos. You could call them the sliders of the taco world. The tortilla has been steamed so that it is soft and warm and moist. Street tacos offer a diverse variety of meats, marinated and cooked in a variety of pungent, spicy sauces. There are fillings from different cuts of beef and pork, some are grilled, others are boiled with seasonings. My faves tend towards the jalapeno pork variety. Ask a native what’s the best or to translate for you; you never know what might be in them! The typical veggie condiments are chopped onions and cilantro.

Fish tacos originated in California, Miami and Baja. You can find them in Texas in upscale fusion restaurants, but they are not native to our area. The best version of these I’ve ever had have been in Key West.

Note to self: Leave the olives off. 

Breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros, and migas
Mexican breakfast items are among the greatest inventions known to man.  Something magical happens when you put salsa and cheese on scrambled eggs, and you can do this rolled up in a warm tortilla and call it a breakfast taco or burrito, or with salty crunchy tortilla strips and chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage) on a plate with a side of refried beans and call it migas, or with fried eggs and seasoned potatoes and call it huevos rancheros. Throw in a garnish of bacon or chorizo, and you are in heaven.

You say Chalupa, I say Tostada
All my life I have been asking if anyone can tell me the difference between a chalupa and a tostada, and no one ever has. So I’m going out on a limb here and making a bold pronouncement:  these are two different words for the same thing. Never once in 50+ years have I had one that was different from the following:  flat crispy (having previously been fried or baked) corn tortilla, layered with refritos, thinly sliced/shredded iceberg lettuce, and shredded cheddar or American cheese. It’s up to you to add more veggie garnish (pico de gallo, sliced jalapenos), hot sauce and salsa, if you want.

There are all kinds of recipes out there for this item, with additions of shredded beef, chicken, or even seafood. I prefer just the veggie option, its sort of a taco salad, in a flat presentation. But that's just me. It has a lighter, less greasy taste which balances the heavier meat and cheese flavors of the other dishes.

Note to self: No olives here.

Melted cheese, either as a dip, or poured over tortilla chips. (Not Doritos.) Some old school restaurants will pour it over an entire crisp tortilla, leaving it to you to break it up into pieces and eat. The best versions have a blend of American and Mexican cheeses. The easy-to-make- at home queso involves Velveeta+ Rotel, which you can spruce up with seasoned sautéed ground beef, or a can of chili.

Nachos are an under-appreciated menu item and so easy to make as a quick meal for yourself.  You can go with just cheese but that’s pretty boring.  Evenly spread a layer of tortilla chips on a plate, sprinkle with shredded cheese, and microwave a minute or two (depending on the strength of your microwave) till the cheese is melted.  The trick is to get the chips evenly spread, about 2 or 3 deep but no more and no less, not too compact but with some air pockets. You want enough so that they catch all the drippings and are not soggy, but not so many that the bottom layer chips are dry.

The best nachos from a restaurant or made at home have at least 3 components: meat, beans of some sort, and cheese. Sprinkle these items on top of your tortilla chips. (Not Doritos.) I used to hand spread bean dip or refritos onto each one of the tortilla chips, then place each one on the plate, then sprinkle all with shredded cheese and other toppings, then microwave. This tastes awesome, especially when served with salsa, jalapenos, and other accouterments. But often I was so hungry and hasty that I would break the tortilla chips while trying to do this, and so I adapted to the way they do it in restaurants:  Spread out your chips (not Doritos.) on the plate. Take a can of beans- pinto or black bean (do NOT use BBQ beans, white beans, cannellini beans, pork n beans, any kind of flavored bean such as maple, bacon, hickory smoke, honey BBQ, etc) and first, drain off the liquid in the sink, then sprinkle/pour the beans on  top of the chips. You can next add seasoned ground taco meat, chili, roast or grilled chicken- whatever you have, chopped up and pre-cooked. Great use for leftovers. Cover liberally with cheese and microwave till melted. Add garnish: sour cream, pico de gallo, jalapenos, salsa, etc.

Note to self: Sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado are left off until AFTER these are cooked. Leave the olives off. All of these recipes call for tortilla chips, made from tortillas. It's easy to make your own if you can find tortillas: just bake in an oven till crisp. But avoid Doritos at all costs. Too many chemicals, too many faux flavors, too thick and gummy, too salty,too....too....too.....

Burritos (and chimichangas)
A burrito is another staple of the make it and take it fast food culture. Oddly, when I was a kid in Texas in the ‘60’s, there weren’t any burritos around ….. I think they were imported from California.  (The fact that they are always made from an extra large flour tortilla would seem to support this theory. True Texas dishes always use corn tortillas.) Burritos have been here long enough that I can’t imagine Tex-Mex cuisine without them……take a large heated flour tortilla and lay it out flat. Draw a line down the middle of it with your choice of filling (shredded beef, taco meat, refritos, black beans, pinto beans, fajita meat, chicken, all pre-cooked) and garnish (sour cream, salsa, pico de gallo, jalapenos, shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped raw tomatoes, etc.) Add a layer of shredded cheese. Now you fold it: one side, left or right, over, then the bottom comes up, like a baby’s diaper, then the remaining side. It’s like swaddling a baby. A good burrito is a fat burrito. It never has an exterior sauce. All the interior ingredients blend together and taste great. A chimichanga is a burrito that has been deep fried, and is now served on a plate with cheese and/or beef sauce on top. I always suspect these are leftover burritos from the previous day, recooked and sauced so you don’t notice that it is stale or wilting or soggy, and I avoid eating them.

Note to self: Continue to leave the olives off. 

A quesadilla is like a Tex-Mex grilled cheese sandwich. You take two flour tortillas and place one on a flat griddle or skillet, layer with shredded cheese in the middle, another tortilla on top, cook over medium heat till golden brown and crispy and the cheese is melted.  Flip it periodically so it cooks on both sides- I like to use a heavy flat plan lid, to sort of press it down, like a Panini maker. Viola! Cut into quarters, dip into salsa, and you have a quick snack. You can add pre-cooked chicken, taco meat, veggies to make it more substantial to eat.

Note to self: No olives here, either.

Borracho beans
Sort of a cross between a side dish and a hearty bean soup, borracho beans are often served as a little “extra”, a lagniappe, with your meal at some older family owned Tex-Mex restaurants.  This is a shame because they are awesome and I could eat them every day for the rest of my life. Prepared correctly, this is a rich, smokey, nuanced dish. I keep trying to make them myself at home and haven’t yet gotten the recipe just right. Borracho beans are a spicy pinto bean soup (low on the liquid, heavy on the bean, that’s why I call it a hybrid dish) with some combination of ham/lard/bacon, onions, cilantro and jalapenos – that much I can see when I eat them. The magic percentages to get the flavor just right, I have yet to discover. Several recipes online suggest the secret ingredient is beer.

Taquitos, flautas, pizza-tacos, taco-burritos, gorditas, and other oddities
You will find the most bizarre items at your local Taco Bell these days. I suspect this is for two reasons: 1)They feel like they have to constantly come up with something  “new” and “improved” to lure people in, and 2)I suspect this is a way to creatively use up left overs. Got a bunch of withered tortillas and some dry old taco meat lying around? Roll it up, fry it, and you have a taquito.  Just as the French turn day old bread into croutons and French toast, and Wendy’s turns their old hamburger meat into Wendy’s chili, these “new” fast food creations are creative ways to use up old ingredients. Anything wrapped inside something else would be your first clue, anything that is made then deep fried, especially if then covered with a sauce. Just say "no,thanks".

Guacamole aka guac, guac-o

Avoid the electric green  plastic-y goo that is sold in a tub in grocery stores. Read the ingredients on one of those tubs if you don’t believe me. Real guacamole is so easy to make we should all strive to put the purveyor of the faux guacamole out of business. Take a ripe avocado (should be slightly squeezable, like a young woman’s breast. Check the stem-pop it off- it should not be brown.), slice it in half lengthwise. Stick your sharp knife firmly in the pit/seed, if it pulls out cleanly, your avocado is ripe. If not, just deal with it. The flesh should be scooped out with a spoon, don’t waste time wrestling with it trying to slice or peel it. Dump the avocado flesh (meat, fruit) into a bowl. Add about two heaping spoons of the salsa of your choice. Mash with a sturdy whisk, or a fork, or a potato masher and Voila! If you don’t have salsa, you can chop up tomatoes; squeeze in a wee bit of lime juice and a tiny bit of salt. Taste as you go and for heavens’ sake, don’t over salt it. Eat it up quickly because it doesn’t keep and turns brown fast.

Chili and chile
Technically speaking, chili (a Texas dish consisting of beef, tomato sauce, and dry ground pepper spices, served like a stew but more solid, not as watery) is not considered a Tex-Mex item. It gets it's own entire category. Why, I am not sure. Sometimes this very same chili, however, is served as a sauce or gravy, on top of true Tex-Mex dishes such as enchiladas. Frito Pie is a bowl of chili with shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled on top, and either scooped out with or mixed in with Fritos corn chips.(not Doritos.) Chopped raw onions are optional. I'm not going to get into the argument of with or without beans - that's a post for another day.

Chile is the New Mexico Spanish word for the many different varieties of peppers, (not black ground pepper, but bell, jalapeno, poblano, banana, Serrano, ghost, Hatch, habanero, and more) that are harvested and served fresh chopped up (in pico de gallo), cooked (in chile rellenos), dry and powdered (in red chile spice/sauce). 

Tamales are a labor-intensive food, nearly always hand-made (rare to find in restaurants) and associated culturally with the Christmas holidays. As a kid, I hated them, because the only ones I had ever tasted came from a can and were served in my elementary school cafeteria often cold or not completely cooked. They were greasy and gross, swimming in a slimy sauce. I've recently re-discovered tamales, as my Hispanic students have shared them with me - ones that are made at home by grandma and the entire family, as a special holiday (or late fall, that's when you get the corn husks) treat. Good tamales are soft but firm and not greasy at all. They are actually kind of dry in a way that is hard to explain, but tasty. Has a good "mouth feel". To eat one, you first peel off the outer corn husk wrapper (used to shape it while cooking, and hold it all together until you are ready to eat it), as any Texan knows. This is why it was such a gaff when former President George H.W. Bush (who claims he is from Texas) ate one incorrectly in public once, struggling to cut/gnaw through the tough, fibrous corn husk that, once cooked, has a consistency of cardboard. Any true Texan would know better.

Inside, the tamale is a bundle of mas (an exterior layer of course ground cornmeal, similar to polenta or grits, a little bit of water, and seasonings, worked together with your fingers) that is rolled out, much like the sticky rice used when making sushi; and a filling, one of several types of spicy-slightly yet not too moist-meat mixture. This is then rolled up, just like making sushi, and instead of seaweed as a base layer that holds it all together, is rolled in a dried (not fresh) corn husk (made pliable by soaking in water, first) , before it is cooked. Making tamales is an all day thing, but the reward is that they freeze and reheat well, and you can serve them, once re-heated, stored n a crock pot (no sauce) or low temp oven, for an event that lasts a long time, like an all day party. Keep them in their corn husk wrapper and they wont dry out. The meat filling comes in many varieties; my fave is jalapeno pork.

Like any ethnic cuisine, Tex-Mex makes a variety of dishes made from the same dozen basic ingredients. Just as Italian food uses pasta, tomato sauce, cheese in most of their dishes, Tex-Mex makes use of what is locally grown in a variety of ways. I can, and I do, frequently eat something Tex-mex nearly every day. but I don't eat the same thing at every meal: I might eat breakfast tacos, a quesadilla for lunch, and fajitas for dinner. Bon appetit! 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for that, really helpful as on my way to San Diego from the UK this summer