The King of Tex-Mex Is Dead

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photo by Will van Overbeek
Third-generation Tex-Mex legend Matt Martinez, Jr. died last Friday at the age of 63. With his family, he owned Matt's Rancho Martinez and Matt's No Place restaurants in Dallas. He also had an interest in Matt's El Rancho, the legendary Austin Tex-Mex restaurant founded by his father in 1952. His grandfather, Delphino Martinez, immigrated from Mexico and made enough money selling tamales on Congress Avenue to open El Original, one of Austin's first Tex-Mex restaurants, in 1925.

"The King of Mexican Food," is written in neon on the sign in front of the family restaurant in Austin--it was Matt's Sr.'s nickname. In a joking reference to the sign, Matt Jr. was sometimes called "The King of Tex-Mex" because he was one of the first to embrace the term. In his first cookbook, Matt Martinez's Culinary Frontier, he described the exact moment his Tex-Mex conversion took place.

Matt Jr. was attending a cooking class taught by Englishwoman Diana Kennedy, who spoke derisively of Americanized Mexican food."She said she only did authentic Mexican food, not Tex-Mex," Martinez fumed in the introduction to his book. "I was so insulted." To defy Kennedy and those who belittled his heritage, he decided to abandon any claim to "authentic Mexican" and call everything he cooked Tex-Mex.

When I asked Matt Martinez Jr. about the encounter a few years later, he proudly pointed to the popularity of Tex-Mex in Paris, London, Amsterdam and across much of the rest of the world.

"I guess we showed her," he said.

-Robb Walsh


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