How Influential Was Houston In the Development of Mexican Food In the U.S.?

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Photo by mollyblock
The last Felix Mexican Restaurant closed in 2008.
Not influential enough, it would seem.

At our sister paper in Orange County, "Ask A Mexican" columnist Gustavo Arellano has compiled a list of the "most influential cities in the development of Mexican food in the United States." Spoiler alert: Dallas and San Antonio are on there, but not Houston.

While Arellano has compelling cases for both Dallas and San Antonio's inclusion on his list, I'll just leave Houston's defense in the capable hands of Tex-Mex expert Robb Walsh. In his feature "Combination Plates," Walsh wrote of Houston restaurateur Felix Tijerina:

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The late, great Felix Tijierna.
His mission was to help Mexican-Americans merge into the American mainstream as successfully as he had. His cooking style was not about bringing authentic Mexican flavors to Texas; it was about putting Anglos at ease with things Mexican. His floury chili gravy and fluffy chili con queso were not far from brown gravy and cheese dip, and the spicing of his sauces was non-confrontational to the delicate Anglo palate. Early Mexican restaurants like Felix's were among the first institutions where urban Anglos and Hispanics rubbed elbows. Tijerina's Americanized version of Mexican cooking was what brought the races together. And it was a triumph of diplomacy.

If Tijerina's contributions alone don't merit inclusion on Arellano's list, then consider these facts:

Houston has been a city of Mexican (and Tex-Mex restaurants) for over a century, when the Original Mexican Restaurant was opened in 1907 at 807 Fannin, although Walsh has found evidence that an even Mexican older restaurant was in operation until 1885. (The oldest Mexican restaurant in Galveston was the Original Mexican Cafe, opened in 1916.)

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Photo by Troy Fields
Ninfa's on Navigation still turns out hundreds of fajita dinners every week.
Fajitas were "invented" (although some say "popularized") in Houston at Ninfa's on Navigation. Wrote John Mariani in his 1991 book America Eats Out: "One Tex-Mex item that may someday rival the pizza as an extraordinarily successful ethnic dish is the fajita...introduced at Ninfa's in Houston on July 13, 1973, as tacos al carbon."

Chain restaurants from other cities don't necessarily do well in Houston (Chuy's notwithstanding), but we certainly love to export our own Tex-Mex chains: places like Pappasito's, Ninfa's, Taquerias Arandas and Lupe Tortilla all offer Houston's own Tex-Mex cuisine in dozens of other cities.

We like to eat out here, too: Houston is home to one of the greatest concentrations of restaurants per capita in the nation, with around 11,000 restaurants at last count, and Houstonians dine out more than in any other U.S. city.

Of those roughly 11,000 restaurants, close to 10 percent are Mexican or Tex-Mex. In the vast B4-U-Eat restaurant database, there are more than 1,000 listings for Mexican restaurants -- by far the most well-represented cuisine in the city. The second closest cuisine? American.

What's most interesting about Arellano's post, however, is the fact that it's not the cities' impact on Tex-Mex food specifically that he cites -- it's their impact on Mexican food as a whole. It's clear that Arellano considers Tex-Mex not as a red-headed stepchild of more "authentic" Mexican cuisine, a la Diana Kennedy, but as a full-fledged member of the family. Tex-Mex cuisine is autonomous to a large extent and certainly divergent -- these days -- from its roots, but still Mexican food at its core.

And on that point, at least, we can certainly agree.



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58 comments
lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

Tender and tasty flour tortillas can be used as a side bread for dipping, the main attraction to hold the contents of dinner, or just as a snack, warmed up and spread with soft creamy butter. I've even created spectacular tortilla desserts that my family clammers for! 

lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

.flour, fat, water, salt, and that's it! However, when these humble ingredients are mixed together in the proper way, suddenly they are transformed into a delicious soft and tender wrap for savory chicken, spicy beef, tender pork, or any type of meat, fish, vegetable or even fruit that you can think of!

lupe tortilla
lupe tortilla

.flour, fat, water, salt, and that's it! However, when these humble ingredients are mixed together in the proper way, suddenly they are transformed into a delicious soft and tender wrap for savory chicken, spicy beef, tender pork, or any type of meat, fish, vegetable or even fruit that you can think of!

mexican food
mexican food

The fat content in American Mexican food is also slightly higher. Being American Mexican, it also comes in a super-sized portion. This is another point that is different in authentic Mexican food,

mexican food
mexican food

The fat content in American Mexican food is also slightly higher. Being American Mexican, it also comes in a super-sized portion. This is another point that is different in authentic Mexican food,

ugh
ugh

what a miserable article (the original) and miserable set of comments (there and here.)

* mexicans and americans have been coexisting for longer than the past twenty or thirty years* "tex mex" as it is being referred to here is a regional variation based on other variations that have developed over time* a lot of people don't like it because of the white guilt another commenter mentioned* a lot of people don't like it because they are elitist, snobbish blowhards and they're desperate for everyone to see them as "cultured" by knowing about some other obscure regional food* mexico is a big place and has a whole shitload of its own variations

as for the list…  los angeles?  seriously?  there are spotty exceptions, but it's pretty known for having horrible mexican food.  dallas?  his main argument seems to be the cultural contribution of…  fritos.

either way, why does anyone care about that article?  it's yet another jerk off internet blogger trying to get attention for his new book by ruffling some feathers with easy pot-shots.

food dorks sitting around getting mad and arguing about "who is the most authentic" and "what is the most appropriate label" and "why your food sucks and my food is good" and all that totally subjective bullshit is just absolutely miserable.

you guys do that, i'll go eat food i like and that tastes good to me — i don't need validation or acceptance or an encyclopedia to do it.

Yessir
Yessir

i've found that tex mex is much spicier than real authentic mexican food.

H_e_x
H_e_x

Now I'm just hungry. 

Jay Francis
Jay Francis

People forget about another Houston variation on Tex-Mex. Very common when I was growing up. To my knowledge only Fiesta Loma Linda and Los Tios still do puffy, crispy tacos.

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/... 

Jill
Jill

I grew up on Felixs Mexican food and still miss their chile con queso. Food wasn't always the best but the service was always goood and the owner "Ms Felix" took a genuine interest in her longtime customers. Rarely see that anymore...

Neil
Neil

Tex mex is to fine Mexican cuisine as fast food is to a nice sit down restaurant. Dont get me wrong fast food is fine and can be quite tasty, and certainly has its place but its not the same thing. Ate at an amazing 4 star Mexican seafood in Cancun and another in Cozumel that made every restaurant Ive had in Houston pale in comparison.

ypman
ypman

As I have traveled and lived in other states I find the Mexican food people love is the Mexican food they grew up with.  Some of the worst I ever had was in Maine, yet people would wait in line for the place.  Walked out of place once many years ago in Tennessee it was so bad.  In many of those same places you could export what we consider to be our finest examples of Tex-Mex and I would bet within months they would be closed. 

Personally I do not need anyone from any other state telling me if our local cuisine is good or not.  If I like it that is all my taste buds are worried about.

Tomdabomb
Tomdabomb

Why worry about some clown in California deciding ANYthing about Mexican food?  There may be many Mexicans in CA, but there is very little in the way of decent Mexican food!

Aaron
Aaron

Not debating how Felix helped to popularize Mexican food or put Anglos at ease with such fare, but really, his food wasn't that good.  Might as well credit Taco Bell for developing Mexican food in the US then...

Matthew
Matthew

i don't really even bat an eye any more when houston gets snubbed by the rest of the nation's food cognoscenti. people outside of texas know dallas (tv show), san antonio (alamo), and austin (wannabe san francisco). houston has some vague connection to astronauts.

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

I think of Tex-Mex as a regional Mexican cuisine, that of Mexican immigrants who crossed the border into Texas.  It's most similar (not surprisingly) to the cuisine of Northern Mexico.  To consider it a "lesser" cuisine strikes me as a particularly silly example of White Guilt.

Contrasting Tex-Mex with "authentic" Mexican cuisine begs the question:  Which region of Mexico do you consider authentic?  Mexico is a big country, and the cuisines of its different regions are as varied as the cuisines of different parts of Italy or China.

Question: Is the tamale authentic?  This Tex-Mex staple dates back over a thousand years.

My guess is that most of the grief that Tex-Mex gets is caused by the difference between the traditional taco and the version that many Texans grew up eating.  But that's just a guess.

Bloom
Bloom

That Ask A Mexican column was irritating and irrelevant to Texans. And I'd love to hear his justification for keeping Houston off his list.

Fredericp
Fredericp

Robb Walsh writes of Felix: " His cooking style was not about bringing authentic Mexican flavors to Texas; it was about putting Anglos at ease with things Mexican. His floury chili gravy and fluffy chili con queso were not far from brown gravy and cheese dip, and the spicing of his sauces was non-confrontational to the delicate Anglo palate."

As an Anglo from the midwest living in Houston for the past 20 years, I can assure Robb that Felix accomplished his mission. Beyond his wildest dreams. So well in fact, that I don't really want Tex-Mex that much anymore.

Instead, I want the full flavors of Mexico. I want new places like La Fisheria to introduce me to the both the subtle and bracing flavors of Mexico. And bring me the ancient ones too --- from the indigenous Indians of Mexico. Bring it! Tex-Mex est mort

Justabob
Justabob

Amen. If you enjoy your meal, regardless of where it comes from, that's all that matters. Like beauty it's in the eye of the beholder. So tired of foodie snots looking down their noses.

Bruce R
Bruce R

 You are a food dork, engaging in exactly the sort of activity you claim to dislike. But thank you for enlightening us with your unpretentious wisdom and for keeping it real. 

Yessir
Yessir

forgive me for the redundancy of "real authentic". and in regard to what region i am referring to... Guanajuato.

Maggie_Mae
Maggie_Mae

El Real has puffy tacos.  And Teotihuacan has puffy tostados with chile con queso--a traditional "Tex-Mex" favorite in a restaurant that serves lots of Mexican specialties--but from the meat loving North or the seafood rich Coast.  

Here in Houston, we have a wide choice of Tex-Mex, Mex-Mex, etc.  If somebody only eats the stuff every few weeks, I can understand their snooty insistence on the latest hip place.  The rest of us enjoy the diversity...

Generally, I like Gustavo Arrellano's columns--but he's no Robb Walsh.  Whose latest book arrived yesterday!  (And he's no Katherine Shilcutt, either.)

Jay Francis
Jay Francis

You should definitely go to La Fisheria post haste. Order huachinango al guajillo. It's an off menu item that is superb.

Wyatt
Wyatt

This is a post about another post ranking American cities' influence on Mexican food. There are burritos and El Fenix on the list, for god's sake. No one's talking much about fine dining. Did you actually read the post, or just jump into commenting?

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

Have you never had a good fajita?  On par with any great cuisine.

What a silly statement.

Matthew
Matthew

more like tex mex:mex mex::american italian:italian italian

David Gutierrez
David Gutierrez

Truth! My friends who went to school here in Houston and then moved to (Northern) Cali are always starved for Mexican food when they come back to visit.

MadMac
MadMac

I kinda like that were not know for an over-blown soap opera, a local joke or a tourist trap. We get the right kinda folks here from across the country, the ones that come to work. The tourist can go to Dallas, Austin and SA.

MadMac
MadMac

No, I think the grief that Tex-Mex gets is caused more by chains like Monterey House, Pancho's, (cough~Ninfas~cough) and even Taco Bell. Don't get me started on Chuy's and Lupe Tortillas which, to me, is kissing cousins to Taco Cabana and Casa Ole.

And, really, how can we compete with those culinary cynosures: LA, New York, Orange County. Boy-howdie, that's what I think of when I think Mexican Food. Orange County.

ec
ec

I don't know any people from the border areas who put Wolf Brand chili on their enchiladas and tamales like El Real.  That's pretty Americanized to me. 

I do agree that cuisine varies widely throughout Mexico.  Which region are you claiming Tex Mex food originates?

Conatonc
Conatonc

Amen. I read it for a while in the Houston Press but eventually just stopped. Arellano has a terrible attitude and he seems to mistake "confrontational asshole" for "snarky comedian." It's not easy to do the kind of thing Dan Savage does and not come off like a huge jerk, and "Ask a Mexican" is a prime example of doing it wrong.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

From the comments section of Arellano's post (I believe this states his opinion on the topic pretty clearly): "Crediting Ninfa's for fajitas is like crediting Chipotle for the Mission-style burrito."

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

That is a fascinating perspective on the topic.. Was it that the Tex-Mex at Felix was so good that it made you want to explore Mexican food even further? Or was it that the Tex-Mex at Felix was so chili-and-cheese drenched that it made you want to seek out more "authentic" Mexican flavors?

ugh
ugh

thank you for your knee-jerk stock reply.  i'm sure it won't be the last i'll get.

Sherry Wallis
Sherry Wallis

Our daughter went to school in LA and now is in school in the Bay area...when she comes home, we have to go to at least three different Mex. food restaurants because there's nothing there like Houston's!

Bruce R
Bruce R

I like Chuy's.  Very good food.  Not sure why people claim to dislike it.  Too spicy for them?

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I really hope you were trying to be cute with the "Wolf Brand" comment.  If not, your palate is probably better suited to Taco Bell.

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

I'd like to hear Arellano elaborate further on that (before hating him).

Fredericp
Fredericp

What got me interested in Mexican food? First an exchange student from high school who didn't recognize as Mexican most of the stuff being served in my neighborhood Chicago restaurants. Then, Rick Bayless opening Frontera Grill in Chicago, with an alternative take on Mexican. Finally, coming here and appreciating great Tex-Mex, but tiring of it, after so many meals and so many pounds.

I mentioned La Fisheria because I just tried it and was impressed with it's coastal approach to food and feel. I could have mentioned Oceans which tried a similar thing and failed. Or Otilia's which has been going off-track forever. Hugo's of course. Even Marco Wiles tried a real Mex place that morphed into 1308 Cantina. There's big demand is all I'm saying.

Eric S
Eric S

Or was it just a ploy by someone doing PR for La Fisheria? If I were asked to list restaurants serving authentic/interior Mexican cuisine, La Fisheria is too new to come to mind readily. 

Bruce R
Bruce R

Wyatt, they probably took a look at you and figured you were some sort of service animal, and figured a dog was the best bet.  Hence the dog food. 

Wyatt
Wyatt

Every time I've eaten at the one on Westheimer it's tasted like over-salted dog food.

Bruce R
Bruce R

El Real's food is unedible?  That's unpossible.

ec
ec

Not trying to be cute.  Just being honest.  Wolf Brand chili is too salty to eat which makes El Real's food unedible since they pour it on just about everything.

Jensendville
Jensendville

what exactly are you 'on', fatty? marijuana? horse? the white angel?

Clumsy Plumsy
Clumsy Plumsy

At least he back pedaled a bit: "... this isn't about who has the better food. If that were the case, Houston in a landslide" (not sure if he's comparing us to San Antonio or Dallas there), "... and, really, it's just fajitas and Robb Walsh... definitely qualifying ustedes for Top 10 status—but not Top 5".

VMorrison
VMorrison

Cool thing about the guy at La Fisheria is he's drawing from many regions. You see an ingredient here that's favored in one region, a preparation there from another region; and simultaneously, he's going back and forth in time, using modern items interspersed with ingredients that the Mayans or Aztecs would have been eaten a few thousand years ago. And it tastes good, based on my two visits.

CarmellaB
CarmellaB

Yeah, Eric, totally got you. Because you haven't yet been to a place someone mentions that serves authentic/interior Mexican cuisine, it must be true of all Houstonians. Therefore it's some PR ploy, instead of an honest comment. Stick to eating, not typing, with that logic.

David Gutierrez
David Gutierrez

Yeah, Katherine! I've lived here all my life, born in the East End (third generation Texan), and what's now called "Tex-Mex" was "Mexican food" to me when I was growing up. I was confused the first time I went to Mexico and had what they eat.

Albert Nurick
Albert Nurick

Agreed.  Tex-Mex is the Mexican cuisine of OUR region.  So it's not surprising that it's the most popular one here.

MadMac
MadMac

Good laugh for a Tuesday.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Well, there's Otilia's on Long Point and Pico's Mex-Mex on Bellaire, although both are arguably less focused on "interior Mexican" than Hugo's. There are also places like 100% Taquito and Mexico's Deli that are less Tex-Mex but still fairly Americanized, if that makes sense.

I'm of the camp that believes the reason you can't find more "interior Mexican" than Tex-Mex in Houston is because so many of our Mexicans have been in Texas for generations and prefer/are accustomed to Tex-Mex, like my dad or my boyfriend. Sure, they like a nice ceviche now and then, but both would rather have enchiladas with chile gravy. So when new-to-the-U.S. Mexicans come to Houston, what do they cook/eat? The "Mexican" food that's already here: Tex-Mex.

Donald
Donald

The only place that comes to mind for "authentic/interior Mexican cuisine" is Hugo's and that's because it is drilled into us that they are the place for that type of food. Is it?

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