5 Rules of Tex-Mex, According to The Homesick Texan

updated Dec 17, 2019
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(Image credit: Jan Cobb)

What’s not to love about Tex-Mex? The Lone Star State’s take on comfort food is saucy, cheesy, and all-around awesome — even if it is sometimes misunderstood. To help clear up what real Tex-Mex is and how to guarantee Tex-Mex success in your home kitchen, we reached out to Lisa Fain, aka The Homesick Texan.

The two-time cookbook author and James Beard Award-winning blogger is a seventh-generation Texan (even if she does call New York home) and expert on all things Tex-Mex. Here is what she had to say about this delicious, all-American cuisine.

1. Tex-Mex Isn’t Mexican.

“Tex-Mex gets a lot of derision because people think it’s trying to be Mexican food,” says Fain, but she is adamant that Tex-Mex isn’t Mexican. “It’s a regional cuisine. It was developed here, and created on our soil. It’s American.”

Of course there are some Mexican influences in Tex-Mex, but Fain believes the two really are very different. She describes pure Mexican food as elaborate and varied. By contrast, “Tex-Mex is, at heart, pretty simple,” she says. “It’s basically comfort food. It’s heavy, salty, cheesy, spicy.”

Still, some confusion is understandable: “Up until the 1980s, Tex-Mex restaurants were called ‘Mexican’ restaurants,” Fain explains. To distinguish Tex-Mex from true Mexican food, the latter was known as interior Mexican.

2. Chili gravy is the key to great Tex-Mex.

“The earliest people selling Tex-Mex — this is in the 1800s when it wasn’t called Tex-Mex — were a group of street vendors in San Antonio known as chili queens,” says Fain. The women would set up tables on the plaza and cook big pots of chili con carne — red chilis, preferably ancho or guajillo; beef, pork, or a combination; onion; spices; and some sort of fat, usually lard.

This dish, eaten on its own or as a sauce to cover, say, a plate of enchiladas, is the central pillar of Tex-Mex cuisine — and it’s essential to making successful Tex-Mex at home. “You want to have really good chili gravy and make it with whole chilies — not some jar of chili powder that’s been in your cabinet forever,” says Fain.

In Texas, every grocery store carries ancho chilis, and luckily, Fain observes, more and more stores nationwide are stocking them as well (try the international aisle). If your local supermarket doesn’t have anchos, you can also easily find them online.

3. For true Tex-Mex, don’t forget the lard.

“I think lard is very important,” Fain says of the traditional Tex-Mex ingredient. “It imparts this wonderful flavor.” Fain notes that a lot of Mexican grocery stores and even Whole Foods are selling really good-quality lard. She also suggests checking with your butcher. “If they don’t have lard, they’ll have back fat and you can render your own,” she says, adding, “The really tasty stuff, you can’t buy.”

Read More About Lard: Is Lard Truly the Comeback Fat?

4. Fish tacos aren’t really Tex-Mex.

Today, Tex-Mex menus include a lot more than enchiladas smothered in chili con carne. Chili con queso, fajitas, and breakfast tacos are the big three to join the Tex-Mex family. Fain says chili con queso became popular in the 1920s, while fajitas and breakfast tacos, both staples of the home Tex-Mex cook, didn’t become restaurant mainstays until the 1970s and 1980s.

Get the Recipe: Breakfast Tacos

Fish tacos entered onto the scene sometime in the 1990s. But, Fain says, fish tacos are really more California Mexican than Tex-Mex, which due to geography has always been dominated by meat rather than fish.

5. Yes, you can get good Tex-Mex outside of Texas.

“Texans always felt like Tex-Mex outside of Texas was bad,” observes Fain. “You could never put your finger on why it was so bad.” But lately, Fain has been seeing an explosion of Tex-Mex restaurants — and good ones! — outside of Texas.

A lot of them, she says, are run by Texans. In Atlanta, the Houston-born Ford Fry has Superica, and Briana Valdez’s HomeState is the place to go for Austin-style breakfast tacos.

As to why Tex-Mex (real non-fish taco Tex-Mex) is having a moment, Fain says, “I think people now, in general, are in search of authenticity, and Tex-Mex, in its pure state, is a very authentic cuisine. It harkens back to a simpler time. And it’s American — there’s pride in that.”