Tex-Mex gets a bad rap from certain self-described purists. It’s blamed for all the lousy Mexican fast food chains. People say that it’s just bastardized northern Mexico food with too much of everything from sour cream and cheese to chiles and tomatoes. Robb Walsh, a Texas food authority and author of The Hot Sauce Cookbook, defines Tex-Mex as a (complicated) American regional cuisine.

Francis Lam: Is Tex-Mex a legitimate American regional cuisine?

Robb Walsh
Robb Walsh (Rufus Lovett)

Robb Walsh: Of course it is, but it's kind of complicated. The regional cuisine that is now called Tex-Mex has been here in Texas for a long time, dating all the way back to the Spanish missions, but we always called it Mexican food. The line in the sand was drawn by Diana Kennedy in her book Cuisines of Mexico when she said that so-called Mexican food north of the border isn't really Mexican food. Everybody suddenly had to reconsider what Mexican food really was.

But eventually you have to admit, OK, if Mexicans want to distinguish between their cuisine and their culture and that cuisine north of the border, then we have to accept that Tex-Mex isn't really Mexican food.

So the next bit of logic is, if it isn't really Mexican food, what is Tex-Mex? The answer has to be an American regional cuisine. I'm very comfortable with that, I'm proud of it.

FL: A lot of people -- to be completely frank, myself included for a long time -- think that when you walk into any old Mexican restaurant and see under enchiladas or tacos the choice of beef, chicken, or cheese, that means you're not eating “real” Mexican food. That means you're looking at Tex-Mex. What are the important dishes of Tex-Mex?

RW: Let me turn the tables on you for a second. Have you spent much time in Mexico?

FL: I haven't.

RW: When you get to Mexico, you start looking for this real Mexican cuisine that everybody is talking about. You find Nescafe coffee for breakfast and Bimbo sweet rolls instead of the egg tacos you're used to. You realize that what we call authentic Mexican food is really a couple of cherry-picked dishes from some great cuisines that are spread all over the country.

Tex-Mex is a Texas version of Mexican food and it's a commercial cuisine for the most part. It mostly exists in restaurants, but it was adapted from Tejano home cooking. The Spanish pulled out of Texas in the late 1700s and left behind Spanish-speaking mission Indians who became known as the Tejanos. They came from Native American stock and they were really not Mexicans; they had never lived in Mexico. They had been acculturated by the Spanish missionaries here in Texas.

Tex-Mex cuisine is descended from their tradition, and also from a lot of Canary Islanders who were brought to San Antonio by the Spanish to try to expand the colonization of Texas. The Canary Islanders brought with them a Berber flavor signature -- Moroccan food. There was a lot of cumin, garlic and chili, and those flavors, which are really dominant in chili con carne, became the flavor signature of Tex-Mex. It's very different from Mexican food. Diana Kennedy is prone to say that Tex-Mex includes way too much cumin. But if you compare it to Arab food, you suddenly understand where that flavor signature comes from.

FL: Aside from chili con carne, what are other dishes where we might see that kind of influence? What are the other dishes of Tex-Mex cuisine?

RW: To stick with chili con carne for just a second, Raul Molina Jr. is a Tex-Mex entrepreneur who grew up in an apartment above his family’s restaurant where his mom was the cook, his father was the waiter, and he was the busboy. He told me that in the early days of Tex-Mex, it was basically just short-ordered cooking plus chili con carne. He said people came in, his mom had a big pot of chili con carne, she'd make scrambled eggs with chili, she'd make steak with chili, she'd make a hamburger with chili, she'd make just about anything and add chili and that became Tex-Mex.

Molina told me that after Glen Bell invented Taco Bell out in San Bernadino, Calif., and started to come across the country with his preformed taco shells, that was when Tex-Mex restaurants first tried making preformed taco shells. I blame the fast food influence on Tex-Mex entirely on California.

Mexican Shrimp Cocktail
Robb Walsh's recipe: Mexican Shrimp Cocktail

FL: My first experience with great Tex-Mex food was a recommendation of yours, Amaya's Taco Village in Austin,Texas. I was blown away by the fajita tacos and how the tortillas were clearly freshly made, but also a little bit fried. I know there are these things called puffy tacos. Can you tell me about these different variations of tacos?

RW: Back in the days before the preformed taco shell, tacos were always fried to order. When you buy a package of tortillas in the supermarket, they're masa discs that have been cooked. A fresh masa tortilla that hasn't been cooked yet, when dropped into a deep fryer, will puff up. If you hold it in a taco -- a U-shaped -- holder, it makes what you call a puffy taco shell. These are absolutely delicious; they're crispy on the outside, kind of soft in the middle and they're just fabulous.

A variation that was especially famous in Austin was called the crispy taco. It was slightly cooked and then deep-fried so it had a crispy outside, a soft interior and didn't puff up quite as much. That's the tradition which Amaya's Taco Village continues.

FL: I need to get back down there.

Francis Lam

Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.