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What is Tex-Mex?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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Tex-Mex is a popular cuisine that originated from a mix of authentic Mexican and Spanish dishes prepared Texas-style. Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont of Eating in America describe Tex-Mex as a "native foreign food." The term "Tex-Mex" first appears in print in the 1940s, though it was no doubt used for some time prior. According to historians, it commonly described anything that was influenced by or derived from both Texas and Mexico, and did not necessarily have a positive connotation. Tex-Mex was neither authentically Mexican nor Texan.

In 1972, food aficionado Diana Kennedy published The Cuisines of Mexico, wherein she differentiated between truly authentic Mexican dishes and the kind of fare served on the Anglo side of the border. The Americanized food included Mexican versions of traditional Texas fare like chili and steak strips or fajitas. Other dishes like nachos and chimichangas were also created to cater to American tastes. Kennedy referred to the Americanized dishes as Tex-Mex.

Though American restaurateurs might not initially have appreciated the tag, it turned out to be a boon. Internationally, people found the term to be both catchy and evocative. Dining out for Tex-Mex brought to mind an atmosphere that combined the Wild West popularized by American movies with the romantically Latin setting of a friendly cantina. Combination platters of enchiladas, tacos, rice and beans; chili con carne, fajitas, and Margaritas became the standard stuff of Tex-Mex restaurants that sprang up first in Paris, then all over Europe.

The burrito, which means "little burro," is another example of a traditional Mexican food with an American twist. Food historians tell us that "refried beans" are not the authentic "well fried" beans of Mexican tradition, and other spices and ingredients like beef and pork are Anglo additions. Andrew F. Smith of Tacos, Enchiladas and Refried Beans: The Invention of Mexican-American Cookery reports the burrito was first sold in Los Angeles at the El Cholo Spanish Café in the 1930s, and spread Southwest some twenty years later, eventually going worldwide. Although the Americanized burrito might have originated closer to Los Angeles than Texas, today any Americanized Mexican food is generally referred to as Tex-Mex.

Tex-Mex restaurants can be found nearly everywhere but are especially popular throughout the Southwest in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Most Tex-Mex restaurants are decorated in the red, green and gold colors of the Mexican culture, and booths and tables are often made of old-style wood. With casual, friendly atmospheres, great food and prices that won't break the bank, it's easy to see why Tex-Mex is so popular. If you've never tried this delicious, hearty fare, you're in for a big treat.

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Discussion Comments

By anon334273 — On May 11, 2013

Yes, there is a difference between so-called "authentic" Mexican food and "Tex-Mex". However, Diana Kennedy didn't coin the term. The reason I know this is that I grew up in Texas and the difference was well known here long before Ms. Kennedy wrote a book (presumably for non-Texans?) about it. The term Tex-Mex has been around for at least six decades.

It, much less commonly, may refer to a dialect of Spanish which is sometimes called "border-lingo" or "border Spanish", which differs noticeably from the Spanish typically spoken in, say, Mexico City.

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