From Tex-Mex to Haute Cuisine: Snowbirds in Search of Mexican Memories

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 1.00.59 PMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

We snowbirds don’t really leave Mexico behind when we migrate north—we’re always somehow looking for a little taste of what we left behind. Didn’t Marcel Proust—author of Remembrance of Things Past—say that “the smell and the taste of things” involuntarily and unpredictably brings back memories as if they were real? How better to conjure up Mexico than in the scents and savor of its food!

The Mexican Restaurant Landscape in the U.S.

In the States, you’d think we’d have no trouble finding Mexico’s official “Intangible Cultural Treasure” to carry us through until our return. As of 2014, we had 54,000 Mexican restaurants—8% of all U.S. restaurants, over 1,000 for every last state in the union—and we spent $39 billion in those restaurants.

Basically, Mexican restaurants in the U.S. come in full service and limited service/selection. The full-service restaurants are considered “Casual Dining,” which includes places like Acapulco Restaurant y Cantina (“Flavors of the Mexican Riviera Infused with California Freshness”) or El Torito (“Our new menu redefines Mexican food.”) popular in the southwest. Denver’s El Jardin Mexican Restaurant, just named the Best Independent Restaurant in the U.S. by the Independent Restaurant Association, has been serving nachos, rellenitos (an eggroll creation by Chef Paul), chimichangas, grilled tacoritas (you have to read the description), deep-fried ice cream, and a dozen variations on the margarita for thirty years.

The limited-service shops include most of the “brand-name” chains, and are considered “Quick Service” (think Taco Bell), followed by 42% “Fast Casual,” that is, no table service but more fresh ingredients (e.g., Chipotle Mexican Grill). As of 2015, there were 6,407 Taco Bell “stores” in the U.S., followed in order by Chipotle (2,010), Qdoba Mexican Grill (641), Moe’s Southwest Grill (± 600) and Del Taco (547).


And what do the U.S. Mexican Restaurants serve?

So . . . no shortage of Mexican food in the U.S., BUT, much of it just isn’t Mexican—which is not to say that “Tex-Mex” or “Cal-Mex” food can’t be considered cuisines on their own, and obviously they’re much appreciated by legions of Americans. The ubiquitous nachos were only just barely “invented” in Mexico, to please the palates of American wives whose husband were stationed at Ford Duncan, located in Eagle Pass across the border from Piedras Negras, Coahuila.

Fajitas, with their flour tortillas, boast several stories of origin, but all are firmly set on the Texas side of the Rio Grande valley. Chile con carne, burritos, chimichangas? Born in the U.S.A. Margaritas? Born in the U.S.A. in the 1930s, and basically a sidecar with tequila—sidecars came from Paris in the 1920s. The U-shaped hard-shell taco? Probably first made in Texas, but definitely popularized in the 1950s by Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell, in an attempt to create a signature dish to compete with MacDonald’s.

Still not feeling that Proustian frisson . . .

Regional Mexican Cooking and Mexico’s Julia Child

Although Mexican restaurants, particularly those that cater to tourists, may serve Tex-Mex, Mexican food at its essence is regional, constituted by the foods indigenous to where it is created. When Diana Kennedy’s The Cuisines of Mexico hit bookstores in 1972, 11 years after Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, America was ready to learn about “real” Mexican food.

Kennedy spent her time visiting remote villages and painstakingly recording recipes, ingredients, and food preparation processes. Now in her 90s, the British ex-pat lives in Michoacán. She is quick to acknowledge that Mexico had its own Julia Child, and that indigenous ingredients and cooking technique weren’t quite as undocumented as she’d thought. According to Rick Bayless, another non-Mexican chef whose Mexican food is famous, Josefina Velázquez de León’s contribution was to “unify” Mexican cuisine so it could have a distinct national face, without losing the regional contributions.

Velázquez was born in Aguascalientes in 1899, and had an upper-class upbringing, but personal and family losses meant that, at a time when middle-class Mexican women didn’t work, thirty-something Velázquez was supporting herself writing cooking columns for upscale magazines. She opened her cooking school, the Academia Cocina de Velázquez León, at Calle Abraham Gonzalez 68 in Mexico City in 1933. She had cooking shows on radio and television. She wrote about 140 cookbooks, published them through her own company, and sold mail-order cookware, utensils, and food. Her first cookbook (1946) was Regional Dishes of the Mexican Republic; the next year, she published Mexican Cookbook Devoted to American Homes: Authentic Recipes from Every Region of the Mexican Republic.

There’s Good, Great, and Maybe Just Expensively Frou Frou

If you live in a place with a large Mexican population, you will always be able to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that brings back the posole at Los Gallos in La Crucecita,. As for more elaborate preparations, there’s a connection from Josefina to Diana to Rick, and a few names in between, that has produced some exceptional restaurants, places where the ingredients come first, flavors are carefully considered, and you always know the origins of your dish. Bayless operates six restaurants in the Chicago area (granted, one is in a Macy’s Food Court and another’s at the airport); Fontera and Topolobamba, his original outings, offer memorable food, food that makes you remember Mexico while your stomach smiles.

But still . . . the history of how one cuisine becomes beloved in another country is much more complicated than this. In the foodie world, Mexican cuisine has continued to evolve, and a couple of interesting, perhaps troubling, questions have arisen. Like Kennedy, Bayless traveled extensively throughout Mexico researching food, but he’s often tarred with the “cultural appropriation” accusation (how does a guy who appears to be as American as apple pie lay claim to be the expert on authentic Mexican food?). And on the other hand, once you get to the level of an appetizer of crispy octopus with hazelnut mole, pickled potatoes, and watercress, which will set you back $29 at Cosme in New York, have you left the world of “authentic” Mexican regional cooking behind? (Cosme is the brainchild of Enrique Olvera, who comes from Querétaro and owns Pujol in Mexico City.)

Food for thought—coming right up in the next Food issue of The Eye!