Tex-Mex isn’t Mexican food, it’s a regional version of what (we think) Mexican food should be. So what is the difference between tex mex and mexican food? When it comes to "Mexican food," around here most people will tell you it can be found on just about any street in the Greater Houston area. But this simply isn't true. What you can find is Tex-Mex; a variation on Mexican food that has been around since the early 20th century. The first Mexican restaurant in Houston was the "Original Mexican Restaurant" at 807 Fannin, which was opened in 1907 by George Caldwell. Interestingly, Caldwell was neither Mexican nor from Mexico, rather he was an Anglo from San Antonio.
And by all accounts what he served was certainly not authentic Mexican dishes, but instead dishes that may have been based on some Mexican recipes, then altered to accommodate both the locally available ingredients and the American palate. There are many examples of Mexican dishes that have been tailored to the American palate. Some prime examples include tacos, enchiladas, and quesadillas. While all of these dishes bear the same name in Mexico and the U.S., the manner in which they are prepared and served is quite different. The main difference is that these dishes oftentimes vary in preparation and presentation even within Mexico – by region and/or by state.
Three major differences between authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine are the meats, the cheeses and the toppings on dishes that are used. Tex-Mex uses ground beef abundantly, where in Mexico, ground beef is rarely used in its staple dishes. A wide variety of proteins are used in Mexico – beef, pork, goat, and chicken are most often used in place of ground meat. Most commonly, these meats are stewed, grilled, or boiled and shredded. Seafood and chorizo are also prominent proteins in Mexican dishes. Most Tex-Mex dishes are topped or stuffed with melted cheddar or other yellow cheeses, while in Mexico, yellow cheese is practically unseen and fresh white cheese is the norm. There are many types of white cheeses used, each with its own unique flavor profile, including queso blanco, queso fresco, queso asadero, queso Oaxaca, queso panela, requeson, and queso chihuaha. And when it comes to the toppings put on Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes, there are a world of differences. For example, Tex-Mex dishes are frequently topped with shredded lettuce, sour cream, queso, and gravy. Says Carla Soriano, local freelance food blogger of Mexican heritage, “sure, lettuce is many times used in Mexican food, but not as obsessively as in Tex Mex cuisine. And in Mexico, crema is used rather than sour cream – while crema is in essence the same as sour cream, it’s much less sour and more thin. Additionally, the runny stuff known in Tex Mex cuisine as ‘gravy’ is flat out non-existent in Mexico.”
So what do the people of Mexico use to top their dishes? Fresh lime juice, raw diced onion, grilled onions, fresh cilantro, sliced avocados, guacamole, and home-made salsa are just some of the most common toppings. Not all of these toppings are used simultaneously, but rather in different combinations depending on the dish. Tex Mex style salsa is made from a various blends of jalapeños, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and sometimes even vinegar whereas in Mexico you just might be made to feel alien if you ask for salsa. And just try to get a bowl of chile con queso down in Mexico; they don’t know what that is either.
If you've had an enchilada and any of a number of Tex-Mex restaurants around the greater Houston area, you've probably enjoyed tortillas covered in an enchilada sauce or the ever-present gravy and filled with large quantities of ground beef and cheese, which have been popped in the oven to bake. But in Mexico, enchiladas are a whole different story. Mexican enchiladas are made with tortillas which (most times) are prepared by being dipped in enchilada sauce, then filled with only a small amount of meat, fried in a skillet and garnished with a bit of white cheese. Totally different, right?
Another obvious difference is the tacos. The crispy, folded corn tortilla shells used for tacos everywhere from Taco Bell to Pappasitos are hard to find in Mexico. The typical tacos of Mexican street fare, restaurants and home cooked meals are almost always served in freshly handmade, soft corn tortillas. These soft corn tortillas are usually holding a small amount of one of the aforementioned proteins, rather than hamburger, as they are typically served in the United States.
Carla shares that one dish that is completely misunderstood in the states is the quesadilla. “Readers may find it disheartening to hear what quesadillas really are. Quesadillas are simply warmed tortillas with melted white cheese inside. Some choose to top their quesadillas with pico de gallo, fresh salsa, or even a bit of guacamole, but that’s it! Mexican quesadillas contain no beef or chicken fajitas, and they are certainly not served with lettuce, tomato, or sour cream on top. And when you do add ingredients to the quesadilla, then it’s no longer a quesadilla. For instance, if you add ham (as is often done) to a quesadilla, then you are producing a sincronizada. If you add meat – pastor, marinated, shaved pork meat roasted on a spit is a popular addition, then the items name changes to a ‘gringa’.”
When laid out side by side, it's easy to see how authentic Mexican foods are typically far healthier than Tex-Mex. And before the Spaniards had their influence, bringing oils and a taste for fattier meats with them from Spain, the health-factor was even greater. But when you consider that authentic Mexican dishes rely on leaner meats, less cheeses, sauces crafted from fresh vegetables instead of creams and gravies and above all, smaller portions - it's clear the American influence has vastly altered Mexican food.
There are several different Mexican style restaurants in The Woodlands, from Taco Bell to Yucatan Taco Stand, from Mi Cocina to Patio's Latin and several in between. Having a hard time deciding on which one you prefer? Have you been to all of them yet? We have reviewed several and still counting so the next time you are in the mood for enchiladas or fajitas, check our reviews of Mexican Style Restaurants in The Woodlands and be sure to let us know what YOU think!
Cantina de Tejas
Cantina de Tejas Revisited
El Bosque Shenandoah
Chuy's Mexican Restaurant
El Chaparro Tex Mex
Herreras Mexican Kitchen
Los Arcos Mexican Restaurant
Los Cucos Mexican Restaurant
Mi Cocina Mexican
Mi Cocina Mexican Restaurant
Pallotta's Mexican Restaurant
Patio's Latin Cuisine
Rico's Grill Magnolia Review
Rico's Grill Willis Review
Tex Mex versus Mexican
Yucatan Taco Stand