Aug 23, 2022 - World

The death of Tex-Mex as we know it

Illustration of a sad plate of nachos
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tex-Mex, one of America's most beloved cuisines, is at a crossroads: evolve or risk disappearing.

The big picture: Increased migration from Mexico to the U.S., more exposure to a diversity of Mexican cuisine and attacks from food critics have put pressure on Tex-Mex restaurants in the U.S. to add more options to their menus or close, though the food is still popular globally

What's happening: Iconic Tex-Mex spots, like San Antonio's Mexican Manhattan Restaurant and El Mirador, have closed in recent years (unrelated to the pandemic) after more than half a century in operation.

  • El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in Houston, which opened to fanfare in 2015 in a former theater and was a homage to the historic Felix Restaurant, closed in 2019 following a partnership split.
  • Other Tex-Mex eateries have closed or been replaced by taquerias serving regional cuisine from Northern Mexico, although many still offer some Tex-Mex options.

Meanwhile, the popularity of food shows like "Heavenly Bites: Mexico" on Netflix has exposed new regional specialties to the public.

  • Birria, a traditional dish from the Mexican state of Jalisco, has displaced carne asada in tacos across the Southwest.
  • Cal-Mex, a Californian take on Mexican food including giant, mission-style burritos, is also gaining popularity.
How Tex-Mex found its place as American cuisine

Tex-Mex was developed by poor Mexican Americans amid racial segregation in San Antonio in the 1880s.

  • The lack of food supply chains from Mexico and increased patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border forced Mexican Americans to develop their own style using whatever ingredients they could find, often from German immigrants and African Americans.
  • Yellow cheese, not typically used in most Mexican cuisine at the time, was cheap and made it into dishes like enchiladas.
  • The breakfast taco was created for workers who needed a quick bite.

What they're saying: "Tex-Mex remains working-class food at its essence," said Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles Times columnist and author of the 2012 book, "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America."

  • Arellano predicted the death of Tex-Mex food in his book but now says it will withstand change.

Yes, but: José R. Ralat, the taco editor at Texas Monthly, told Axios he believes Tex-Mex is thriving in spite of all the changes around the food.

  • "It is reconnecting with its roots because there is now a greater appreciation for fresher ingredients as well as a renewed availability of once inaccessible ingredients," Ralat said.
  • It is possible that within a few decades Tex-Mex will be unrecognizable to us today — and still be good, he added.
  • "These are the foods that our children will eat, that our grandchildren will eat," he said.

Subscribe to Axios Latino to get vital news about Latinos and Latin America, delivered to your inbox on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Go deeper