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  • Other Tex-Mex eateries have closed or been replaced by taquerias serving regional cuisine from Northern Mexico, although many still offer some Tex-Mex options.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.

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