Up until 1836, Texas was part of Mexico. Native foods of Mexico greatly influenced the cuisine of the budding republic. Americans made their contributions too.
Purists may argue that Tex-Mex isn't "real" Mexican food, but it is instead truly Texan. The most well-known state food of Texas is might be the BBQ brisket, but we argue that the true honors go to chili con carne, fajitas, puffy tacos, and nachos.
Order a combination plate with rice and beans. Did you know that the combo plate is a Tex-Mex invention? So are the frozen margarita, Fritos snack chips, and the delicious fat bomb known as queso.
We know it all sounds delicioso. Read on to learn more about the history of Mexican food in Grapevine Texas.
Mexican Food in Grapevine Texas
The history of Mexican food in Grapevine Texas is closely tied to the history of the state. Spain invaded Mexico in the early 16th century and set up colonies all over the area. Spain would overlay the native Mayan and Incan culture with their own foods and culture.
Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, followed by Texas declaring independence from Mexico in 1836. New flavors, spices, and foods from the United States would follow Anglo settlers and became a part of the emerging Tejano cuisine.
When Texas joined the United States in 1845, cheddar cheese, beef, wheat, and cumin became part of the traditional Mexican recipes cooked in Texas homes. Tex-Mex flour tortillas, nachos, chili con carne, cheese enchiladas, and crunchy tacos all incorporated the new flavors.
Tex-Mex, America's First Fusion Food
In time, new recipes entered restaurants and gained popularity as Mexican food. So if the Tex Mex cuisine isn't the Ezy-Cheez covered, deep-fried tortilla with rice and beans plate of legend, what is it?
The Spanish Mexican Tejanos and cowboy vaqueros gave rise to ranchero cuisine. This was hearty, rustic fare heavy on local chiles, pecans, and beans. Long cooking stews and flour tortillas are part of the markers for the food style.
In the late 19th century, 300 miles south of Grapevine, the city of San Antonio was a booming stagecoach and railroad town. Famous for its open-air food stalls, exotic food like tamales and chili con carne were served to the likes of writer O. Henry and journalist Edward King.
Outward and northwards from San Antonio, Tejano foods and outdoor restaurant traditions mixed with Irish, English and German immigrant traditions, each lending distinct flavors. Regional variations became highly debated and guarded.
Texas inventions like sizzling fajitas, cheese enchiladas, frozen margaritas, queso, breakfast tacos, Frito pie, barbacoa, and puffy tacos speak to both their Mexican roots and Texas upbringing.
Maligned Mexican by an Englishwoman
Chili was the first manifestation of Tex Mex, but how did we get from the simple cowboy bowl of red to a whole cuisine? Tex Mex isn't inauthentic Mexican food. It is a fusion of Texas ingredients with food preparation from many cultures.
Culinary anthropologist and cookbook author Diana Kennedy pointed her perfectly polished finger at the humble enchilada combo plate. She pronounced it "so-called" Mexican cuisine. To her, the true flavors of Mexico are ONLY found in points south of the border. Her cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, was staggeringly influential to the public opinion.
New York Times food critic Craig Claibourne agreed to her arbitrary elimination of Tex Mex as a legitimate food family. To the two of them, the comfort food of the Texas Mexican kitchen was too accessible and American to be authentically Mexican.
Tex Mex Cuisine Timeline
Historian Robb Walsh, author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos provides this basic timeline.
1875: The Texas and Mexican Railway (Tex Mex) is built to connect the Mexican border at Laredo with the Texas seaport of Corpus Christi.
The 1880s: Chili Queens gain worldwide attention.
1893: Tex-Mex food first gains popularity in the Midwest when a San Antonio chili stand is set up at the Chicago World's Fair.
1899: German immigrant William Gebhardt patents the first line of chili powders to be sold in the United States. Gebhardt later writes the first Mexican cookbook in the U.S. (1911)
1900: the Original Mexican Restaurant of San Antonio opens, offering the first authentic Mexican dishes in the United States. They also invent the combo platter.
1910-1930: Mexican immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution sell tamales and chili gravy from carts-from San Antonio to as far away as Chicago or New Orleans.
1932: Texan C.E. Doolin invents the Frito
1939: The first recipe for Queso made with Velveeta is published in Lubbock
1941: First use of the phrase Tex-Mex appears in Time magazine, 'Tex-Mex Spanish, that half-English half-Spanish patois of the border...'
1962: The first Taco Bell fast food restaurant is opened by Glen Bell.
1973: The term "Tex-Mex" is used as a food description for the first time in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
1978: Henry Lopez in San Antonio lays claim to the invention of the puffy taco
Of course, Texans call this kind of food "Mexican". The rest of the world calls it Tex Mex and delicious.
Chili Con Carne, the First Tex Mex Made Famous
Chili con carne originated in the 1800s along the Texas cattle trails. Range cooks would commonly prepare a pot of fresh beef, dried chiles, salt and scavenged wild seasonings. With the historic cattle trails nearby, who is to say that American Mexican food in Grapevine, Texas didn't originate right here?
In 1977, the 65th Texas Legislature declared stewed beef and chile peppers as the official state dish. This humble hodgepodge popularized by the "chili queens" of San Antonio was served by Tejanas (Texan women of Mexican heritage.) Contrary to popular belief, it does not contain:
Or for that matter, parsley, bay leaf, or, heaven forbid, carrots, peas, and potatoes.
A bowl of red peppers served with fresh corn tortillas, tamales, or enchiladas graced many 19th-century ranch kitchens. Its true place was in the hands of the women serving food from the open air stalls of San Antonio.
The often cited introduction of the Cincinnati chili parlor in 1922 has nothing to do with a proper chili con carne. The chili recipe beloved by generations of Cincinnati natives was invented by a couple of Macedonians!
Make Mine a Combo Plate
The origins of the choice of an entree served with beans, rice, and a sprinkle of cheese melted under the broiler emerged in the early 1900s. Owner Otis Farnsworth, of The Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio, created the combo plate with beans, rice, and an entree. He called it "The Regular" and priced it at 15 cents.
Restaurants in Texas started copycatting his one-price concept. The 1930's brought the first Mexican food chains to the business. El Chico and El Fenix were the first Tex Mex (although they called themselves "Spanish") chains ever. They used the combo plate and also popularized ordering by number.
This wouldn't be the first or last innovation in Tex Mex.
Call It Fajitas
The origins of fajitas are rooted in the cattle drives that moved beef cattle from ranch to market. The vaqueros would be paid in meat, often the bits and scraps the butchers didn't want. This included the tough skirt, head, and offal.
These cheap bits were cooked into Mexican dishes we recognize today, like menudo (tripe stew), tacos de cabeza (head tacos) and arrachera (fajitas). It would take until 1969 for fajitas to be elevated to Tex Mex cuisine. Now fajitas are made from every kind of meat and are almost universally cut into thin strips, marinated and quickly cooked on a very hot griddle.
You can blame Hyatt Regency chef George Weidmann for elevating the humble skirt steak to the world stage. He "refined" the dish and added it to the menu. His restaurant quickly became one of the most popular in the whole chain.
Hotel management quickly cloned off menus and sent Chef George around the world for technical assistance. You can now order fajitas (made of sirloin!) in Abu Dhabi, Istanbul or Shanghai.
Nachos Because There isn't Anyone in the Kitchen
Crispy fried tortillas topped with melted cheese and jalapeno slices are now a signature dish for many restaurants. Add some meat, sour cream, olives or even some fusion Korean kimchi. You can find nachos at any ballpark, movie theater or even the mall.
The legend of nachos belongs to Ignacio Anaya, maitre d' of the Victory Club. Ignacio, called "Nacho" was alone in the closed restaurant when a group of military wives from Texas stopped for a snack. Nacho improvised with what he could find in the kitchen.
He served up a dish of fried corn chips, melted cheese, and jalapenos. The ladies were delighted. Word spread and "Nachos Special" entered the lexicon.
Tacos Fried Crisp
Ask a Spaniard for a taco and you will be handed a bar of soap to clean out your mouth! A taco is a swear word! However, in the 1800's a Mexican silver miner would use a small wedge of paper rolled with gunpowder called a taco to blast rock. In a culinary sense, the first tacos were called tacos de mineros, "miner's tacos".
The taco's first appearance in print was a newspaper published in 1905. The Mexican version is a fresh corn tortilla rolled around whatever little meat or beans Mama had on hand. A little cilantro, onion or radish finished it off.
It was something to hand to hungry children while making supper. The Tex Mex taco of ground beef, iceberg lettuce, tomato and a sprinkle of cheddar cheese just substitutes the inexpensive bits of the US food processing industry for the cow offal, fresh cheese, and herbs familiar south of the border.
As for the crispy taco shell, fresh tortillas made daily at home were supplanted by mass-produced tortillas in the US. A fresh tortilla gets stale within hours. A deep fried tortilla uses up the stale leftovers.
Thanks to Glen Bell and Taco Bell restaurants, the crispy pre-made shell that lasts months was popularized. You can now enjoy tacos in the International Space Station, although a fresh, hot puffy taco is known to be what some returning astronauts crave.
Chile con Queso
Homesick Texans yearn for the gooey joy of queso. But the earliest print reference the heartwarming power of queso is in the 1816 Mexican novel, El Periquillo Sarniento (The Mangy Parrot) by Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi.
Chile con queso appears in literature, but contemporary recipes of the day name the dish something else. Chiles Poblanos, for example, from an 1887 cookbook, was made up of the familiar sounding poblano chiles, cheese, and tomatoes.
The phrase "chile con queso" appears in an American magazine in 1896. The recipe, Chiles Verdes con Queso, was a mixture of long green chiles, tomatoes, and cheese. It was intended to be a side dish of chilies in cheese like a spicy mac and cheese dish.
This would evolve into the glory we know as queso in short order. 1908 found recipes for "Mexican rarebit" a play on the Welsh rarebit. Other recipes called the dish "Mexican fondue". In the early 1920's, the recipe morphed into the familiar American easy-melt cheese, tomatoes, chiles and cayenne.
In 1938, the appearance of the definitive Velveeta queso recipe made all other renditions of queso pale in comparison. Nowadays, a Tex Mex restaurant can be judged by the quality of their queso.
Eating History in Grapevine
After two hundred years of mixing cultures and flavors, Mexican food in Grapevine Texas has come into its own. You can enjoy all the comforts of the queso, tacos, chili or fajitas in true Tex Mex style or elevated to fine dining.
Join us for a taste of history!