Burrito? or Taco?
It's wrapped in a tortilla, it's scrambled eggs, ham, and cheese. Is it a breakfast taco, or a breakfast burrito? Your answer may say a lot about where you live.
The Burrito / Taco Isogloss
What's an "isogloss"? It's the geographic boundary between two different linguistic features, such as the boundary between "you guys" and "y'all." Our subject here is a little-known isogloss that's almost entirely in Texas: the "breakfast taco belt." This linguistic watershed trends northward across west Texas near towns like Monahans and Pecos, loops north to circle the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and then slides eastward toward Louisiana. It sort of disappears around Shreveport, then peters out in a southerly line toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Inside that invisible line; scrambled eggs ± potatoes ± sausage ± chorizo ± bacon ± chiles; all wrapped in a flour tortilla, is known as a "breakfast taco." No, not folded, wrapped. West and north of that line (east? who knows), the same delicacy is called a "breakfast burrito." From here in Houston, then, I bring you greetings from inside "the breakfast taco belt"; which also happens to be Tex-Mex country.
A Lifetime of Mexican Food?
I have a shameful secret I'll get off my chest right now: my first taste of Mexican food (a burrito) came in Indianapolis, Indiana, at a now-defunct restaurant named "Gringos." I remember thinking to myself, "Hey! this ain't half bad!"
I've come a long way, baby!
Since that first taste, I've downed thousands of portions of NewMex-Mex, Cal-Mex, Tex-Mex, Sonora-Mex and real honest-to-goodness Mexican in five different Estados Mexicanos. I spent three years living in Arizona, one in Wyoming, and twelve in Denver (with brief stints in Oklahoma and Louisiana) before a fifteen-year stretch in Texas
A while back, I had lunch with a long-time friend we'll call "Walt" in Dallas. Although born in the same hospital in Indiana as I (many, many years ago), Walt's lived in Texas for the last fifty years, less the three years we spent together at school in Arizona. Walt confessed that although he'd once considered Tex-Mex the be-all and end-all of Mexican food, he'd recently had a change of heart. It seemed he was spending a lot of time in New Mexico on business, and he'd seen the light! Now that I live in Texas, I'm here to tell you: Tex-Mex needs some work.
Wait! before you go straight to the "Back" button: as Lucy Ricardo would've said, "Lemme 'splain!" my rationale...
Your Queso Makes Me Queasy
No doubt about it: if you find a bowl of melted Velveeta on the table, you're eatin' Tex-Mex.
Queso is probably the quintessential Tex-Mex food; a greasy conglomeration of Velveeta cheese melted with a can of RoTel tomatoes with "chilies" (more that word later). High-end restaurants improve on the recipe by using some sort of watery cheddar, but those few are easily cancelled out by the millions of cardboard bins of "nachos" sold with a dollop of golden better-living-through-chemistry ladled on the top of a pile of stale chips. Ugh! Even worse are the homemade versions that involve not the Rotel, but instead a can of Hormel Chili (no beans, of course). It's a cardiologist's boat payment in a bowl!
Beware of hot salsa. No, not salsa picante, salsa caliente. There's a story (probably apocryphal) of the friends who stopped at a border-town restaurant for lunch. One wanted some salsa for his meal, but couldn't remember the right Spanish -- he asked for salsa de tomate caliente and the waitress brought him ketchup -- fresh from the microwave. I had lunch at a restaurant in central Texas not long ago, and they brought warmed salsa: water, tomato puree, and chopped onions. Maybe there was some cilantro, but there wasn't anything picante about it at all - just caliente.
What's with the Squeeze Margarine? Is there anywhere else on earth where restaurants put squeeze bottles of liquid margarine on the table? Their patrons eat their tortilla chips with a squirt of margarine and a shake of salt, perhaps because the warmed salsa's too hot. Some braver patrons eat their chips with a fifty-fifty mix of margarine and salsa. Talk about clogging the arteries! ADmittedly, this is more common in East Texas, and maybe it's not done anywhere else.
Meat, meat, meat, meat, meat. Most of Texas cuisine in general is about meat (see also bar-b-cue), and Tex-Mex is no exception. Anything green is usually on the side of the plate so you can scrape it off if you find such foodstuffs offensive. It's a little scary to be offered the option of chile con carne as a sauce on a "vegetarian" enchilada - but not uncommon in Tex-Mex restaurants.
Green salsa should be chile verde! Tex-Mex green salsa comes in two versions: tomatillo, a sort of sour-tasting concoction that's about as spicy as your average oatmeal, and "Hatch" salsa, which is mashed, roasted green chile; usually Anaheim or poblano and therefore not very hot.
Four Dishes Tex-Mex Gets Right
¡Sopa de Tortilla, por favor! A mainstay in many Tex-Mex restaurants, a good tortilla soup is sublime: a meal all by itself, this dish is a slightly spicy broth with a little meat (generally chicken) and flakes of cilantro floating in it, plus a pile of things to add on the accompanying plate: pencil-thin strips of crisp corn tortilla, slivers of jalapeño, minced onion, shredded cheese, maybe some avocado strips and a little lettuce. I think I'll go out and have a bowl now!
Credit: Daquella maneraMake a virtue out of poverty and do it right. Poor folk can only afford the cheapest cuts of meat, which are also the toughest. Some enterprising soul hit on marinating the meat in lime juice with a bit of salt, cutting it into strips, broiling them, and serving them with tortillas and garnish. The birth of fajitas! The name comes from the Spanish faja, "belt" or "girdle," and refers to the flank cut of meat from which they're usually made. Author's note: since fajita means "little belt," the idea of a shrimp fajita is still a bit strange...
Credit: rvacapinta / flickr.comYou say tamales, I say tamales. Everyone says tamales! The cornmeal/meat concoctions (the singular is tamal) wrapped in corn husks are sublime, and they're done well here. It's a Texas tradition to have tamales on Christmas, partially because making your own is such a family activity. Our local grocery sells tamales with all manner of fillings, and they freeze well. An even better source is the Latina ladies who sell them out of coolers at the local strip mall - some of the best I've ever had. Just don't buy any of the plastic-wrapped ones from the convenience store; it's way too hard to tell where the wrapping leaves off and the tamales begin.
How do you spell barbacoa? Also known as "Mexican Barbecue," it's shredded pork or beef that's been marinated in its own juices for hours on end. Too often it's heavily laden with chili powder and additional salt, but that's a matter of taste, I guess.
Some think they're Tex-Mex, but they're not!
Huevos rancheros, chiles rellenos, tacos, enchiladas, migas (they're called chilaquiles everywhere else), sopaipillas, burritos, the list goes on...
Five Things Tex-Mex Restaurants Almost Never Serve, but Should!
At the heart of non-Tex-Mex food...
Real chile verde. Green pork chile is made from roasted jalapeños and pork spare ribs, cooked for hours with onions and a few tomatoes, then thickened with flour. It does not contains tomatillos and vinegar.
Credit: stu_spivack / flickr.comIt's a meal in itself when served with some sour cream, shredded cheese, and flour tortillas. Or you can cook more peppers, and add some potatoes and carrots for a green pork chile stew (Pojoaque stew). A sublime! example of Santa Fe-style cooking.
Where's my posole? We had a get-together over the holidays one year. One friend-of-a-friend was a Mexican-American born in San Antonio; he'd never heard of posole! The hearty soup combines beef or pork chunks and hominy (I don't know, maybe forty?) in a spicy, thickened broth. It's similar to menudo, but without the icky-looking tripe. You'll get garnishes, too -- lettuce, cheese, chopped onion, even chopped radishes... Never mind the tortilla soup, bring me my posole!
Credit: bunchofpants / flickr.comI'd faint for flan! Got any idea how hard it is to find flan in Texas? This custard drizzled with caramelized sugar is a perfect ending to a spicy meal -- the sugar content kills all the heat from the capsaicin, but leaves the taste of the peppers there. Just can't find it, though. Especially in North Texas, your dessert just might be soft-serve ice cream (ask a Texan about a two-ice-cream-cone meal sometime).
How 'bout a chimichanga? This Arizona-Sonoran dish is a burrito (soft flour tortilla) briefly deep-fried to make the tortilla crispy but not long enough that everything gets greasy. Though they've been made "national" by a ding-dong chain, if you find one in a Tex-Mex restaurant, chances are it'll have been deep-fried to the point of being soaked in grease.
Veggies. I'm not a vegematic, as a vegan friend calls himself, but I also don't voluntarily consume mass quantities of meat; red, white, or blue. My favorite restaurant in Tucson, Arizona was a joint called Araneta's Mexico Inn. They served a burrito there that was incredible -- it had the requisite meat (chicken) and beans, but there was also lettuce! and radishes! and cheese! wrapped up in there! I don't honestly think I've ever seen a radish in a Tex-Mex restaurant.
A parting Salvo: The "I" or "E" Question
"Chili"with an I is a meat soup. Many a Yankee has been ridden out of town on a rail for suggesting that it have anything vegetable in it except for small amounts of onion, tomato and chili powder. Fothe sake of safety, I won't even say the B word!
"Chile" with an E is a fruit (yes, a fruit: there are seeds inside). A dish made of roasted chiles, with or without meat, is also known as chile in much of the southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, So-Cal). The correct spelling is enshrined in the Congressional Record, courtesy of former U. S. Senator Pete Domeneci (D-NM). It's also a country shaped vaguely like the fruit that bears its name.
"Chili powder" is ground up dried chiles mixed with large amounts of salt, some coriander, a little cumin, and turmeric.
"Chilli" or "chillies" is a crime against the English language, one of the few points on which Tex-Mex aficionados and Tex-Mex-phobes agree.
If you see this sign, pass on by!
Next time you find yourself hungry for something spicy, look elsewhere on the menu at your favorite Mexican restaurant, and try a non-Tex-Mex dish or two. Or, better yet, drive past that restaurant that advertises itself as "Tex-Mex" (especially if it calls itself a "Cantina")and try a different restaurant. Your taste buds might dance for joy, especially if they have flan!