For some complicated reason, I find myself attempting to describe the difference between authentic Mexican food and what is served here in the Rio Grande Valley at local establishments as Mexican food.

Because I am not a food critic, or a culinary guru, I like to read what experts write on the subject to shed light on the characteristics that mark the difference between these two gastronomic traditions.

I was raised in northern Mexico, so that disqualifies me from being an authentic Mexican according to Mexicans living in the interior. But I have traveled extensively all over Mexico, and I can truly say I feel like a stranger in my own country when it comes to regional gastronomy, for every Mexican state has its own unique traditions that set them apart from the rest. But one thing I’ve always known is  that the “Mexican” food  found in the Valley was somewhat inspired by authentic versions, but was far from being the real thing.  So what should we call the food served in the Valley? We cannot dismiss it as a “bastardized northern Mexico food with too much of everything” as some say, but define it as Robb Walsh does.

According to this interview I found online, Robb Walsh, author of The Hot Sauce Cookbook, explains why Tex-Mex is a legitimate American cuisine. He said it has been in Texas for a long time, dating all the way back to the Spanish missions, but we always called it Mexican food.  He refers to Diana Kennedy’s book Cuisines of Mexico where she writes about what most of us deduce; that so-called Mexican food north of the border is not really Mexican food.

Tacos de Cabrito. A Northern Mexico specialty served at Arturos in Weslaco.

Tex-Mex is a Texas version of Mexican food and it’s a commercial cuisine for the most part. It mostly exists in restaurants, but it was adapted from Tejano home cooking. The Spanish pulled out of Texas in the late 1700s and left behind Spanish-speaking mission Indians who became known as the Tejanos. They came from Native American stock and they were really not Mexicans; they had never lived in Mexico. They had been acculturated by the Spanish missionaries here in Texas.

Tex-Mex cuisine is descended from their tradition, and also from a lot of Canary Islanders who were brought to San Antonio by the Spanish to try to expand the colonization of Texas. The Canary Islanders brought with them a Berber flavor signature — Moroccan food. There was a lot of cumin, garlic and chili, and those flavors, which are really dominant in chili con carne, became the flavor signature of Tex-Mex. It’s very different from Mexican food. Diana Kennedy is prone to say that Tex-Mex includes way too much cumin. But if you compare it to Arab food, you suddenly understand where that flavor signature comes from. The Splendid Table interview by Francis Lam.

La Cubana. A Mexican torta served at Gazpacho’s in Brownsville.

So that explains the cumin! And the hard shells, and the ground beef, sour cream, chili sauce, and American cheese. It’s Tex-Mex! But it is also important to note that the Valley boasts a good number of authentic Mexican food restaurants that have opened since the influx of Mexican Nationals  investing in the Valley began. But even those have somewhat adapted dishes to cater to  the local culture.  Mi Puebito and Gazpacho’s in Brownsville. Garabatos in Harlingen, Arturo’s in Weslaco and in Nuevo Progreso, El Pastor in McAllen, and La Fogata in Mission are among the restaurants where people find authentic Mexican dishes.

My tourism driven mind, blows away with thoughts of the millions of dollars that  pour into the economy of San Antonio thanks to the “Mexican” food  their restaurants sell for almost 50% more than Valley restaurants. We have not been able to sell the south like they have – to most travelers, San Antonio is South Texas! The Valley has missed on the opportunity of expanding and promoting the South Texas experience. We even have the real river!

I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the Valley had implemented tourism infrastructure back in the ‘40s & ‘50s along the banks of the Rio Grande – hotels, restaurants, boat rides and the like – and heavily promoted it like San Antonio did.  Would it have detoured illegals from crossing here?  Well, that’s another story for another time.  But people still visit the Valley, and food will always be a driving force for tourism, so why not promote our incredible variety of original and affordable Tex-Mex restaurants?

Until next time