What's the Difference Between Mexican Cuisine and Tex Mex?
Burritos, chimichangas, and fajitas are some of the most popular items on a Mexican restaurant menu in America. But do these cheesy, spicy comfort foods really have anything to do with the food of Mexico?
Fajitas can be traced back to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the multi-ingredient stuffed burrito was born in San Francisco, and the chimichanga, well you can thank Arizona for that deep-fried dish. All of these dishes have signature elements of Tex Mex food: hearty cheese, mild spice, and soft flour tortillas. While flour tortillas do exist in Mexico, especially in the Northern part of the country, corn tortillas are most common especially when it comes to street foods like tacos. When it comes to cheese, Mexican cuisine focuses on young cheeses like cotija, queso fresco, and chihuahua. Shredded Cheddar or Jack cheeses belong to the Tex Mex tradition.
Meals in Mexico focus on flavors of dried chilies, fresh garnishes like cilantro, and meat cooked skillfully on a grill or stewed and seasoned. Corn is an essential ingredient in Mexican cooking and is part of almost every dish whether served fresh, milled into a flour, or used as a thickener.
Many Tex Mex dishes take inspiration from authentic Mexican cuisine with roots that sometimes date all the way back to the Mayans. Here are some of those dishes in both their Tex Mex and Mexican renditions.
Queso Fundido - Mexican
Queso fundido (sometimes called Queso flameado) is not a dipping sauce for chips. It is usually made with a stretchy melting cheese like Chihuahua. Right before serving, the cheese is blended with a sauce usually made of grilled peppers and loose chorizo. Sometimes the mixture of sauce and cheese is flambéed (covered in a high alcohol spirit and then set a flame) tableside so the cheese is browned and bubbly and the meat sauce is left sizzling. In other instances the dish is broiled to achieve its molten texture.
Instead of accompanying tortilla chips as many queso dips do in the U.S., queso fundido is served with soft fresh corn tortillas. The traditional way to enjoy it is scooped up in a tortilla and eaten almost like a cheese-filled taco. Comforting and delicious!
Chile con Queso or Queso Dip - Tex Mex
Chile con Queso is a take on queso fundido served in American Tex-Mex restaurants. Instead of a stringy, melted cheese texture queso dip is a smooth silky dip that stays liquid even at room temperature. This consistency is achieved by blending an American cheese or evaporated milk, (used in this recipe) into the dip as well as hot peppers and meat like ground beef.
A take on Chile con Queso called "Texas Queso" is made with just two ingredients: a block of Velveeta cheese and a can of Ro-Tel Diced Tomatoes with Green Chiles. It's a tailgating staple in its eponymous state.
Nachos - Tex Mex
The favorite snack of sports bars, nachos, are definitely Tex Mex. Molten yellow cheese, seasoned ground beef, and tangy pickled jalapenos are all ingredients that are core to Tex Mex flavors and won't be found often, if at all in Mexico where chicken, pork, and fresh pepper reign.
Chilaquiles - Mexican
A traditional Mexican breakfast dish, Chilaquiles, has some similarities to American nachos. Corn tortillas (sometimes from last night's dinner) are cut into quarters and fried until crispy. They are then covered in a green salsa-like sauce and shredded chicken. Sometimes the chips, salsa, and chicken are simmered together until the chips soften a little, other times the dish is served while the chips are still crunchy.
Chilaquiles are often topped with crema, crumbled white Mexican cheese like cotija, and a fried egg. There are variations throughout the country including chilaquiles that use a red sauce instead of green, recipes that include beans, and those that are served with scrambled eggs instead of a fried egg.
Ground Beef Flour Tortilla Tacos - Tex Mex
Lettuce, diced tomato, and shredded hard cheese are the classic signifiers of a Tex Mex taco. If you look beyond the toppings to the taco shell itself, you'll usually find a hard corn shell or a soft flour tortilla, both Tex Mex creations.
One of the most common Tex Mex taco varieties is the ground beef taco spiced with "taco seasoning" which consists of cumin, chili powder, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and salt. While you may find cumin south of the border, it is not a core flavor to tacos like it is in the U.S. Ground beef is also not a traditional taco filling in Mexico where meats are grilled, stewed, or roasted.
Another sign of a Tex Mex taco is too many ingredients. If a meat taco comes with more than one or two garnishes, you're in Tex Mex territory.
Tacos Al Pastor - Mexican
In Mexico, tacos are all about carefully cooked and seasoned meat. Toppings will be simple like lettuce, raddish, or sliced onion so that the star of the show, the meat, shines. Fresh garnishes like bright salsa and cilantro are common while heavier ingredients like shredded cheeses are not.
One of the most popular taco styles in Mexico is an import from Lebanese immigrants. Roasted pork slow cooked on a rotating vertical spit is sliced directly onto a grilled corn tortilla and garnished with fresh cilantro and diced onions. This style of taco is also sometimes served with grilled pineapple.
Tacos Al Pastor is one of the most popular street-food dishes in Mexico city but this dish is made throughout the country. The "tacos al pastor" you see on menus in America often come with sauces, cheese, and other accompaniments like grilled peppers or sour cream which are not traditional.
If we know one thing, it's that an authentic Mexican dish will be made with corn tortillas instead of flour. That fact remains true when it comes to enchiladas. In Mexican enchiladas are made by first dipping a tortilla in a hot, spicy sauce which can be red or green. The hot sauce softens the tortilla so it is easy to roll around a filling like shredded chicken, which is common throughout Mexico.
The sauced, rolled, and filled tortillas are then placed on a plate and sprinkles with a queso fresco or other Mexican cheese and sometimes lettuce or fresh-minced onion.
Though the base technique and ingredients are the same there are countless variations on enchiladas throughout Mexico. The sauce will always be made with dried chilis but the type and spiciness of the chili varies. Sometimes the filling of the enchilada will contain additional seasoning, or cheese, while other recipes will have simple shredded chicken or ground pork.
Tex Mex enchiladas are made with flour tortillas and come doused in a melted cheese. Instead of first dipping a tortilla in sauce, Tex Mex dishes will often consist of tortillas wrapped around filling and that are covered completely in sauce and then baked. The sauce on a Tex Mex enchilada is usually less spicy than its Mexican inspiration and can include dairy like cream or cream cheese that are not traditional in the authentic dish. Ground beef is another key ingredient in many Tex Mex enchilada variations that is less common in Mexico.
"Mexican" Hot Chocolate
A warming winter drink, "Mexian" hot chocolate is typically a mug of standard hot chocolate with cinnamon, chili pepper powder and perhaps ground cayenne pepper, stirred in.
The idea of "Mexican chocolate" extends to many desserts like cookies and cakes but those sweets have origins in American kitchens, not in Mexico.
Historically, drinking chocolate was very important to the culture of the Mayans and Aztecs. The ancient drinks were much more bitter than what we think of as drinking chocolate today. They are believed to be made of a chocolate paste, thickened with corn or corn starch and flavored with ingredients like honey or peppers.