Welcome to the 14th Annual 'Austin Chronicle' Hot Sauce Festival
We were teenagers, whizzing down East Avenue on a sultry summer night a little over 30 years ago when my housemate, Mel Layton, ordered the driver to pull over at El Matamoros, or El Mat, as the Tex-Mex mecca was affectionately known. Mel ran inside and quickly returned with a large Styrofoam cup and a little bag of tortilla chips.
"What's in the cup?" the driver asked, assuming Mel had scored a beer.
"Hot sauce," Mel responded. From my perch in the back seat, I remember thinking that there weren't nearly enough chips in the little bag for all that hot sauce. But Mel didn't need any stinking chips. She pulled the cover off the Styrofoam cup, brought it to her lips, and started gulping the stuff. Mel, who grew up in Corpus Christi, didn't just love hot sauce; it was like a fuel for her, something she had to have to get through the summer.
The last I heard, Mel Layton was a movie executive in Hollywood. El Matamoros went out of business. East Avenue is the I-35 access road. But hot sauce is still around.
Tex-Mex is making a major comeback, too. At least, that's what I claim in The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos (read an excerpt). The term was coined as an insult 30 years ago, but Tex-Mex restaurants in Paris and such Austin restaurants as Chuy's helped make the moniker hip. In France, they think of Tex-Mex as outlaw cuisine, the stuff that James Dean ate. (In fact, while Giant was being shot in Marfa, Dean did eat a lot of Tex-Mex at the Old Borunda Cafe.)
After years of worshipping at the altar of authentic Mexican food, Austinites are rediscovering Tex-Mex, too. As noted in these pages (see The Puffy Taco Invasion, April 30) Tex-Mex traditions like San Antonio's puffy tacos are now the rage in Austin. Of course, the truth is, what we call puffy tacos are as old as the hills. In fact, it was El Matamoros on East Avenue that introduced "crispy tacos" which are made the same way as puffy tacos to Austin back in the 1950s.
LBJ and Lady Bird celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary at El Matamoros, which was the swankiest Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin at the time. El Mat was owned by the Lopez family, who still operate the Old Mexico restaurant in Corpus Christi. The puffy taco tradition is still alive down there. In fact, their "Crazy Taco," a puffy taco shell piled high with ground meat, tomatoes, and chopped iceberg, and subsequently drenched in queso, is a classic of the genre.
El Patio's chalupa, long a favorite of Lady Bird Johnson, is a variation on the puffy taco, too. If you haven't had one lately, I recommend you go try one and then compare it to the newly arrived puffy tacos from San Antonio. You'll find that this exciting new trend in tacos has been available right there on Guadalupe since 1952. Don't miss the saltines and hot sauce at El Patio, either.
One of the most interesting things about the chips and salsa tradition that I discovered while researching The Tex-Mex Cookbook is that while the hot sauce goes way back, the chips are relatively new. In the 1950s, Tex-Mex restaurants all over the state served saltines and hot sauce when you sat down at the table, usually with a bowl of butter. Today, El Patio is one of the only Tex-Mex restaurants in the state that carries on the saltine tradition. Maybe we should start offering saltines at the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival. After all, you can only eat so many chips.
In keeping with this "return to our Tex-Mex roots" theme, we have a lot of celebrity judges coming up from San Antonio this year. Two of them, Bruce Auden and Lisa Wong, are partners in a new Riverwalk restaurant called Acenar, an institution dedicated to the cuisine they call "Modern Tex-Mex." At Acenar, you'll find the nuevo wave of Tex-Mex, including salmon nachos, oyster nachos, and outrageous postmodern margaritas. But you'll also find tortilla chips and excellent fresh salsas on every table.
Believe it or not, dunking chips (or saltines) in hot sauce is a purely Tex-Mex tradition, a custom utterly reviled by Mexican food authority Diana Kennedy. She believes the greasy chips and scorchingly hot sauce ruin the palate before dinner. Bless her heart.
I wish old Diana could be there in Waterloo Park on Sunday to watch thousands of people wait in line to dunk their chips in one blisteringly hot salsa after another. Then maybe she'd understand that hot sauce is more than just a sauce or a condiment to us.
It's our summer fuel.