First Plates Extra Helpings: My Tex-Mexistential Crisis
It's a New Mexican thing … you wouldn't understand
By Carmen Rising,
9:00AM, Wed. Feb. 4, 2015
The words “Tex-Mex” always brought up an unsettling stir in the pit of my stomach. It felt sort of like a mix of nausea and fire all churned up in a ball of random anger and disgust whenever my east-of-the-border, Texas family members would insist that their beloved Tex-Mex could begin to rival New Mexican food.
Are they out of their minds?
I grew up in New Mexico, but most of my extended family is from Texas. Despite my disdain for living in New Mexico (an essential part of my over-dramatic teenage angst), I take sides when it comes to my home state's cuisine. See, New Mexicans are united by one thing: No matter who you are or how you feel about New Mexico, everyone can agree on hatch green chile. Chile goes on everything, literally – cheeseburgers, enchiladas, pizza, even chocolate.
“Red or green?” is the only question of importance, and the only answer is "Christmas." I stand firm on the superiority of New Mexican cuisine as the ruling monarch of all Mexican foods – especially Tex-Mex.
Given that almost my entire family is from Texas, I figured transferring to UT would be a snap. For a blossoming foodie, Austin is a utopia, full of adventures that this girl from New Mexico could previously only savor while on vacation. Once I moved here, however, all that changed. Caught up in a brave new world of food trucks and 24-hour coffee shops, I’d forgotten, for one brief moment, the gem I’d left behind called New Mexican food.
It hit me the first time my friends took me to a popular Austin cafe, a campus staple (and what I've come to know as a Longhorn rite-of-passage), and insisted that I try the queso. As soon as the bowl came to our table, my New Mexican insides squirmed: For some reason, these folks thought it would be a good idea to take this bowl of cheese and mix in guacamole and black beans. What? Where was the hatch? Where was my fiery spice?! It was just so … wrong.
My quest to find "real" Mexican food in Texas – something, anything that could satisfy my superior taste buds – continued. Next up were chicken enchiladas that came with a list of sauce options including neither red nor green chile, but instead a list of confounding toppings such as sour cream, verde cream sauce, chipotle, and queso (such additions to main dishes would be blasphemy on any New Mexican menu). There was no Spanish rice and, to my horror, no option for blue corn tortillas. Instead came enchiladas covered in mildly spiced queso, fajita-style chicken (instead of shredded), and no fresh, complimentary sopapillas dripping with honey. Uh, seriously?
After giving Tex-Mex a shot, I could not imagine why the Texans in my family were so proud. To me, Tex-Mex was a greasy mess of an attempt at Mexican food. Whenever I'd get lost in a reverie about the perfection that is New Mexican food with any member of my extended family, I’d be met with a comment along the lines of, “Oh, yes! It’s really good, but, you know … Tex-Mex.” Rage and fury shook me to my core.
There is just no way that Tex-Mex can deliver the same satisfaction that New Mexican food can. In my hometown Albuquerque, you can order enchiladas with either yellow or blue corn tortillas, smothered in fresh, spicy hatch green or red chile sauce, with hatch that’s locally grown. The meat is always perfectly spiced, shredded – never too greasy – and mixed with delicious gooey cheese. Each ingredient on the plate melts into each other making a perfect mess of flavor: Spanish rice with corn, refried beans, spicy chicken enchiladas, pork tamales, or tacos smothered in cheese and chile sauce all spilling into each other – a veritable taste-gasm.
But that's not all. Sopapillas come out hot after every meal, and you always poke a hole in them and fill the insides with honey that's been patiently sitting on the table, at the ready. Or, if you can't wait until dessert, you can order them as a meal stuffed with meat and, you guessed it, chile sauce.
In New Mexico, instead of Starbucks on every corner, there is a mom-and-pop restaurant. I grew up going to places like Padilla’s where we always ordered our Christmas Eve dinner of spicy homemade pork tamales, melt-in-your-mouth green chile chicken enchiladas stacked like lasagna, made-from-scratch posole (add red chile, because Padilla’s has the best). Chile rellenos are a New Mexico staple: hatch chiles stuffed with cheese and meat and grilled to perfection. Breakfast tacos may rule Austin, but a New Mexican breakfast burrito from Frontier reigns supreme: a handmade flour tortilla stuffed with eggs, cheese, potatoes, and meat of choice, smothered in more cheese and green chile sauce. Plus a sweet roll on the side?! I’ve died and gone to flavor heaven. How could my Texas family not taste the obvious winner: aromatic, burn-your-mouth, spicy beacon of perfection that is New Mexican food?
After a year and a half of living in the land of Tex-Mex, it’s fair to say that I’ve given it a real shot. As a result, I admit: I’ve hopped on the breakfast taco bandwagon, and I’ve managed to find decent queso. I’ve come to reconcile my former hatred of Tex-Mex, and I even enjoy certain dishes (especially Trudy’s frozen margaritas).
So, is there truly a winner? Do I submit to my Texas roots and Longhorn status and embrace the world of Tex-Mex? Or do I stand firm in my heritage of hatch green chili and blue corn enchiladas with shredded chicken? I can embrace, and dare I say, even enjoy Tex-Mex, though I cannot erase the deep bias of New Mexican food. And to my family members, they do appreciate New Mexican food, but to them, it's not the same love they have for their home cuisine. I suppose we all have our pride, the kind of pride that no other state's menu can touch. The kind that even if you hated where you grew up, your heart will always beat for those native dishes. So, cheers, Texas. It’s been a good run, and I appreciate your efforts, but I will always know in my heart when I hear the word: “Chili” will never be a vat full of meat and beans. "Chile" is a glorious hot green sauce that you put on all your food.
Read more Extra Helpings at austinchronicle.com/daily. The Austin Chronicle’s First Plates food issue hits stands Thursday, February 5.