Many of the dishes that Americans associate with Mexican food were born along the border of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. If you examine the menu at a Mexican restaurant, you are just as likely to find Tex Mex cuisine as Mexican cuisine.
This is not a mistake. The U.S.-Mexico border is a melting pot, no pun intended, of the best of Mexican and American food. Yes, you will find some dishes that are relatively unchanged from their Mexican counterparts, such as the enchiladas Brazoria County has come to love. But you will also find Tex Mex food that blends cultures and expands and builds on the food of both countries. Here are five Tex Mex dishes that were born in the United States:
Fajitas originated in the 1930s in Texas and Mexico as food for cowboys driving cattle. On cattle drives, the cattle hands were fed by butchering cattle. However, these cowboys usually got the least desirable and toughest cuts of meat, such as the skirt steak. The cowboys would cut these tough cuts into little belts or bands which in Spanish is translated as “fajitas.”
Like today, these cattle hands would grill the fajitas and eat them wrapped in tortillas like a sandwich. However, as noted above, fajitas refer only to the thin strips of meat and not the complete dish which can also include grilled vegetables, tortillas, and condiments.
There are many origin stories for the margarita, but it was most likely invented in Tijuana, Mexico around 1936. In the original cocktail, tequila is mixed with lime juice and simple syrup. In 1947, a blended version of the Margarita was invented in La Jolla, California when a bartender added ice and ran the cocktail through a blender.
However, Texas — specifically a restaurateur in Dallas — can take credit for the slushy frozen Margarita served in many Tex Mex restaurants today. In 1971, Mariano Martinez saw a Slurpee machine at a 7-11 convenience store and realized that it could be used in his restaurant to produce a version of the blended Margarita. He adapted a soft serve ice cream maker to pre-mix and freeze the margaritas so that his bartenders only needed to dispense them from the machine rather than mixing and blending each drink individually.
Corn tortillas have existed in the Americas for thousands of years. Maize was first domesticated in the Balsas River valley of Mesoamerica in about 1200 BCE and tortillas made from wild maize may date back even earlier.
However, corn tortilla chips have a much more recent origin. Machines that automated the production of corn tortillas had been invented as early as 1904. One such machine was in use at the El Zarape Tortilla Factory in Los Angeles, Calfornia during the 1940s. The owner, Rebecca Webb Carranza, cut the misshapen tortillas produced by the machine into triangles and fried them. These tortilla chips were sold at the factory and became such a hit that the factory switched to tortilla chips as its primary product.
Corn chips, which skip the step of being formed into a tortilla before being fried, were invented in San Antonio, Texas by Jose Martinez, who toasted leftover masa into chips.
Nachos, the quintessential American food, were actually invented in Mexico in 1943 by Ignacio Anaya, who topped fried corn tortillas with cheese and sliced jalapeno chilies. He named them Nachos Especiales, using his nickname, Nacho, for the dish.
Taco salads were invented in Dallas by the Frito company. The company developed the “tacup,” a portmanteau of the words “taco” and “cup,” into which taco ingredients could be placed and eaten as a salad. While the company first sold the taco shells in Dallas, the product truly took off when the Frito company began selling the product at its Disneyland fast food counter.
Chimichangas are fried burritos. Literally. There are many possible origin stories about the invention of the chimichanga, but the most colorful story places the chimichanga’s birthplace in Tucson, Arizona. As the story goes, the inventor, Monica Flin, accidentally knocked a burrito into the deep fryer. She was about to curse in Spanish, but seeing children within earshot, just said “chimichanga” instead.
Tex Mex cuisine holds a colorful and significant place in the melding of Mexican and American culture. Try out a couple of these classic dishes at La Casona Tex Mex Cantina today.