Gustavo Arellano’s oft-stated opinion that “Tex-Mex is dying,” has been forwarded to me repeatedly by Tex-Mex enthusiasts. They think I should challenge him to a debate–or a duel. Few people seem to realize that Gustavo and I are friends and allies.
Gustavo will be in Houston on Thursday. He will launch the The University of Houston Food for Thought Lecture Series at 5 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 15 at the Roy G. Cullen Building, Room 104 with a discussion of his new book, “Taco, USA. How Mexican Food Conquered America.” The event is free and open to the public. Afterwards, he will sign books, then he and his entourage will dine at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe at 1201 Westheimer. If you miss the lecture, come by and say hi to Gustavo at El Real at 8 or 8:30 pm.
When Gustavo says “Tex-Mex is dying,” he means that Tex-Mex had its heyday in the early 20th Century. Its influence was enormous; adding such items as picante sauce, chili con carne, chili dogs, Fritos corn chips and bean dip, nachos and chile con queso among others to the American culinary mainstream. But he’s right in pointing out that, with a few exceptions, once popular Tex-Mex chain restaurants outside of Texas have declined. As a Southern Californian, Gustavo is loyal to his own brand–Cal-Mex.
Cal-Mex, characterized by crispy tacos and burritos, is now the dominant strain across the country. Cal-Mex was popularized by taco stands that sprang up in suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. When Glen Bell combined the Americanized crispy taco with assembly line mass production techniques in the LA suburbs, he gave birth to the chain that now exemplifies Americanized Mexican food–Taco Bell.
Of course, here in Texas, news about the death of Tex-Mex has been greatly exaggerated. And we Tex-Mex lovers take the national success of our Cal-Mex rivals with a large dose of sour cream. If Taco Bell is the best example of the national spread of Cal-Mex, well then, they won and “bless their hearts.”
But Gustavo and I are united in our enthusiasm for Americanized Mexican foods, both as a window on the bicultural traditions of the border and as tasty and popular American regional cuisines. And we both have pointed out that the culinary establishment’s preference for “authentic Mexican food” is actually a prejudice against Mexican-Americans.
Gustavo calls the authentic Mexican mafia “Baylessistas.” If you point out that they hate Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex because they like their Mexicans to stay in Mexico, they say things like: “What do you mean I’m racist? I have all of Diana Kennedy’s books AND I ate at Frontera Grill!” Gustavo mocks hilariously.