Gustavo Arellano: “Tex-Mex is Dying”

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.

7 thoughts on “Gustavo Arellano: “Tex-Mex is Dying”

  1. Barbara Winters

    IT’S SO NOT TRUE!!! I am going to have surgery Dec. 5 and I have already arranged to have some smuggled in to make recovery faster. Extra peppers please.

  2. Fatty FatBastard

    Are you sure about the crispy taco? I’ve seen numerous sites that state that it originated in Texas. Furthermore, if they lay claim because Glen Bell popularized it, then you have to award Ninfa’s with popularizing the fajita, which are as popular as ever.

    Friends, allies, whatever. There’s a debate worth having.

  3. Rebecca

    Cal-Mex is great, it tastes good and you can trick yourself into believing it’s healthy. No one EVER tricked themselves into believing that the Pappasito’s Laredo Plate is good for you. Of course, Cal-Mex is not Tex-Mex. Those of us raised on Tex-Mex (especially those of us that no longer have easy access to it) understand that there is no substitution to good Tex-Mex and that a fantastic plate of real fajitas with fresh tortillas and good salsa is like coming home.

  4. Jason Salazar

    I am confused by the slam against “authentic Mexican food”. As a Mexican American I feel a lot of pride rediscovering regional Mexican foods that my Mom and grandmothers made for us –moles, birrias, pozoles, etc., and I really enjoy discovering regional cuisines from Yucatan, Oaxaca, etc. Sure, I also grew up with Cal Mex, too and I get Tex Mex on one level, but in some ways the flavors were watered down with the addition of creams and hunks of cheese that are on top of every sizzling plate at El Fenix or EL Torito, both chains in TX and CA, respectively.

    Is there a problem with people like Bayless who have been faithful in their love for these dishes and cuisines that go beyond the enchilada plate? Is it not reverse racist to assume that a white man who is also an accomplished chef can’t understand Mexican food? Have you BEEN to his restaurant in Chicago? That bad? Why isn’t it worthwhile to have someone expose the rest of the population to food that isn’t Taco Bell. Are you and Arellano (who I like a lot, by the way) actually pushing Taco Bell just because denying this drive-thru, fatty, processed food is denying Mexican Americans. Have we as Mexican Americans learned to deprive ourselves of our mother culture by lapsing into lower expectations we have for food?

  5. robbwalsh Post author


    Rick Bayless is a friend of mine–his praise for Tex-Mex appears in a blurb on the back of The Tex-Mex Cookbook. Bayless grew up on Tex-Mex in Oklahoma City. I have eaten at Frontera and Topo and love them both. And I don’t recall slamming authentic Mexican food (except for the Nescafe and Bimbo sweet rolls).

    I do have a problem with you judging my home food as “watered down” with cheese. You are dismissing Tex-Mex as a bad attempt at authentic Mexican food, when in fact, it is an American regional cuisine. American cheese was widely available to Tejanos (partly because of government assistance programs) and they used it in their home cooking. To quote Rick Bayless in the Tex-Mex Cookbook, “When people cook from the heart, there isn’t a right or wrong way to do it.”

    You will have to talk to Gustavo about the Baylessistas thing.

  6. Jason Salazar

    Thanks, Robb, for your response. I just saw you on the Burgerland show with George Motz. I did not mean to be imprecise: it’s not that Tex Mex is watered down in terms of taste. Far from it. It is a truly regional cuisine for sure. And I bet that Cal Mex, or whatever it is that Gustavo is talking about is far, far less developed as an organic cuisine than Tex Mex is. If Cal Mex is defined as Glen Bell starting Taco Bell and all the taco stands of the 60s and 70s (Del Taco, Jimboy’s Tacos) and countless shops, then it isn’t really a cuisine, is it? I mean, in SF taquerias aren’t famous only because of the tacos are they? It’s the burritos that are the main thing, and they are unique to Northern California and everyone embraces them because 1) they are substantial; 2) they have a host of well-prepared fillings. But the burrito is also a Cal Mex invention, something that then travelled down to the northern states of Sonora and SInaloa and became popular there.

    I am also troubled by someone saying that by denying Taco Bell and mass processed “Mexican food”, we are telling Mexicans to “stay in Mexico”? What kind of talk is this? Why not be more upset that a white guy, Glen Bell. became fabulously wealthy on the cuisine that wasn’t even his? Is this how we’re supposed to react? By claiming an “enchirito” or a “chalupa” as our own to burnish our Mexican credentials. OK, great, a combo burrito at 1 am on your way home from the club kinda hits the spot, but what’s wrong with raising your expectations.

    Thanks for the support of Rick Bayless. I don’t think he’s an imperialist at all. I have been to both Frontera and Topo several time and I have marvelled at the creations. It’s people like Gustavo and Bill Esparza (even Jonathan Gold) who continue their beef with Bayless because of some ill-advised remarks he made about the state of Cal Mex food in the LA area.

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