Tex-Mex is the Only Truly American Food
Trust Me, I Ate My Way Around the World to Figure this Out
America, this is going to hurt a little bit. But it will all be over in a few minutes. So let’s take a seat and have a chat. Here’s the thing. I’ve been traveling around the world, and I’ve realized that all those dishes you think you’re the best at? Your cheeseburgers and your hot dogs and your barbecue? You’re not.
Okay, wait, calm down. Now just hear me out. What you’re cooking up is fantastic. It really is. I can’t wait to have all these dishes when I get back to the United States. It’s just that, well, I’ve been seeing some other countries lately and they’re, quite frankly, outdoing you on a lot of fronts.
But here’s good news. You have a uniquely American food you can claim as your own with no rivals. I’ve found that nobody comes close to you at Tex-Mex. That’s your cuisine. You’ve got the market cornered and you’re the best in the world. In fact, as far as I can tell, nobody is really even trying to do what you do here. And trust me, I’ve been looking, as I’ve been traveling around the world over the past eight months, dining out every day in more than 80 cities and 28 countries.
But what really IS Tex-Mex anyway? To me, it’s a variation on Mexican food that has been so Americanized that it has become it’s own food style. It’s flour instead of corn tortillas. It has more ground beef and steak options. If there’s one dish I’d associate with Tex-Mex, it would be steak fajitas with flour tortillas, beans and rice, with a frozen margarita. Oh and a big-ol’ side of guacamole, salsa and chips. Others have their own opinions on this cuisine. A search online says that the lines are a bit blurry, but that a Tex-Mex dinner table might include dishes such as cheese enchiladas, nachos, queso dip and recipes with a healthy dash of cumin.
Here’s my scientific justification for Tex-Mex as the número uno comida americana. My wife and I love all kinds of food, and through the six continents we’ve traveled on this journey we’ve been able to sate our desire for every single food craving we’ve had, American and international — except Tex-Mex. We even had fantastic Mexican food in both South America and Europe, but there hasn’t been a single Tex-Mex restaurant that we’ve even come across, much less one good enough to remind us of home. To get this, and only this, cuisine, we’ll have to wait until we are back stateside.
We’ve found that every other American-style food is being deliciously delivered to diners in other countries. Sometimes it just doesn’t compare to what we’d have back home, but we’ve tasted plenty of examples where cooks are beating us at our own game. A cheeseburger in Prague made me make noises that were intended only for a mature audience. The German take on sausage, and specifically the “drei im weggla” (literally: three in a bun) in Nuremberg, is a better variation on the hot dog-in-a-bun theme than any dog I’ve had in the U.S. The barbecue in Australia probably wasn’t better, but was at least as good as, barbecue I’ve had all through the South and Midwest. There even was an apple strudel in Munich that beat out (gasp) our variation — the American apple pie.
Maybe this means that Tex-Mex is one of those elevated national dishes that is so uniquely good that you can’t find it anywhere else but in America. If you want Cacio e pepe, the simple-yet-sublime homemade noodles with pecorino cheese, butter and pepper, you’re going to Rome. If you want the aforementioned drei im weggla, you have to get to Nuremberg — you can’t even find this mind-meltingly good street food in other parts of Germany. Since nobody is making Tex-Mex on the six continents we’ve traveled, maybe our American fajitas are the newest destination food.
And please don’t tell me that Tex-Mex isn’t really a style of cuisine, and that it just doesn’t compare to “authentic” Mexican food. These are two different styles that stand on their own. This annoying argument invariably comes from the sorority girl who leans into her high-school Spanish class pronunciation as she disses Tex-Mex and raves about this little Mexican spot on the other side of the tracks that you’ve never heard of. “Ooooh! You HAVE to try it. It’s like totally authentic. Totally. The family that runs it is from Meh-HEE-coe. The Een-chee-LAAAA-das with the Mole-AY sauce. The soap-pah-PEEEE-yas. And oooh the cheeps and SAAAAAL-sah. Awesome. Just awesome. Awesome.” I want to push this person into a giant cauldron of queso. Stop with the fixation on what you perceive as “authentic,” trade in your microbrew IPA for a Coors Light, and try just enjoying products for what they are, not for how you think they define you. I look like a damn idiot when I’m at these Tex-Mex spots — there is guacamole on my shirt, my glasses are foggy from the fajita steam, and I’m sweaty-groggy from eating too many tortilla chips. And I don’t care, because I’m as happy enjoying the food for what it is — delicious unhealthy cuisine that might just kill me, possibly at this sitting.
Tex-Mex is the only real American food not just because nobody is doing it like we are in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A. There’s symbolism here. We took (stole) another culture’s cuisine, gave it some neon colors with the guacamole, red peppers and queso cheese, amped up the calories and portion sizes, and marketed the hell out of it. What could be more American than that?
Just know this America — nobody is doing Tex-Mex like you are. I, for one, am proud of our national cuisine. As soon as we land back home in the States, we’ll be heading to one of our favorite Tex-Mex spots in Washington, D.C. (Lauriol Plaza or Cactus Cantina) and will be indulging like happy-to-be-home gringos. And I hope our Okie friends can suggest a spot or two as well when we swing through Oklahoma in July. We’ve got about 2 1/2 months to go on the 1-Year Retirement, and we’re already fantasizing about Tex-Mex dishes, talking about what we’ll order with misty eyes and in breathless tones. But when we sit down to break bread with friends and family, it will be with flour tortillas only.
What do you think? Am I right? Am I a Communist? Did I miss an international Tex-Mex spot you love? Let me know your opinions below on travel eating, Tex-Mex, American food, and anything in between. And if you like what you’ve read (even if you disagree) please click the heart!
Jim Luetkemeyer is currently traveling the world with his wife on what they’re calling their “one-year retirement.” Learn more about their travels and their decision to quit their jobs at www.1YearRetirement.com. Follow them on Facebook at “Megan and Jim’s One-year Retirement.”