From simple street tacos and cheese enchiladas to loaded nachos and sizzling fajitas, Tex-Mex is no doubt in the running as the ultimate comfort food. Despite its enormous popularity, Tex-Mex has struggled to get respect as a regional cuisine in its own right, rather than as a low-quality, Americanized version of traditional Mexican food. But with roots in Spanish and Native American culture, it’s worth taking another look at the history of Tex-Mex cuisine — and the stories behind some of its most famous dishes. This is by no means a comprehensive list, for the options in our town for delicious Tex-Mex fare are seemingly endless. But these are some of our favorite dishes and one of our favorite places to sample them. — Judy Allen, for Tulsa World Magazine
Chips and Salsa
Chips and Salsa Chips and salsa are the power couple of restaurant food, and the duo makes diners happy from the moment they sit down in any Mexican restaurant. Tortillas have been made for centuries, but according to lore, the triangle-shaped tortilla chip was popularized by Rebecca Webb Carranza in the 1940s as a way to make use of misshapen tortillas rejected from the automated tortilla manufacturing machine that she and her husband used at their tortilla factory in southwest Los Angeles. Carranza found that the discarded tortillas, cut into triangles and fried, were a popular snack, and she sold them for a dime a bag at the El Zarape Tortilla Factory. According to the Tortilla Industry Association (TIA), tortillas are more popular today in the United States than all other ethnic breads, such as bagels, English muffins and pita bread. The TIA estimates that Americans consumed approximately 85 billion tortillas in 2000, not even including tortilla chips, which themselves are part of a multi-billion-dollar industry. Calaveras Mexican Grill in the Kendall Whittier neighborhood offers a self-serve salsa bar with several homemade choices for dipping baskets of warm, salty tortilla chips.
Queso In its most basic form, chile con queso is, as its name suggests, chopped green chiles and cheese. Shortened in most places to its nickname, queso, the cheese dip has become a staple in every Tex-Mex restaurant worth its salty chips and includes everything from spicy sausage to chopped avocados. Unlike the traditionally gooey cheese dishes of Mexico, which are typically made with Mexican melting cheeses like queso asadero or Chihuahua (a soft white cheese), chile con queso in the states has pretty much always been made with processed American cheese. It wasn’t popularized as a homemade dish until the 1940s, however. In 1943, Carl Roetelle opened his canning plant in Elsa, Texas, and began to market Ro-Tel tomatoes, which were tomatoes blended with green chiles. Then in 1949, a Ro-Tel ad appeared with a recipe for making a chile con queso by simply heating a can of the spicy tomatoes with American or processed cheese until melted, and serving the dip with toasted tortillas or Fritos: A Tex-Mex classic was born. Tres Amigos offers three delicious versions — traditional white queso, a spicier version with grilled chorizo sausage and queso supremo, with seasoned ground beef and pico de gallo.
Guacamole Bravos Mexican Grill: 4532 E. 51st St. and 8010 E. 106th St., bravosmexicangroup.com There may be no more perfect food than the avocado, as it is decadent and healthy. According to Avocados of Mexico, close to 2 billion avocados are consumed every year in the United States, thanks in part to Super Bowl Sunday, Cinco de Mayo and the recent popularity of avocado toast. Guacamole, however, dates back to the 16th century Aztecs and comes from the word ahuaca-mulli, literally translated as “avocado sauce.” Traditionally, the dish was made by mashing tomatoes, onions and avocados but has evolved over the centuries to include mostly avocado. Bravos Mexican Grill features fresh guacamole made tableside from ripe avocados, jalapeños, tomatoes, onions and cilantro, among other ingredients, tailored to your liking.
Nachos El Guapo’s Cantina: 332 E. First St. and 8161 S. Harvard Ave., elguaposcantina.com Nachos are served at most Mexican-American restaurants,but they’re not a traditional Mexican dish. Nachos were invented in Mexico but were created, as the story goes, for a group of hungry U.S. military wives during WWII at a restaurant called the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, Mexico, near Fort Duncan in Eagle Pass, Texas. The restaurant's maître d’, Ignacio Anaya, whipped up a meal with what was left in the kitchen, according to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.” He sliced and fried some tortilla chips, covered them with shredded cheddar and sliced jalapeños, and put the concoction in the oven for a couple of minutes. He named the dish after himself — his nickname was Nacho — and the dish became known as nachos especiales. Nachos continued to gain popularity in Texas for the next few decades, but in 1976, Frank Liberto, whose family ran concessions at Arlington Stadium for Texas Rangers baseball games, created a shelf-stable and pumpable “cheese” sauce that didn’t need to be refrigerated. It was heated up, ladled over tortilla chips and topped with pickled jalapenos, another shelf-stable ingredient. Hit the rooftop cantina at El Guapo’s Cantina downtown and share a heaping plate of El Patron Super Nachos, crispy corn tortilla chips topped with melted cheddar and jack cheese, white queso, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and pickled jalapeños, with the option to add chicken, carne asada or ground beef.
Chile Rellenos Chile rellenos, or stuffed chiles, are one of the most emblematic dishes in Mexican cuisine. The dish combines a native vegetable (the chile) stuffed with various ingredients in a European tradition (cheese and ground meat), then deep-fried and served with some sort of sauce, often tomato, green chile or mole. Originating in the city of Puebla, traditional recipes utilized popular local chiles, Poblanos, but now chile rellenos can be made with Hatch, Anaheim or even rehydrated dried red chiles such as Ancho. During the 1800s when the dish was originally invented it was stuffed with meat and didn’t have the fried batter layer — in Puebla the chile was roasted separately and then filled.
Ricardo’s original owner, Richard Hunt, is a native of west Texas, and his Tulsa Tex-Mex restaurant has been packed since opening in 1975. It is now run by Thomas Hunter, who still serves the signature chile rellenos. Ricardo’s cooks forgo the traditionally heavy egg batter and instead give skinned, cheese-stuffed Anaheim chiles a light dip in buttermilk and flour before frying. The dish is finished with chile con queso.
Brisket Tacos Mi Cocina: 1342 E. 15th St., micocina.com This is where Tex meets Mex. Typically, it includes low-and-slow smoked brisket wrapped up in a fresh flour tortilla and dressed simply, with cilantro, diced onions and sometimes a dab of guacamole or some sliced chiles. Many restaurants lay claim to the combination, but the common thread seems to be that the dish came to be in Dallas. Over the years endless interpretations have spawned as pork belly, kimchi and other ingredients made their way into the fold. In Dallas in 1991, a small group of restaurateurs joined together to develop a new idea, opening Mi Cocina (My Kitchen) in a modest 12 table space in the Preston Forest neighborhood. The uniquely upscale Tex-Mex restaurant placed an emphasis on using only the finest, highest quality ingredients complemented by warm, friendly and professional service. Lucky for us, the restaurant expanded throughout Texas and into Oklahoma. Mi Cocina on Cherry Street has been dishing up upscale Tex-Mex since it opened back in 2011. Start with a boozy Mambo Taxi frozen margarita before digging in to Tacos “De Brisket,” your choice of flour or corn tortillas with slow-roasted shredded brisket, crumbled queso blanco, and sliced onion and poblano pepper, served with rice and sliced avocado salad.
Burrito El Rio Verde: 38 N. Trenton Ave. Traditionally, in Mexico, the burrito includes only meat and refried beans and is a traditional food of Ciudad Juárez, a city bordering El Paso, Texas. In the United States, however, the burrito has evolved to include cheese, rice, beans, meat, salsa, lettuce, guacamole and whatever else can be stuffed in an extra-large flour tortilla. Although burritos are one of the most popular examples of Mexican cuisine outside of Mexico, they are only popular in the northern part of Mexico, where wheat flour was traditionally grown, hence the popularity of the flour tortilla. There are many stories of how the burrito came to be but little evidence to back them up. An oft-repeated piece of folk history is the story of a man named Juan Méndez who sold tacos at a street stand in Ciudad Juárez during the Mexican Revolution, using a little donkey (burrito) to transport the supplies for his food cart. To keep the food warm, Méndez wrapped it in large homemade flour tortillas. As the “food of the burrito,” grew in popularity, “burrito” was eventually adopted as the name for these large rolled tacos. After the burrito crossed the border and became popular in the United States in the early 1900s, regional varieties developed in San Francisco’s Mission District, in San Diego and in Los Angeles, and breakfast burritos have become a staple brunch dish throughout the country. The wet burrito, also referred to as smothered or enchilada-style, is smothered in red chile sauce, green chile or mole and often topped with shredded cheese, sour cream and sometimes guacamole. El Rio Verde introduced Tulsa to the wet burrito, and its version has achieved cult status.
Chimichanga Chimi’s: several locations around Tulsa, chimismexican.com As the story goes, Monica Flin, founder of the Tucson, Arizona, restaurant El Charro, accidentally dropped a burrito into the deep-fat fryer in 1922. She immediately began to utter a Spanish profanity, but because young relatives were in the kitchen with her, she changed the swear word to “chimichanga,” the Spanish equivalent of “thingamajig.” Chimichangas are large flour tortillas, filled with ground beef, shredded chicken or sliced beef or chicken fajita meat, along with rice, cheese and beans, then folded and dropped into the deep fryer — essentially, a fried burrito. Chimichangas are often served with queso or other sauce drizzled over it, accompanied with sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo. Chimi’s has been a Tulsa staple since opening in 1983. Current owner Brandon Fischer bought the local chain back in 2007, revitalizing the menu and its popular fare. Among the longtime favorites are the chimichangas, prepared the traditional way with housemade flour tortillas, your choice of meat and a hefty drizzle of queso.
Crispy Tacos Dos Bandidos: 109 N. Detroit Ave. and 13330 S. Memorial Drive, dosbandidosrestaurant.com Traditional Mexican tacos are, plain and simple, tortillas wrapped around a filling. This has come to mean everything from the humble street taco (corn tortillas with a sparse filling of meat, onion and cilantro), to the Americanized, crisp, U-shaped tacos from our youth, loaded with seasoned-from-a-packet ground beef, iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, grated cheddar and anything else that will fit without breaking the shell. Dos Bandidos, with locations in Bixby and downtown Tulsa, has a traditional take with its Real Crunchy Tacos, which include three deep fried corn tortillas filled with your choice of beef or chicken and a topping of sour cream, queso cotija and spicy salsa de arbol.
Monterey's Little Mexico
Carne Asada Monterey’s Little Mexico: 5694 W. Skelly Drive and 1737 S. Sheridan Road, montereys.com Carne asada translates literally to “grilled meat” and is commonly seen on many Mexican menus as a grilled steak and as a filling for tacos, burritos and many other dishes. Carne asada is not traditionally made with one specific cut or type of beef, but skirt or flank steak are popular choices, and sometimes even boneless ribeye is used. While the dish itself doesn’t have a specific history — we’ve been grilling meat for eons — the modern popularity can be credited to modern-day cattle ranchers. Pull in to any taco truck in town and carne asada will be painted on the menu, or pop in to Monterey’s Little Mexico, where marinated skirt steak is served grilled with bell peppers, onions and Monterey Jack cheese, alongside rice, charro beans, avocado slices and tortillas or grilled, topped with queso and paired with cheese enchiladas.
Fajitas Chuy’s: 10808 E. 71st St. and 8120 S. Olympia Ave., chuys.com Faja means “belt” or “girdle,” so fajita literally translates to “little belt,” possibly referring to the skirt steak traditionally used in the dish. Originally, the term “fajita” applied to the meat itself, which was served with warmed tortillas and a plate of accompaniments, including cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo, which were used to fill the tortillas, making soft tacos. The fajita craze took off in 1973 in Houston, where the dish was popularized by Mama Ninfa Laurenzo at Ninfa’s restaurants throughout the city. However, according to Homaero Recio, an animal science professor at Texan A&M, the originators of what we call fajita tacos were the Hispanic ranch hands of West Texas who were given unwanted beef cuts. They pounded it, marinated it with lime juice, grilled it, then cut it up and ate the meat with salsa and condiments on flour tortillas, which became common in Texas in the 1930s. One of our favorite spots to grab a sizzling platter is Chuy’s, for many reasons. The Texas-based chain marinates the meat in Shiner Bock beer, lime juice, serrano peppers and spices, then serves the hot, sizzling platter of grilled meat, peppers and onions with freshly made flour tortillas, lettuce, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, pico de gallo, Mexican rice and refried beans.
Cheese Enchiladas Los Cabos: 300 Riverwalk Terrace, Jenks; 151 Bass Pro Drive, Broken Arrow and 9455 N. Owasso Expressway, Owasso, loscabosok.com Enchiladas are defined by the Real Academia Espanola as a rolled corn tortilla stuffed with meat and covered with a tomato and chile sauce. As it appears is the case for many of the Mexican dishes here, the enchilada’s roots date back to Mayan times, when locals ate corn tortillas wrapped around small fish and sauced with some sort of local red chile concoction. The cheese enchiladas we know today are a purely Mexican-American creation, coming to popularity around the time that processed cheese became available. Enchiladas filled with shredded slow-cooked meat have their place at the table, but there is nothing better than a platter of oozy tortilla-wrapped cheese, slowly melting into the zesty red sauce that the dish is swimming in. Los Cabos offers several types of enchiladas, including the hefty Cabo Wabo Platter, which includes three different enchiladas — one beef, one cheese and one fajita chicken — along with a crispy beef taco, a chile relleno and a chicken tamale.
Tamales One of the oldest recorded Mesoamerican foods is the tamale, dating back to as early as 5,000 BC. During the period, women were taken along to battle preparing traditional foods for the fighting men. The process of making masa became too overwhelming to be done on site, so the women stayed back, readying large batches of masa that could be wrapped and packed, to be warmed as needed. Initially, the size, shape and fillings in the tamale varied, with ingredients including everything from fruit, dried meat, rice and beans and wrappings from avocado leaves to soft tree bark. Over time, ingredients simplified, and the most common fillings today are pork, cheese or veggies with either red or green chiles. The process to make tamales can be laborious, so the preparation became a family affair, often saved for holidays, weddings or other special occasions. Tamales spread into the United States via Mexican workers and developed regional specialties, such as the Delta tamale, made with locally available cornmeal instead of masa, and the Choctaw banaha tamales, which are either non-filled or have the filling (often turkey, deer, nuts, potatoes or squash) mixed into the masa. Today, there are no shortages of spots to grab a dozen tamales — out of trucks, markets or homemade by Mexican-American women. In restaurants, tamales appear on many a combo platter or, as is the case at El Rancho Grande, one of the oldest Mexican food restaurants in town, on their own as a trio, smothered with the restaurant’s popular chile con carne.
Combination Dinner Rincon Mexican Grill & Cantina: 6219 E. 61st St., rincontulsa.com Put them all together and what do you get? A combo plate, of course. San Antonio was the birthplace of the Tex-Mex standard, when in 1900, Chicago-born Otis Farnsworth of the city’s Original Mexican Restaurant started the trend of serving an entree alongside rice and beans, calling it “the Regular.” Many Mexican restaurants in Texas copied the idea of the combination platter, and it became a signature of Tex-Mex cuisine. Most Tex-Mex restaurants I’ve been to in town offer a combination plate of sorts, typically named for a region in Mexico. Some are good, some are great, but I’m always down for the El Juarez Platter at Rincon Mexican Grill & Cantina, which includes a beef tamale, a cheese enchilada, a beef tostada and a beef enchilada, alongside rice and beans.
Margaritas As is the case for many popular dishes and drinks, historical fact can be as muddled as a homemade margarita. There are several different stories for how the margarita was invented. During prohibition, there were over 100 bars in the tiny town of Tijuana, just over the border from Southern California. After prohibition ended, the number dwindled down to ten or so. As one story goes, an Irishman owned one of them and was known for creating the Tequila Daisy, his take on a drink that classically involved adding a little soda water to a Sour (spirit, citrus and sweetener). The word for “daisy” in Spanish is “margarita”. Other sources credit Carlos (Danny) Herrera, for creating the drink back in the late 1940s in another Tijuana roadside restaurant. As Herrera told it, the margarita began as an experiment when he tried to concoct something that would quench the thirst of a beautiful young showgirl named Marjorie King. ”She was allergic to everything except tequila,” Herrera said in a 1991 LA Times interview. “But she couldn’t take it straight, or even with the lemon and the salt. But she liked it. So I started experimenting.” He experimented by mixing three parts white tequila, two parts Cointreau and one part fresh lemon juice. Herrera mixed the drinks, added shaved ice and shook the container, then poured it into recognizable small glass with a short stem, its rim dipped in lemon juice and covered with salt. Today, people order it by the name Herrera gave it: Margarita, Spanish for Marjorie. These stories, of course, pertain to cocktails made in a shaker. The frozen margarita’s origins, however, are set in stone: In 2005, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History acquired the world’s first frozen margarita machine, invented in 1971 by Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez. Frozen margaritas are a dime a dozen in restaurants across the country, but a delicious, handcrafted margarita on the rocks is harder to come by. For a sip of one of Tulsa’s best, you might have to fight off a luchador (a costumed Mexican wrestler). Libby Billings opened her first restaurant, Elote, in 2008, adding the Luchador Bar several years later. Elote’s margaritas are made with no dyes, no high fructose corn syrup, no cheap tequilas — only pure juice, 100% agave tequila and real sugar. Billings is a huge supporter of local businesses so it’s fitting that the Farmers’ Market margarita is the best — Elote’s house margarita muddled with local, seasonal fresh fruit (Available from May-October).
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