Have you ever wondered exactly what the difference is between Mexican food and Tex-Mex food? We're dishing up all the details.
Like me, you may have several favorite dishes or flavors that you readily call “Mexican food,” without really understanding the origin or cultural influence behind them.
It comes as a surprise to many, but Tex-Mex cuisine and authentic Mexican food are actually not one and the same!
While sharing many influences, the dishes and ingredients are different. In truth, many of the tacos, cheese enchiladas and breakfast taco dishes we know and love are actually Tex-Mex and not true Mexican food. So, what is Tex-Mex food?
What Is Tex-Mex Food and Why Is It Called That?
A literal blend of the words Texas and Mexico, first coined to represent the Texas Mexican Railway, the term Tex-Mex has come to stand for the blending of American and Mexican culture.
Now mostly seen when referring to food, Tex-Mex cuisine refers to a combination of cooking styles and ingredients that most Americans associate with Mexican food, but Tex-Mex food is not traditional Mexican cuisine.
Southern Texas, once a part of Mexico, became a melting pot for both cultures as new ingredients became commonplace and therefore easily accessible.
Dishes that have been around for centuries took on new flavors and components, forever changing the local Mexican food into an American cuisine that took on a life of its own.
The term Tex-Mex in reference to food dates back to 1963, but gained traction in the 1970s when Diana Kennedy published the first Tex-Mex cookbook.
San Antonio is often heralded as the birthplace of Tex-Mex food, giving us Tex-Mex classics such as chili gravy, which is a a true Tex-Mex favorite.
Tex-Mex food has become an integral part of American culture, giving birth to the likes of Taco Bell, Chipotle and the beloved taco food truck.
What Is the Difference Between Mexican and Tex-Mex Food?
Authentic Mexican cuisine has a long, rich history dating back to Mayan Indians and the Aztec Empire. When these cultures merged, they dawned the advent of using corn tortillas, chili peppers, beans, and fish, often cooked in cast iron skillets, steamed, or fried.
The Spanish invasion of Mexico provided pork, dairy, and herbs and spices, which changed the common ingredients of Mexican cuisine back in the 1500s.
Traditional Mexican cooking generally consists of staples such as enfrijoladas, salsa, tomatillos, tamales, pozole and enchiladas, but even enchiladas have evolved into a popular dish in Tex-Mex cuisine.
Tex-Mex recipes, on the other hand, are often the result of merging these traditional dishes with new ingredients (such as our sweet potato nachos recipe) that keep your taste buds happy with the same spice and flavor combinations while adding new elements to the mix including ingredients like flour tortillas, beef, and other familiar American foods like yellow cheese.
The use of yellow cheese is a common ingredient in Tex-Mex food, but is not used in real Mexican food. Readily available north of the Mexican border, it is one of the key Texan ingredients that truly marks the history of Tex-Mex cuisine.
As the cuisine of Mexico became more widely known and loved, traditional Mexican recipes began to evolve.
The foods we commonly eat today in Mexican restaurants in the United States are generally Tex-Mex, and include dishes and ingredients such as fajitas, black beans, nachos, beef, wheat flour, and commercially made yellow cheese.
What Are the Main Ingredients in Tex-Mex Food?
If you’re anything like me, you’re going to want as much cheese as it’s reasonable to ask for on a Tex-Mex dish, and this is where the difference really stands out.
Tex-Mex is heavily flavored by the addition of yellow cheese, which makes it stand apart from traditional Mexican food that uses white cheese if any any cheese at all.
While many traditional Mexican dishes require a lot of time and energy, Tex-Mex food has revolutionized the ease of cooking with these flavors for a rich, delicious presentation that can be accomplished in minutes using modern shortcuts such as processed cheese, jarred salsa, and canned tomatoes.
Furthermore, Tex-Mex includes black beans, flour tortillas, beef, sour cream, and an array of spices that were inaccessible to early Mexican cultures such as chili powder and cumin.
Most of the foods that Americans who don’t live by the border have been exposed to as Mexican food are, in fact, likely Tex-Mex.
What Are the Most Popular Tex-Mex Dishes?
- Chili con carne - Translating to chili with meat, this super popular, well-known dish is likely one of the most commonly recognized and widespread Tex-Mex dishes. Chili has taken on a life of its own, and is served as a soup, a nacho topping, and even as a garnish on hot dogs. Chili con queso is another super popular Tex-Mex staple.
- Nachos - Who doesn’t love nachos?! One of the most versatile, classic Tex-Mex dishes is easy to whip up and enjoy. Nachos are said to be the brainchild of a man named Ignacio, where the word “nacho” originates, who served hungry Americans a bowl of freshly fried tortilla chips covered in cheese and jalapeños that he had baked in the oven. Our sheet pan chicken nachos and our carne asada nachos are two great options.
- Queso dip - Make room for the melting pot’s creamy, spicy, incredibly cheesy dip. I don’t know about you, but my kids and I can do a number on a dish of queso! We add it to our tacos, nachos, and just about anything we can get our hands on.
- Tacos - Unlike authentic Mexican tacos, Tex-Mex tacos are offered up with corn or flour tortillas, and are often available as soft tacos or crispy tacos. Chocolate dessert tacos, veggie tacos, breakfast tacos, skirt steak tacos and even taco pizza are all favorites around here. Tacos, as we generally know them, are more Tex-Mex than Mexican. While the classic corn tortilla is often utilized, American tacos generally contain ground beef, cheese, and sour cream, which place them firmly in Tex-Mex territory. Tacos are so popular that the term Taco Tuesday is part of our culture, and is a widely accepted practice in both restaurants and homes.
- Fajitas - A personal favorite of mine, fajitas are one of the later additions to the Tex-Mex family of foods and are often seen offered beyond the traditional steak topping to include seafood fajitas, chicken fajitas or just vegetables. This sizzling hot dish was first served to customers in 1969 in a Laredo restaurant called Round Up, and the rest is (very recent) history!
- Migas - Are you wondering, what is migas? Migas are a popular Tex-Mex breakfast made with eggs, veggies, cheese and chips. If you haven't tried migas, give our easy migas recipe a whirl!
Whether you’re most interested in classic Mexican cuisine or the modern additions we know and love, Tex-Mex is a delicious look into how the merging of cultures has influenced our dietary tastes. Now, please pass the tortilla chips and guacamole!
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Nicole is a self-published author of fiction novels, and a lover of food and spending time in the kitchen with her six children. She lives in coastal Maine where she loves exploring new recipes especially those that can save time, money and wow a crowd.Tags: Tex Mex, FAQ