Call it Shakespeare in modern garb.
Over the past several years, Hollywood presented us with Othello set on a high school basketball court, Hamlet wandering the aisles of a Blockbuster store, Romeo and Juliet cowering from the prying lenses of security cameras and Prince Hal wandering the streets of Portland.
For the most part, literary types appreciate adaptations of the classics. Those modernizations reinforce the relevance of dated works and attach meaning--temporarily--to hefty college anthologies. Few critics complain when directors set Shakespearean characters among the noise and chaotic pace of modern culture, or send ancient Greek figures scurrying across 1930s Mississippi. Even opera aficionados relish the Bugs Bunny version of Wagner. And when Run-DMC twisted a hard-driving rock-and-roll classic into a gimmicky rap piece, Aerosmith eagerly participated in the desecration of its hit.
Why, then, do so many food critics, chefs and restaurateurs fret over the Americanization of ethnic cuisine?
Unfortunately, that's not this week's Burning Question. We've always wanted to set a plate of entrails and garden pests--the Old World version of dinner--alongside some pizza or other "foreign" dish bastardized for the American palate just to see which one the average diner preferred. Somehow lost in the noise generated by the organic movement and "slow food" advocates is the notion that cuisine emerges from a culture. And cultures are never static. In less than a generation, for instance, Russians progressed from a nation of vodka-swilling, drunken, Communist bastards to a shining example of the mess a bunch of vodka-swilling drunks make when allowed to create their own form of capitalism.
And that's just one example.
Authentic Mexican cuisine, in this context, emerged from Aztec and other native traditions, influenced over time by French and Spanish cooking. A product transformed, in other words, by time and colonization. Texas cuisine--if such a thing exists beyond (and it hurts to mention this in the same sentence as "cuisine") chicken-fried steak--draws from many of the same sources along with the broader influences molding North American dishes (including French and Spanish traditions). What, then, is the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex?
Curiously, it was an English culinary writer, Diana Kennedy, who defined for Americans and Mexicans alike the differences between the authentic dishes she loved (she's even tried maggots) and the Tex-Mex she despised. Her 1973 tome, The Cuisines of Mexico, declared for scholars, snobs and chefs the inferiority of Texas' derivative offerings. To her credit, she treated working-class grub as affectionately as haute cuisine and shredded the American tendency to refer to tacos and fajitas and such as Mexican food. "People seem to think all Mexican food is hot," says Stacy Crossley, general manager at Nuevo Leon on Oak Lawn Avenue, referring to the misunderstandings wrought by Tex-Mex. "But it's really not. Mexican food is very regional." Nuevo Leon concentrates on recipes common to Monterrey and Guanajato. Another establishment touting traditional dishes, Ciudad, specializes in Mexico City cuisine.
"It's completely different," says Mexico native Teresa Duran of the two styles. "Tex-Mex is more greasy. Mexican cooking is more bland." Local diners--gringos--agree that authentic recipes lack the familiar zip of Tex-Mex. It's more sophisticated, with French nuances and Aztec basics. But, concedes Paul Rodriguez of Mia's, "so many of our customers visit Mexico and can't wait to get back to their favorite Tex-Mex. They loved Mexico, but weren't used to the food."
In general, Tex-Mex uses more ground beef, cheddar cheese and greasy, thickened sauces. It's based on the simple creations, sometimes called antojitos mexicanos, and border region recipes. Most of the Americanized dishes taste pretty much the same, from On the Border to Mi Cocina. Sorry, but it's true. Mexican cuisine is more diverse, often including seafood, nuts, potatoes, raisins, broiled meats and chocolate. "You're not going to go to a Tex-Mex place and get a mole sauce," Crossley points out. "In traditional Mexican you see a lot of sweet and sour tastes together." Mole poblano, for example, is an intriguing mix of chili, chocolate, raisins and other ingredients. Mexican cooking also relies on unique herbs, aromatic plants and a wide range of chilis.
"When Mexicans come here, they can't figure out why people call it [Tex-Mex] Mexican," Duran complains. "The rice and beans are common, but practically that's it."
Yet Tex-Mex is, all things considered, an authentic regional adaptation and nothing to be scoffed at by purists. It's a fusion of diverse influences, which thankfully eliminates the menudos and maggots and other unpalatable things while adding more comfortable items, such as chips and salsa. Good Tex-Mex? We like Pappasito's and Mia's. We also visited Chuy's, by the way. But after a pathetic first pour of tequila, uncertain service and a lengthy wait for more alcohol, we decided the Knox-Henderson restaurant added nothing to the Tex-Mex tradition. Good Mex-Mex? Try Nuevo Leon, Javier's and Ciudad. Rodriguez also suggests following recent immigrants around town (remember, it's not stalking if they aren't famous).
"La Javita," he says. "That's where the Mexican workers go."
Of course, the Burning Question crew considers a bottle of tequila and a bag of chips a legitimate bridge between two valid cuisines. Hell, just give us the bottle and we're happy. Remember, as Shakespeare wrote, "Much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery; it makes him and mars him; it sets him on and takes him off."
And thus with cuisine: made for some, marred for others.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.