Through my taco-eating adventures, I have crossed paths with those who so revile Tex-Mex, specifically Tex-Mex tacos, that the dish's mere mention elicits a reaction similar to the one they might have if forced to watch the drowning of a child's Christmas puppy. Needless to say, I don't break bread with them anymore. But breaking their teeth has crossed my mind.
Some Texans, members of my extended family included, spend their lives as Tex-Mex apologists. There is a guilt associated with gelatinous, radiation-yellow cheese dip. There is defensiveness when there is no need for defensiveness. Border food and its analogs are as authentic as the comestibles from the interior of any land, as Gustavo Arellano wrote on stick a fork in it, the food blog of our sister paper, OC Weekly. To which I say to you, Señor Arellano, bien hecho!
Writers on both sides of the fence have capitalized on this posturing at the disservice of Tex-Mex, pitting against each other eaters who would normally consume a plate of lovingly prepared, delicious food without asking for its provenance, but tack on the designation Tex-Mex and you've got a bathroom running of the bulls. There is no fence.
What there is is a network of region-specific foods that share threads, however loose. In this land that was once part of Mexico, our regional food has been classified Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex is part of Mexican cuisine, though like contentious Pluto, it's out there and we can't stop arguing about it.
There is much I find worthy of plaudits in the realm of Tex-Mex eats. On the other hand, sometimes I'd rather eat a buffet of poisonous insects than a tarred chimichanga brick or something with that nebulous, lazy appellation, taco meat.
The original location of Desperados Mexican Restaurant, lauded citywide since opening in 1976 and the caterers for the Texas Rangers and Dallas Mavericks, has been recommended to me personally and online for its Tex-Mex offerings. The lunch menu at Mexico native Jorge Levy's establishment does include the words taco meat in the description of the Monday chimichanga special, but it also offers the namesake Desperado Tacos. The same tacos are available on the dinner menu, which does not have space for taco meat.
The Desperado Tacos are a pair of flash-fried, puffy flour tortillas filled with coarsely chopped fajita beef, bubbling Jack cheese, tangy and piquant pico de gallo, capped with a thick slice of fresh avocado. They are decidedly Tex-Mex. The result is a fluffy tortilla that doesn't flake to dust when lifted, succulent and tender -- if a little on the over-salted side -- meat and a creamy contrast with the avocado. It's no wonder the twin tacos are Desperados' biggest seller. Unfortunately, the sloppy side salad of browning, soppy lettuce and diced tomatoes and mouth-puckering refried beans topped with a few strands of shredded melted orange cheese were a waste of perfectly good animal feed. If you can't get in for lunch, the Desperado Tacos are a better deal on Thursdays after 5 p.m., when they're almost half off the normal price.
Told I could order something from the downloadable PDF dinner menu with the caveat that it would take "just a few more minutes longer," I asked for the Tacos Albañil, only to be rejected. The three corn-tortilla brisket tacos with tomatillo sauce, chopped onion, cilantro and lime weren't available. The "Tex-Mex" section of the menu listed several Texican -- another word for Tex-Mex in this instance, but also signifies a Texan living the Republic of Texas, a Texan who advocated or advocates secession or a Texan of Mexican descent -- items. Having never had a soft cheese taco, I asked my waiter about it. His reply was curt and commendable for its honesty: "Don't get it." However, the puffed beef taco was "really good, really tasty." What I received was a disintegrate-at-a-touch basket of fried tortilla with the top cut out, gray ground beef -- taco meat, really -- with less flavor than the tortilla. Stunned, I asked the waiter how I was supposed to eat it. Again with his brevity, "A fork." I tried picking it up, anyway, only to demolish the thing. (As the puffed beef taco was poorly executed, poorly conceived, poorly described, it deserves no other label than "thing.")
The Desperado Tacos were worth the debacle that was my second dish. They deserve to be heralded as some of the best of Tex-Mex, no -- scratch that -- Mexican food. So, can we please put the authenticity debate and the apologists to bed? Billiards balls fit in pockets, food doesn't. Too bad Desperado Tacos don't.
Desperados Mexican Restaurant 4818 Greenville Ave. 214-363-1850
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