Tex-Mex food is the stuff of legends: sure, you can buy it neatly wrapped in a box complete with refried beans (Old El Paso, we’re looking at you) or dig into standard favorites like smothered enchiladas at your local taco dive. But Tex-Mex is more than over-stuffed burritos and state fair cinnamon churros, says Chef Johnny Hernandez, owner of San Antonio hotspot La Gloria Ice House and the True Flavors catering company. Hernandez, who grew up in Texas in a tight-knit Mexican family of cooks and studied at the Culinary Institute of America, shared with NBC Latino what makes this border cuisine different from the usual Mexican fare and why it’s so special.
Mexican, American and…German? It may be called Tex-Mex, but the truth is tejano food and culture has a heavy German influence too, Hernandez says. In the 1850s, a large number of Germans migrated to northern Mexico, but when the Mexican revolution broke out in 1910 many of them fled north and settled in Texas. Naturally, they brought with them their food and cooking techniques, which blended beautifully with the Mexican and American cultures already there. “Tex-Mex is a great example of how different cultures melded together to create something completely American,” says Hernandez, whose father worked in both traditional American and German-American restaurants before opening his own Tex-Mex restaurant in San Antonio in the 1970s.
Enchiladas there, enchiladas here: Ask for an enchilada anywhere in Mexico, Hernandez says, and you’ll receive a corn tortilla that’s been dipped in a thin chile sauce and fried into a crispy taco. Travel to the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí and you’ll get something even further from its American counterpart: a corn tortilla dipped in chile, stuffed and deep fried. No cheesy, saucy topping. Now, serve an enchilada with no cheese or sauce or cream in Texas and you might be asked to leave the state. “The heavy sauce made with white flour that covers tejano enchiladas is a direct influence of the German presence in Texas and their techniques,” says Hernandez, who adds that pickling and canning are two other German techniques common to tejano cooking. “And the premise of using just a bit of chopped meat and stretching it out with flour in a baked dish is a result of the hard times they were having when they first arrived in Texas. It was a way to create a filling meal for many people.”
The real roots of salsa: If you’ve ever been to a tejano restaurant in the Lone Star State you’ll recognize the very first thing that happens: a hefty basket of chips and a saucer of red salsa appear on the table almost as soon as you’ve taken a seat. Eating chips and salsa as an appetizer is a Texan tradition through and through. Not so in Mexico, where salsa is instead used to enhance the flavors of a dish and never eaten as a stand-alone condiment. Hernandez says that “cooking down the tomatoes to make a salsa was common sense and economical because garden produce was in short supply.” Hernandez says serving chips and salsa as a freebie started off as a marketing gimmick to help draw customers to Mexican restaurants. It worked. It helped catapult tejano-style salsa into American culture, and today salsa outsells ketchup.
Not your average chile powder: If necessity is the mother of invention, then early Mexican migrant workers—known as braceros—are the fathers of chile powder, that most essential ingredient of Texas style chili. The braceros would cross the border to find work, bringing with them their beloved fresh chiles to eat along the way. They’d travel from ranch to ranch, from job to job, but in the Texas heat and humidity their chiles would often spoil. So they came up with a way to preserve them: dry them over planchas or comales and “and crush them for future use,” Hernandez says. Thus, chile powder was born. In Mexico, Hernandez points out, “you don’t see chile powder used because they’re always available fresh.”
Beef is el rey: Any way you smoke, grill, grind or slice it…beef is big in Tex-Mex cuisine. Not only is it a staple in tejano cooking because of the state’s powerful cattle industry, it’s prepared in a variety of ways that distinguish it from more typical south of the border methods. For example, smoking–a core technique used in Texas hill country barbeque–is rarely done in Mexico, says Hernandez. “Mexicans may cook meat with wood that may take on smoky flavor, but their intention is not to smoke,” he says. Meanwhile, “in Texas and tejano traditions, slow cooking with wood to impart the flavor of the smoke onto the protein is something that was done on the open ranches and that is unique to the area.” Ground beef is also used often as a filling in tejano cooking, while in Mexico there is more of an emphasis on whole cuts of meat.
Hernandez confesses to a love of puffy tacos though his own style of cooking leans towards nuevo Tex-Mex fare. His newest concept restaurant, The Frutería, is scheduled to open in late 2012 and will offer a twist on classic Mexican fruit combinations with innovative cocktails. He shared with us a recipe for camarones aquachile, which like many of his dishes demonstrate an innovative take on traditional Mexican flavors, refined culinary technique and, of course, a nod to his Texas roots.
Camarones Aquachile (Shrimp in “fire water”)
Shrimp for aquachile:
2 Lbs Shrimp
1 cup Lime juice (fresh)
1 Serrano pepper, seeded clean
Salt to taste
Method: Wash shrimp with shell on, peel, devein and pat dry. Butterfly cut the shrimp leaving tails on. Blend the lime juice and the Serrano peppers then place shrimp in container, toss with lime juice and let sit for 15 minutes.
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup water
4 oz Serranos, seeded
1 oz garlic
2 oz onions
olive oil, cucumbers (sliced), red onions (sliced), avocado slices, sea salt, cilantro.
Method: Combine all in blender and blend, and reserve.
To assemble Aquachile: Remove shrimp from lime juice and fan out on a plate, pour salsa over the marinated shrimp.
To garnish dish: olive oil, cucumbers (sliced), red onions (sliced), avocado slices, sea salt, cilantro. Serve with totopos or tostadas.