Differences between Tex Mex and authentic Mexican food?

Hello gang.

For as long as I have eaten at Mexican resteraunts, I have noticed that some pride themselves on being “Tex Mex” while others being “Authentic Mexican”. The question is right there in the title: What is the difference between the two? According to a friend of a friend who is a food aficianado, the only real difference is that the authentic stuff tends to be more greasy whereas Tex Mex is healthier. According to my Mexican roomate, that’s about right.

But surely there’s more to it, otherwise I’m sure we’d come to some new terms in differentiating these cooking styles. So what’s the Dope?

  1. This thread really should be moved to Cafe Society (the forum for cookery questions/discussions) as soon as possible.

  2. Chili, the Food of the Gods, is Tex-Mex and by no means Mexican.

The best source I’ve ever seen on this topic was here:


It’s a 6-part article, but well worth the read.

Many of the foods Americans typically think of as Mexican are actually Tex-Mex. See this this article and the rest of the series (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

But as mentioned in the articles, even the restaurants you’ve eaten at which claimed to be “100% Mexican” were probably serving Tex-Mex food.

BlakeTyner beat me to it. His link goes to an index of the six articles, but the link to the first one on that page doesn’t work for me. If you’re having similar troubles, try the first of the six links in my previous post.

(Damn, in the time it took me to type this, my favorite article got linked to already! Oh, well. Here it is anyway.)

There really is a bit more to it, at least historically. At the turn of the last century, tamale carts began serving “authentic” Mexican food on the streets of Houston and other Texas cities. They were anything but authentic. They were often tortilla wrapped (not corn meal) and served in a brown gravy which had cumin and chili powder added to it. (A brown gravy like salisbury steak gravy.) The idea was to claim authenticity, but serve food that was accessible to the Anglo palate.

In 1972, Diana Kennedy published a cookbook called The Cuisines of Mexico, where she first used the term “Tex-Mex” to distinguish this highly Anglicized food from the food made in Mexico. By 1973, restaurants were advertising more “authentic Mexican” food than ever, now including things like fajitas and chimichangas, which aren’t from Mexico either.

It’s fair to say that the majority of dishes we think of as Mexican, including foods now sold in tourist Mexico, aren’t. Not only fajitas and chimichangas, but soft (flour) tacos and burritos and margaritas (!) and even nachos and salsa. Sour cream is unheard of on your taco in Mexico.

On the other hand, there is some phenominal Mexican seafood, stews and things they do with small birds and rose petals that would make your hair curl and your Mama rise from her deathbed to dance in joy. These are rarely seen in the US, which is a real shame.

There have always been “crispy tacos” in Mexico. They are most commonly known as tacos dorados. Of course these aren’t made with “taco shells” but by simple folding or rolling the tortilla around a filling and deep frying.

While you won’t find sour cream, you will find fresh crema which more resembles the French “creme fraiche” added to many dishes including tacos.
There is even a saying in Mexico for someone who tends to exaggeration: “Echa mucha crema a sus tacos” or they “put a lot of cream on their tacos”.

The American “chili con carne” also has a somewhat equivalent dish known as carne con chile is a guisado or meat stewed in any number of different chile based sauces. Typically served with beans on the side.

Fajitas (their name comes from faja or belt), are similar to what we call carne asada, long strips of grilled meat commonly served with small grilled onions (cebollitas) acompanied by a selection of different salsas.


Yep, this is Cafe Society material.

I’ll move it for you.


Southern Texas used to be Northern Mexico. They’re regional differences. What is a local dish in the northern states would be unheard of in the costal areas and the southern states. Oaxaca has access to the Pacific, so you’ll find lots of seafood dishes. Not so much Nuevo León where the food more resembles that of south Texas.

If some enterprising Mexican immigrant opened a restaurant in the U.S. serving really authentic Mexican cuisine, would it succeed or fail, I wonder?

If they didn’t ALSO offer Tex-Mex, I think they’d fail. If not, I think someone would have done it already. I live in a highly Mexican influenced area on the north side of Chicago. There’s one restaurant near me, Lupita’s, that serves phenominal, really real authentic Mexican, as well as burritos and fajitas and the rest. I go there and try her specials, which tend toward the small birds and rose petals, or seafood, while some of my friends get really good versions of familiar, though not “authentic” food as well. (Though I’m not a food snob - if I feel like a chimichanga, I’ll order it. I don’t care what its pedigree is if it tastes good! And Lupita sure knows how to deep fry a tortilla, whether or not it’s “authentic”!)

The other thing to consider is that Tex-Mex food is now popular among Mexicans, both American and Mexican. So you will find these things now in Mexico, but they’re not original to Mexico. Likewise, you may find American style pizza in Italy, but “authentic Italian pizza” is different.

BrainGlutton writes:

> If some enterprising Mexican immigrant opened a restaurant in the U.S. serving
> really authentic Mexican cuisine, would it succeed or fail, I wonder?

I have gone to a nearby Mexican restaurant a number of times. I can’t swear to how authentic it is since I have never been to Mexico, but nearly always I’m the only non-Hispanic there (in a restaurant often full with about forty diners). Not only is everyone else there speaking Spanish, but it’s clearly packed with very recent (and quite possibly illegal) immigrants. If it’s not authentic Mexican food, why would they bother coming? Why would the owners, also probably moderately recent immigrants, bother to serve non-authentic food to people who know authentic food? The odd thing is that is that despite the efforts of the food editors of The Washington Post and The Washington City Paper to hype the place (at least they know how good the food is there), it still doesn’t get many non-immigrant diners. So, my guess is, yes, the restaurant would succeed, but it might not get very many diners who weren’t recent Mexican immigrants.

Because Mexican people like burritos just as much as you and I. I bet they also eat Italian food on occasion. There are plenty of Mexican immigrants eating at the Chinese buffet down the block from me, and I’m often the only non-Mexican there at lunchtime. Does that mean Chinese buffet is authentic Mexican food?

There’s been a lot of recipe exchange, particularly in Northern Mexico, for the past 200 years. There’s plenty of Mexican restaurants in Mexico serving not really Mexican foods. I’m sure it was originally for tourists, but it didn’t take long for Mexicans to discover that the only thing tastier than beans wrapped in a tortilla is deep frying it.

Having worked in a Mexican restaurant with a SUBSTANTIAL number of Mexican immigrants, legal and otherwise, I do know that Authentic is more mild, but it has been 10 years since I worked there, so I can’t be anymore specific. Now a lot of Tex Mex places are simply designating themselves as Authentic and keeping the Tex Mex recipes.

It’d be marketed differently. Fonda San Miguel is a very successful interior Mexican restaurant here in Austin but it’s also kinda of pricey and you often need a reservation. But all the quickie eating joints and casual dining Mexican restaurants are Tex-Mex (and heavily patronized by Anglos, Mexican-Americans, and Mexican nationals).

Here in OKC, and in Dallas, Abuelo’s makes a few jillion dollars a week, and it has, for the most part, Authentic Mex food. They also have great management and decor, so the Authentic may not be what is being sold, so much as the experience. I think if you sell Mexican food anywhere from Kansas down to Laredo you can get rich. Authentic, texMex, whocareswhat, just slap the Mex label on it. It’s pretty hard to foul up Mexican food (unless **I’m ** the one cooking it.)

I love Mexican food. I ate it every chance I got while I was living in Austin. At least, we called it that- it was, of course, Tex-Mex.

Up here in Oregon, however, you just can’t find Tex-Mex- it’s all much closer to authentic Mexican food. Nobody knows what the hell queso is- one of my friends asked for it, and the waiter brought him a small plate of shredded cheese.

Man, I miss Tex-Mex. Nobody does good fajitas here.

What kind of food does it serve?

And then there’s “Santa Fe” style Mexican food, which is yet another category, but probably still as “authentic” as the rest. It’s all regional differences and stems from the fact there is no such thing as “Mexican” any more than there is such a thing as “Indian” food, or “European” food. All these terms are used in everyday conversation and advertising, but they’re all loosely defined. Best bet is to learn the names of dishes you like and call ahead to a place you’ve never been if you don’t want to be suprised if their “Mexican” food turns out to be Santa Fe or Tex-Mex.


Rick Bayless, a big time Chicago chef and creator of the Frontera brand, is an expert in authentic Mexican cooking. In an interview I read once, he said that people that eat his food usually don’t understand why it doesn’t taste like the Mexican food they’re used to. He said that the biggest difference between authentic and Americanized Mexican foods is cumin. American Mexican food is full of it.