San Antonio and Its Role in the History of Tex-Mex Cuisine

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Tony Maples Photography


Tex-Mex cuisine is as iconic to the Lone Star State as the Alamo, and both can trace their roots back to the heart of Texas, San Antonio. This little town on the edge of the Texas Hill Country played a big role in popularizing Tex-Mex cuisine and making it a distinctive fare that the entire United States enjoys. How traditional food moved across the border and evolved into Tex-Mex is where the Hill Country comes in.

What is Tex-Mex Cuisine?

Fajitas are a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Though many have gone to Mexican restaurants, almost all of these serve Tex-Mex foods. Unlike traditional Mexican dishes, which use ingredients from the New World, such as corn tortillas, Tex-Mex uses wheat flour and yellow cheese, brought by Europeans. If you eat something covered in gooey, melted cheese, you likely have a Tex-Mex food in front of you. Yes, this includes enchiladas, fajitas, nachos, hard-shell tacos, and chili.

Where the Name Tex-Mex Originated

Enchiladas with a side of ubiquitous rice and beans are common Tex-Mex cuisine fare

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Tex-Mex originally referred to a rail line, not to a food. Many railroads abbreviated their names based on the major cities at their ends. So, the Texas Mexican Railway became known as Tex Mex, though without a hyphen. By the 1920s, this term also was used in newspapers to indicate Texans with Mexican ancestry, though now the hyphen became part of the word. In a 1963 article in the New York Times, the word Tex-Mex was first used to refer to the cuisine. And, “The Cuisines of Mexico” by Diane Kennedy in 1972 solidified the distinction between Tex-Mex cuisine and genuine Mexican food.

Where Tex-Mex Cuisine Originated

A Bowl of Red

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Like many things in Texas history, San Antonio became a place to popularize aspects of Hill Country culture. Though Tex-Mex was the food of the Tejanos for decades, San Antonio was where this cuisine came to the masses. In the 1880s, rail lines brought more people into San Antonio, and the town’s chili queens kept them fed. Not only did they help to spread chili to the rest of the United States they also helped to popularize other Tejano home cooking meals, that almost 80 years later came to be known as Tex-Mex. Tejano home cooking took aspects of traditional Mexican cooking and combined it with American ingredients brought by the trains into Texas. This merging of cultures created the melting pot that is Tex-Mex. The addition of rice and beans to most Tex-Mex combination plates was the brainchild of Otis Farnsworth, who owned San Antonio’s Original Mexican Restaurant. Customers appreciated the value, and soon other Mexican restaurants copied the practice until it became ubiquitous in Tex-Mex cuisine.