In Austin you can ask anyone on the street about the best Mexican food and get a myriad of competing answers, each colored by family traditions, personal tastes, and memories of Mexican meals enjoyed. Texans have a passionate, full-on love affair with Mexican food, and it’s not difficult to imagine why. Mexican food is simple, comforting joy on a plate. If food is love, then velvety tortillas, smothered enchiladas, breakfast tacos, and mole are our cherished, perennial valentines.
Driving through the city today, Mexican restaurants seem to be as ubiquitous as man buns at Barton Springs on a Sunday. But there was a time when you could count them on one hand. To learn how the local Mexican food scene has expanded to accommodate our muy grande appetites over the years, we gathered seasoned Tex-Mex and regional Mexican cuisine restaurateurs for a roundtable discussion.
These restaurant warriors have been going at their craft, collectively, for nearly 150 years. They have spent thousands of hours in every aspect of their business, digging deep to source just the right chiles, corn and authentic ingredients, and honing their dishes, creating dining experiences, and washing cups and cutlery in the wee hours of the morning. Here’s the lowdown from the official sponsors of our stomachs.
Forty years back, there weren’t nearly so many restaurants in Austin. Yes, there was the Chicken Shack, The Stallion, Night Hawk, County Line, and Holiday House on Airport—with its live alligator—but Mexican food, then as now, held pole position in the race for our collective appetite. When David Joseph and his family opened Tex-Mex restaurant El Patio on Guadalupe, Joseph says, there were four main destinations for Tex-Mex in Austin: El Matamoros, Matt’s El Rancho, La Tapatia, and his own restaurant.
His family originally hails from Lebanon. Their first foray in the restaurant business served something they knew well—Lebanese food. When Austinites failed to bite, the Josephs embraced Tex-Mex—and Austinites hugged back. Like the other Tex-Mex places, El Patio had its devoted regulars with their designated day of the week visits. “If we didn’t see people on their ‘day’, sometimes we would look them up in the phonebook, call them and ask, ‘Hey, are you okay?’” Joseph says.
El Patio is now serving the great-great-grandchildren of their first customers. They are known for their traditional Tex-Mex cheese and beef enchiladas and homemade tortilla chips hand-cranked out of a press to cut the round shells. The masa is thicker with a distinctive texture and fried to a sublime crunch.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Austinites were able to move past Tex-Mex and experience Mexican dining for the first time. After opening a successful Mexican restaurant in Houston a few years prior, Tom Gilliland and the late Miguel Ravago opened Fonda San Miguel. The two met in Austin and quickly discovered a shared passion for Mexican food. While Gilliland doesn’t share a lineage with our neighbors to the south, he rolls his Rs like a native. It would be many years until he learned of his early ties to the country—he was conceived in Mexico City.
Lost in Austin one day, Gilliland used a convenience store payphone to make a call. A “for lease” sign on a building across Hancock Drive caught his eye. In 1975, Gilliland and Ravago’s restaurant opened its doors for the first time. It’s not only the home of the $17 enchilada plate (worth every penny) today, Fonda San Miguel is still considered by many to be the godfather of Austin’s regional Mexican dining scene.
The first year wasn’t easy. The restaurant and its food initially struggled to find an audience. “People would come in and say, ‘Oh, I thought this was a Mexican restaurant. Where’s the combination plate?’ Then they would walk out,” Gilliland recounts. In the early days, there were also challenges to sourcing food and spices, as the USDA and customs officials prevented beans being imported from Mexico. Gilliland eventually found a supplier in Greeley, Colorado. Getting the right chiles needed for each dish was difficult, too. The restaurateurs had to buy a mixed bag of hot, mild and pungent peppers from produce houses and then sort through to get the ones they needed.
The new restaurant began to gain traction in its second year. “The people who helped us a lot were faculty at UT,” Gilliland explains. “They traveled a lot and said, ‘Oh, you have this, you have that… we can only get that in Mexico.’” It wasn’t until the owners made what a purist might term a concession to that Tex-Mex staple — chips and salsa — that they began making a profit. “We didn’t put chips and salsa on the tables because salsa ruins the taste buds—but as soon as we did, we were able to pay our bills.”
Mexican food reflects the country’s layering of different cultures and history, incorporating Spanish, French, South American and Mayan culinary traditions. Gilliland believes that the perception of Mexican food here is changing for the better—although he contends that some chefs are mixing things up a little too much. “Even in Mexico, there is a movement to contemporize the fare, but chefs from the States are going to Mexico for a month, coming back, and stretching it. It’s not fusion food, it’s confusion food. We are a lot more purist.” He lauds other regional purists here in Austin like Marisela Godinez and her El Mesón restaurants; Las Palomas in Westlake, led by the founders’ daughter MariCarmen Corona Dale; and El Naranjo, run by Iliana de la Vega and her husband Ernesto. “What Iliana is doing at El Naranjo is the real deal,” Gilliland says.
Iliana de la Vega, a native of Mexico, ran a successful restaurant in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for many years. Its food graced the cover of Bon Appétit magazine in 2003 with the caption: “The Soul of Mexico: bold flavors, romantic places, and rich traditions.” Political unrest in their region led de la Vega and her husband to Austin ten years ago. Starting with a food trailer in 2010 to get a grip on the Austin market, they quickly moved to a brick-and-mortar restaurant two years later on Rainey Street, downtown. De la Vega is a passionate chef and educator about Mexican food. “A lot of people come to my restaurant and say, ‘This is not Mexican’, and I have to figure out how to tell them without being arrogant or pretentious that Tex-Mex is another type of Mexican food—just like Oaxacan or Yucatecan are. The food we eat is what we find near us.” The tomatoes and chiles that are at the heart of Tex-Mex dishes tend to take a back seat in other regional Mexican food. “A lot of people ask me, ‘Why don’t you have chips and salsa?’ Well, we don’t do that in Mexico,” she explains. “We eat bread.”
De la Vega imports non-GMO heirloom Mexican corn for El Naranjo’s homemade tortillas and dishes. Then she undertakes the laborious task of cooking, drying, and grinding the kernels. She says the trouble is worth it. “The tortilla is the essence of our cuisines. The maiz from American corn just doesn’t smell like a real tortilla to me. There was always something missing.” People have noticed her purist attention to detail. The tortillas, along with her mid-meal bread service—crusty and soft, made by her daughter, a pastry chef, and served with three condiments—are El Naranjo diner favorites. Another popular dish, their Mole Negro, almost didn’t make it to the menu. “It took me two years to decide to put it on the menu because it takes three days to make,” she explains. That is food as love.
If Fonda is the godfather, Manuel’s could well be the consigliere. Greg Koury, his wife Jennifer McNevin, and Ahmad Modoni are the owners of this hotspot for regional classics. They began 30 years ago with a location on Congress Avenue, later adding one in the Arboretum. Koury gives kudos to his former employers, Fonda founders Gilliland and Ravago, for opening up a market for regional Mexican food. “They bulldozed those walls in Austin and educated this public greatly. It opened the doors for so many others, like ourselves, to step out and do something.” A taste for this type of interior Mexican food started to grow, and Koury jokes that Texas Monthly’s long-time food critic had some fresh material. “Pat Sharpe finally had something to write about other than ‘The redfish at Matt’s this past Sunday was really something.’”
Despite what aesthetic-heavy Instagram-worthy food culture may suggest, Koury believes that today’s young gastronomers are really in search of full-bodied flavors and creativity. “I’m looking for authenticity but a younger generation coming in is less curious about that and whether it looks cool on a plate. Each bite has to taste great.” Manuel’s continues to pack them in three decades later. Their seafood relleno, a stuffed poblano pepper topped with Dutch Gouda cheese sourced from cheesemakers in the Yucatan, is a fan favorite. Another popular item is Manuel’s Parrillada, a mixed grill of beef tenderloin, chicken, shrimp, and nopalitas (baby cactus paddles), served family-style.
Things have certainly changed through the years. When Roberto Espinosa moved to Austin from Mexico City, the first Mexican restaurant he experienced was Taco Bell. “It was a bit of a culture shock,” Espinosa laughs. When he opened his first Tacodeli in 1999, it had been over 20 years since other Mexican restaurateurs had laid claim to breaking down those early barriers—but Espinosa found himself still staring at them, head-on. “When I first tried selling MO-lay—I couldn’t do it. Customers would ask, ‘What’s a mole?’”
Espinosa has seen a shift in taste buds the last ten years, but says there are still challenges in coaxing diners’ tastes south of the border. “Social media is banging barriers down left and right. People are learning the differences between a tamale from Oaxaca versus one from Mexico City. However, our customers are surprised that we have a lot of fish on our menu. When you look at the ratio of coastline to landmass in Mexico, it’s extensive. There is a very heavy seafood tradition.”
Like many Mexican restaurant patrons, Tacodeli’s are particular about their tacos, and what they dress them with. “When you talk about emotional attachment and a high level of passion, a lot of people have that for our Salsa Doña,” Espinosa says. “I once had people walk out of the restaurant because we were all out. Since then, we’ve never run out!” The condiment was named after the lady who first made it in his kitchen, Doña Bertha. Espinosa used to try to keep the recipe secret, but many have tried to replicate it under the same name and now that the salsa can be found in grocery stores, the ingredients are readily available.
That there are now hundreds of eateries offering Mexican cuisine in Austin didn’t deter Kris Swift and his partner Adam Jacoby from opening Grizzelda’s in East Austin in late 2016. The upscale restaurant is still finding its sweet spot, somewhere between traditional Tex-Mex and regional Mexican recipes, each fused with a range of different flavors and styles. Take their Tulum-influenced ceviche with pineapple cured corvina, cucumber, pickled coriander, onion, and chili oil, for example. Their dark mole is lauded as well—served over chicken brined in salt water for 48 hours for extra juiciness.
“People love our tortillas, handmade every morning—both corn and flour,” Swift says. “Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest things. We put a lot of time and research into finding what is authentic for what we do. It’s about finding that magical thing that is correct and is authentic to who we are and what we are serving in our restaurant. But authentic means different things to different people. Just like any other cooking tradition, there are differences within cities and between streets.” To make his point, Swift quipped, “Just ask someone whose grandma makes the best mole…” Before he could finish, Espinosa exclaimed, “My grandmother!”
Where is Mexican food going next? “It’s going wherever people at this table have the bravery to take it,” Swift smiled. For starters, prime your taste buds for chapulines. Chapulines? That’s Spanish for grasshopper—a new delicacy that’s finding a wide audience north of the border. New varieties of mezcal, chiles, fruits and wild ingredients are being integrated into dishes that continue to evolve because of the creativity of the people in these kitchens.
If there was a sliding scale with traditional Mexican food on one end, and fusion-based innovation on the other, there are Mexican restaurants all along the spectrum here in Austin. Fusing Korean BBQ and Mexican staples, restaurants like Chi’lantro are quickly finding new patrons. Their rice bowl is a mixture of rice, black beans, corn, kimchi, a fried egg, and salsa—a Tex-Mex wink to the Korean bibimbap.
Whether it’s interior regional, Tex-Mex, or fusion, the food that feeds our bodies and souls is deeply personal. As Swift sums it up nicely, “Food is love. Love is a little bit different to everybody.”
Read more from the Food Issue | July 2017