Posted on October 2, 2011
We just came back from another successful visit to the Rio Grande Valley—and quite a tour it was—Edinburg, Elsa, Weslaco, Harlingen, La Feria. We visited some of Tlacuache’s ancestors—recent and ancient.
We pawed pumpkin empanadas, breakfast tacos, and other portable homemade goods.
The outside of the empanadas in La Feria were lighter than any others I have had, so very tearable, and the filling was the most pumpkiny and least sweet. It was intense, earthy, and delightful.
The food of South Texas and the region of the border known as the Rio Grande Valley, (RGV or just “The Valley” to locals) is a regional cuisine best understood by forgetting most of what you have ever heard about Tex-Mex. The term has been widely misused, and for many it recalls some kind of Americanized Mexican food, devoid of authenticity.
Last year the New York Times made a serious mistake when they declared, “When it comes to breakfast tacos… Austin trumps all other American cities.” I won’t deliberate too much on how wrong this is, because someone else has done a good job laying out the arguments. But it is important to emphasize that this is not just a case of being a poor sport, or a little pissy because some newspaper gave your favorite restaurant a bad review—this is indicative of widespread common ignorance of one of our countries’ oldest and most distinctive regional cuisines—as heirloom as Creole-Cajun (and somewhat a cousin), and as significant as any interior regional Mexican cuisine.
The intersection of the Spanish, the Canary Islanders, Native Americans, and European settlers has created a vibrant and unique food tradition. Much of the food is derived from what vaqueros ate on ranches, along with what could be easily grown or foraged in a verdant but perennially drought-plagued land. Nowadays, believe it or not, some of the most revered breakfast tacos in the RGV are found in the Stripes foodmarts at Valero gas stations on almost every corner. Everything is made from scratch on site. I know this because you can watch elderly ladies cook the myriad of taco fillings—beans, chorizo, chicharones, papas, barbacoa—and roll the flour tortillas, while you wait in the long line that weaves to the back of the store.
Austin wasn’t even founded as a city until over 100 years after the Franciscans built the Missions and acequias of downtown San Antonio. Austin was founded by Anglos (after long-standing conflicts with native peoples), and today it is only made up of about 30% Mexican-Americans (as compared San Antonio, which is a Latino majority city, with Mexican Americans making up close to 70% of the population). Yet so much of what is known of “Tex-Mex,” outside of Texas, is Austin derived, and therefore it is often thought to be a name for Anglicized Mexican food—gimmicky at best. That is to say, I think we could count on one hand the number of establishments making tortillas by hand in Austin. When I go to Austin I eat Kolaches and BBQ, or sushi, not usually Mexican food.
Although the food traditions of Tex-Mex are common in much of the state, a century ago San Antonio was the largest urban center in the state, so it was the place of origin for many innovations in cuisine as the region developed. It has remained, along with the RGV, a gateway to northern Mexico, with the cultural and, historically, military center of the Spanish conquests. This is why, for example, chorizo is a staple here, while it is less important in Mexican cuisines in other parts of the country—and probably tastes much different. Chili con carne—really a sort of chili soup flavored with bits of meat, but mostly just chiles and broth and NEVER BEANS—was invented here by the Chili Queens who set up food stands in Market Square. A chili gravy enchilada was born out of the chili con carne—a way to make a dish hearty and flavorful, without using a lot of perishable meat.
One essential part of Tex-Mex is the flour tortilla—another inheritance from Spaniards who brought wheat to the region. You would be hard pressed to find a restaurant in San Antonio that doesn’t make their own fresh to order. They are particularly thick and fluffy in SA, apparently because of the limestone in the natural aquifer from which we get our water. The tortillas in the RVG are slightly thinner, have more fat, and larger in circumference. The breakfast taco is probably a cowboy food, like the fajita (a grilled, heavily marinated, cut of otherwise tough skirt steak). It usually begins with eggs, but the combinations are endless– bacon, beans, chorizo, nopalitos, barbacoa, potatoes, cheese…
For more pics of the amazing bas relief mural that tells the story of the continent’s people from Ancient Mayas and Olmecs to modern times, here is a gallery. Across the railroad tracks from this monumental installation is the Army Surplus, where certain Chicano militants used to buy their ammo and other supplies during the most recent bout of armed class struggle in the region. It has been open since the 1940’s.
We made a return to Marine’s in Weslaco, for excellent specimen of warm pumpkin empanadas.
We drove past fields of sugarcane, cabbage, and onions. Strange extravagant stucco mansions built by drug dealers and sold for pennies on the dollar after the housing crash. Citrus groves cut up by housing developments, trimmed with rows of palm trees. Old store fronts and cemeteries that will probably outlast the latest wave of strip malls and fast food restaurants. On the way back we passed the San Manuel chorizo factory and ranch, the border patrol check point, more rows of citrus, hills covered in mesquite.