So What Is Tex-Mex, Really? An Arlington restaurant rekindles faith in a much-maligned regional cuisine.

Processed Server: Cantina Mexicana’s Monterrey combo brings in the queso.
Darrow Montgomery

The two enchiladas on my plate at the Austin Grill are so artfully arranged that I jerk my head back from the table, as if someone has just hooked jumper cables to my ears, and exclaim, “Whoa!” These are not the enchiladas of my Tex-Mex past.

Both enchiladas, one chicken and the other cheese, are encased in flour tortillas (!) and a thick Batman suit of what looks like mozzarella. The torpedoes are painted with a red ancho sauce on one end and a green tomatillo sauce on the other. The colors of the Mexican flag have been baked right onto my plate, Austin Grill’s enchilada version of chile en nogada. I don’t know whether to eat it or call Fox News. At least the latter would have some fun with this platter of Austin Special Enchiladas: “ALERT: Local Tex-Mex chain pushes for porous borders via combo that looks like Mexican flag!”

As for me, I’m stewing on the idea that Austin Grill can’t fully embrace the Tejano culture that created this much-maligned regional cuisine. This is a chain more comfortable peddling a cool, alt-country notion of Tex-Mex: the culinary equivalent of the No Depression, Keep Austin Weird, hippy-country vibe that keeps those Gram Parsons wannabes flocking to the Texas capital. The only way, I think, the suburbanites who frequent Austin Grill could enjoy Velveeta would be ironically.

I don’t mean to pick on Austin Grill. Its founders decided right from the start that they wanted to gussy up the gritty dishes of Tex-Mex cuisine. “We loved the down-home-comfort version [of Tex-Mex] and we felt our version of taking it up a notch was acceptable,” says THINKfoodGROUP CEO Rob Wilder, who launched Austin Grill in 1988 with Ann Cashion as chef. “Tex-Mex is one of those ultimate American melting-pot cuisines that can survive reinventions as long as it’s done in the right hands.”

Wilder sold Austin Grill in 2006, but the confusion over what exactly is Tex-Mex lives on. Even professionals stumble over definitions. I recently read where a local critic recommended Guajillo in Arlington for good Tex-Mex. Let me state this plainly: There’s virtually nothing Tex-Mex about Guajillo.

So what is Tex-Mex? “Tex-Mex is much more simple and predictable” than Mexican cuisine, e-mails Patricia Jinich, the chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in D.C. “You can munch on a big sloppy Tex-Mex combo plate with an enchilada, beans and rice (which are different from other Mexican beans and rices) and be happy because it was tasty and you are full. But Mexican food is exotic, it surprises you in a way that Tex-Mex doesn’t.”

If that definition doesn’t satisfy your craving for specifics, consider what my colleague Robb Walsh, restaurant critic for the Houston Press, wrote in The Tex-Mex Cookbook in 2004: “The dictionaries don’t agree on whether Tex-Mex means Americanized Mexican food in general or specifically the kind from Texas.”

“There is no consensus on what Tex-Mex means in Texas either,” Walsh continues in his book. “Middle-aged Anglos tend to describe it as a specific subset of the larger genre of Mexican food—one that involves yellow cheese enchiladas with chopped raw onions and chili gravy as served in San Antonio around 1955.”

You can officially lump me into the category of middle-aged Anglos.

However limited and incomplete my understanding, I think of Tex-Mex in the following terms: molten pools of processed yellow cheese. No queso blanco. No Monterey Jack. No cheddar. Just large gelatinous lakes of bubbling Velveeta cheese. American cheese, Velveeta’s slightly less redneck cousin, will do in a pinch.

You think I’m joking? Let me to direct you to page 154 in Walsh’s Tex-Mex Cookbook: “Like many longtime residents of the Lone Star Republic, I get downright sentimental about the goop that’s left on the plate after the enchiladas are gone. Especially at places like Larry’s [Original Mexican in Richmond, Texas]. The cheese here has a certain je ne sais quoi, by which I mean that after half an hour of beer drinking, it still has not hardened.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know there are other dishes, beverages, and snacks that define Tex-Mex: stiff, salt-rimmed margaritas, chewy grilled fajitas, gloppy chili con queso, crispy hard-shell tacos, and, of course, tortilla chips with salsa. But when I get a hankering for the Tex-Mex of my sweaty Houston days, I look no further than the combo-plates, where I drill down to the one bearing cheese enchiladas. These logs must be corn tortillas wrapped tightly around a thick filling of processed cheese and raw onions, topped with a roux-based chili gravy and more shredded cheese. The whole plate must then be baked in a hot oven until the waiter needs Kevlar gloves to carry it.

It’s not easy finding a place with the cojones to serve such a gooey, anti-culinary mess. Some joints come close. Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue, which is somehow related to that multicultural monstrosity Lauriol Plaza, does respectable cheese enchiladas, with lots of piquant squares of raw onion and a savory gravy. It just has one flaw: cheddar cheese. The plate is flooded with it. The same problem mars an otherwise decent combo plate at San Antonio Bar & Grill in Brookland: Its enchiladas come stuffed with cheddar and/or Jack.

I had given up hope that I’d ever find a greasy Tex-Mex joint until I read about Cantina Mexicana in Crystal City, which had somehow escaped my attention despite the fact it’s been around for 30 years, originally under the name Taco House. I knew I had found the right spot when the first course of my Monterrey combo included a “queso tostada,” this fragile fried tortilla slathered in a glistening yellow substance that looks like (and has a similar mouthfeel to) melted Gummy Bears. It was pure processed-cheese goodness.

When I finally sliced my fork into the second course of enchiladas, all browned and caramelized on top, a rivulet of yellow cheese oozed onto the plate. I had the opposite reaction from the one at Austin Grill. I sat as still and quiet as a parishioner, enraptured by that squirt of cheese. The first bite soon rewarded my faith: The disparate elements of cheese and corn tortilla and onions and chili gravy coalesced into one harmonious whole, as perfect as country music and cerveza on a hot Texas night.

So what kind of cheese is in those enchiladas? I was somewhat surprised to learn it was a cheesier American, not the crappier Velveeta. I was, however, far more surprised to learn that the owners, Gloria and Juan Arias, are natives of El Salvador. The couple bought the Taco House in 1995 and renamed it Cantina Mexicana 10 years later. These Salvadorans decided to remain faithful to the original owner’s Tex-Mex vision. Gloria and Juan Arias felt no need to take it up a notch.

Cantina Mexicana, 515 S. 23rd St., Arlington, (703) 979-7033.

 

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Our Readers Say

Another great piece, Tim!
YES! I'm there!
Why would you think Tex-Nex at Austin Grill would be the same as in Texas come on its a chain.
"This is a chain more comfortable peddling a cool, alt-country notion of Tex-Mex: the culinary equivalent of the No Depression, Keep Austin Weird, hippy-country vibe that keeps those Gram Parsons wannabes flocking to the Texas capital."

The preceding sentence captures perfectly what bugs Texans about Austin. For all its promise, it lacks Houston's warm (in more ways than one) authenticity. And yes, that applies to Tex-Mex as well, in all its corn-tortilla, chili-gravy, Velveeta-cheese-enchilada glory. Thanks for getting it right.
Okay I think I've been to Cantina Mexicana once before but clearly I didn't get the right dish. I need to go back and try the rest of the menu!
But have you tried Toucan Taco in Laurel? I'm not from Texas, but I'd love to know if this meets your requirements.

http://www.toucantaco.com/?cat=8
Wow, just a few days ago a friend and I were lamenting the lack of good Tex-Mex restaurants in DC. In an attempt to describe it, I had said it was just a notch or two above Taco Bell with better chips and salsa. I stand by that description. We'll have to try Cantina Mexicana.
Flour tortillas are the WORST thing since sliced bread.
Thank you for this! It's all about the cheese and onion enchiladas for me too. I grew up in Dallas and I don't understand why "Tex-Mex" restaurants in the DC area feel that they have to try so hard to be sophisticated. When I picture the ideal Tex-Mex meal, it's a plate with pools of brown and orange goop with some rice on the side. Those refried beans better be a soupy puree and yes, I want my american cheese-filled enchilada submerged in a lake of chili gravy. Uncle Julio's comes closer to the ideal enchilada than most around here, but the beans are unacceptable - whole beans in a crock of liquid with recognizable bits of chili pepper and onion? What? Anyway, thanks for the recommendation.
I'm from Corpus. I don't get this obsession with the American cheese goop. Cheddar is just fine, as is a mix of it in your enchiladas. What we also need is a good place to get a real Tex-Mex breakfast. Where the hell can we find good migas, taquitos, etc.? I guess I have to make it in my own kitchen to have it here in DC.

My mom is from El Paso so I do have a great appreciation for the New Mexico-style as well, but a fine, greasy plate of Tex-Mex I am missing!
Excellent post - I am moving to DC and my main fear is that I won't be able to find a good Tex Mex place. I'll have to try this place.
I am from Corpus Christi and lived away from home for 11 years. I have traveled quite a bit and LOVE food. I crave and miss traditional Tex-Mex on a daily basis. I have tried recreating carne guisada for the past 10 years and I just can't do it! When I go home to visit I over load on carne guisada taquitos for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nowhere, will you find it better than in southwest Texas. Corpus Christi, Refugio, Victoria, San Antonio, there's not too many more.

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