Texas shares a border with Mexico, so it’s no surprise that Mexican food is extremely popular and commonly eaten throughout the state. Tex-Mex cuisine was born from the blend of traditional Mexican dishes and local Texas ingredients and cooking styles. There are certain Mexican food staples that are found on menus across Texas.
Tacos are by far one of the most popular and ubiquitous Mexican foods in Texas. Corn or flour tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole, salsa and more can be found everywhere from taco trucks to Mexican restaurants to backyard barbecues. Texans have embraced tacos fully, with breakfast tacos being a Texas specialty, often stuffed with eggs, potato, bacon, cheese and served with a side of salsa. Tacos al pastor featuring thin slices of marinated pork is another popular taco variety in Texas.
Another quintessential Tex-Mex dish is the quesadilla. Two flour tortillas filled with cheese – often a blend of Monterey jack and cheddar – and other fillings like meats, beans or veggies. Quesadillas are commonly cooked on a griddle or pan until the tortillas are crispy and the cheese melted. They are cut into wedges and served with sides like guacamole, sour cream and salsa. Chicken and fajita quesadillas with bell peppers and onions are popular menu items across Texas.
No Tex-Mex meal is complete without nachos as an appetizer. Tortilla chips layered with refried beans, melted cheese, jalapeños, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. Nachos are the perfect shareable snack and they originated right in Texas! The first nachos were supposedly created in 1943 by a maître d’ in Piedras Negras, Mexico (just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas) when some wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan came into the restaurant after closing time.
Enchiladas are another staple of Tex-Mex cuisine. Corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, meat, beans or veggies and covered in chile sauce. Some popular versions are cheese enchiladas with red chile sauce, chicken enchiladas with green chile sauce, and beef enchiladas with ranchero sauce. Enchiladas are served as a main dish with sides of rice and refried beans.
Sizzling plates of fajitas are served across Texas, especially at Tex-Mex restaurants. Skirt steak or chicken is grilled with sliced onions and bell peppers. Fajitas are brought out to the table on a hot cast iron plate or skillet accompanied by warm flour tortillas, guacamole, sour cream, cheese and pico de gallo. Diners assemble their own fajitas by wrapping the grilled meat and veggies in the tortillas.
Tamales have been eaten in Mexico for millennia and they hold an important place in Tex-Mex cuisine as well. Corn dough with a meat or other filling that is steamed wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. Traditional fillings are shredded beef, chicken, pork or beans. Tamales are typically served as a side but can also be eaten by themselves as a snack or appetizer.
These puffy fried dough treats are the quintessential Mexican dessert in Texas. Sopaipillas are made from a simple dough that is rolled out, cut into squares or circles, and deep fried so they puff up with air pockets. While sopaipillas are often served as a sweet treat with honey, they can also be an accompaniment for a savory Tex-Mex meal, served with beans and chile con queso for dipping.
What would Tex-Mex be without margaritas? The cocktail blending tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice was invented in Mexico but became wildly popular in the U.S. thanks to Tex-Mex restaurants. Margaritas are the perfect refreshment alongside spicy Mexican food. Margarita pitchers are a staple of happy hour and weekends in Texas bars.
Style of Cuisine
Tex-Mex cuisine blends traditional Mexican cooking with American tastes and local Texas ingredients. Here are some of the distinguishing style elements:
- Lots of melted cheese – Especially cheddar and Monterey jack cheese.
- Use of flour tortillas – More prevalent than corn tortillas.
- Chili con carne – Thick, spicy meat stew.
- Chile con queso – Melted cheese dip.
- Frito pie – Chili and cheese served over Fritos corn chips.
- Breakfast tacos – Served with eggs, potato, bacon.
- Fajitas – Grilled meat and veggies served sizzling hot.
So in summary, the Tex-Mex cuisine blends authentic Mexican food like tacos, quesadillas, nachos and tamales with local Texas flair resulting in dishes like chili con carne and breakfast tacos. The style tends to use more meat, cheese and wheat flour tortillas than traditional Mexican cooking.
Most Iconic Restaurants
There are certain Tex-Mex restaurants that have become iconic throughout the state. These include:
El Arroyo – Austin
Famous for their margaritas and Mexican food plus the hilarious signs out front.
Matt’s El Rancho – Austin
Legendary Tex-Mex restaurant open since 1952 and famous for Bob Armstrong dip made with queso.
Chuy’s – Statewide
Texas chain open since 1982 known for huge portions of enchiladas, fajitas and more.
Ninfa’s – Houston
Claims to have invented fajitas and Tex-Mex staple since 1973 with great margaritas.
Mi Tierra Cafe & Bakery – San Antonio
Huge 24-hour restaurant in San Antonio’s Market Square serving classic Tex-Mex dishes.
Trudy’s Tex-Mex – Austin
Austin staple open 30+ years known for margaritas, chips and salsa and Mexican martinis.
Most Common Dishes
Here is a summary of the most common and popular Mexican/Tex-Mex dishes served in Texas restaurants:
|Corn or flour tortilla with meat, cheese, lettuce, pico, salsa
|Flour tortillas filled with cheese and other ingredients
|Tortilla chips with melted cheese, beans, jalapeños, etc.
|Filled corn tortillas covered in chile sauce
|Grilled steak or chicken with veggies served sizzling hot
|Filled corn dough steamed in corn husks or banana leaf
|Fried puffy dough served with honey
|Cocktail made with tequila, orange liqueur and lime
Comparison to Authentic Mexican Cuisine
There are some key differences between the Tex-Mex fare served in Texas vs. authentic Mexican cuisine:
- Tex-Mex uses more cheese, especially cheddar and Monterey jack.
- More wheat flour tortillas instead of corn tortillas.
- Rice is served as a side dish in Tex-Mex.
- Chili con carne and fajitas are Tex-Mex originals.
- Breakfast tacos are not authentic Mexican food.
- Tex-Mex cuisine tends to be heavier with more meat.
- Tex-Mex flavors favor cumin, chili powder, garlic.
- Authentic Mexican is lighter, featuring seafood and vegetables.
- Authentic Mexican relies more on herbs and citrus flavors.
That said, there is a lot of overlap between Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican dishes like tacos, quesadillas, tamales, enchiladas and nachos. But Tex-Mex puts its own local spin on the preparation and flavors.
While Tex-Mex is known for being indulgent comfort food, there are some healthier options and ways to order:
- Chicken fajitas instead of steak.
- Veggie fajitas with extra bell peppers, onions, mushrooms.
- Soft corn tortillas instead of crispy fried shells.
- Black beans instead of refried beans.
- Chicken or shrimp enchiladas and tacos.
- Roasted veggie enchiladas or tacos.
- Tomatillo green salsa instead of heavy red chile sauce.
- Fajita salad instead of fajitas platter.
- Gazpacho soup or vegetarian tortilla soup.
- Order sides of rice and beans instead of chips and queso.
Being mindful of portion sizes of high fat and calorie ingredients like cheese, sour cream, guacamole and tortilla chips can also help make Tex-Mex healthier.
Breakfast tacos are a uniquely Texan take on the beloved taco. Small flour tortillas stuffed with eggs, breakfast meats and cheese that make for a hearty and portable morning meal. Some popular breakfast taco fillings in Texas include:
- Egg and cheese – Eggs with cheddar cheese.
- Bacon and egg – Scrambled eggs with crispy bacon.
- Sausage and egg – Eggs paired with savory breakfast sausage.
- Chorizo and egg – Spicy Mexican chorizo sausage.
- Potato, egg and cheese – With shredded hashbrowns.
- Bean and cheese – Refried or black beans with cheese.
- Brisket – Smoked Texas brisket.
- Barbacoa – Shredded beef.
- Fajita – Grilled steak or chicken with peppers and onions.
Salsa, pico de gallo and avocado are popular toppings. Breakfast tacos are available at taco shops, food trucks and restaurants across Texas all morning long.
Rice and Beans
While not exclusive to Tex-Mex cuisine, rice and beans are a staple side dish. Frijoles de la olla are pinto beans that are slowly simmered with onions, garlic, and seasonings until tender and creamy. They are served with rice cooked in broth and oil. Cilantro and lime wedges are often provided as garnish. Rice and beans provide carbohydrates, fiber and protein to balance out the rich meats and cheeses in Tex-Mex dishes.
Beyond sopaipillas, there are other popular Mexican and Mexican-inspired desserts commonly served in Texas:
- Tres leches cake – Sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk.
- Sopapillas – Fried dough tossed in cinnamon sugar.
- Flan – Silky caramel custard.
- Bunuelos – Fried dough tossed in cinnamon sugar.
- Churros – Fried dough sticks coated in cinnamon and sugar.
- Mexican chocolate pudding – Cinnamon flavored chocolate pudding.
- Coconut candies – Shredded coconut mixed with sweetened condensed milk.
These sweet treats provide the perfect ending to a savory Tex-Mex meal.
Tex-Mex cuisine holds a special place in the heart of all Texans. The blend of traditional Mexican cooking with Texas ranch and cowboy influences resulted in the greasy, cheesy, spicy, hearty comfort food that we all know and love. Tacos, enchiladas, quesadillas, fajitas, nachos, margaritas and more are staples of Lone Star State cuisine. Tex-Mex restaurants, food trucks and bakeries are ubiquitous across cities like Austin, Houston and San Antonio. The Mexican food served in Texas stays true to its roots while incorporating local flavors and flare. Names like El Arroyo, Matt’s El Rancho and Chuy’s have become iconic thanks to their margaritas and Tex-Mex fare. No matter where you go in Texas, you’re never far from a great taco or fajitas sizzling on a combo plate. Tex-Mex captures the cross-cultural blend of Texas heritage and Mexican traditions.