Texas and Mexico are both famous for their fabulous food. The fusion even brought the world a whole new culinary style: Tex-Mex.
Of course, many people like their food to keep to the traditions and flavors of Mexico. Luckily for your tastebuds, Texas is full of Mexican eateries to rival anywhere, serving everything from enchiladas and mole to cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) and mariscos (seafood).
Let’s look at the history of Mexican cuisine up to today, from diners to takeout. Then enjoy our guide to some of the best Mexican food places in Texas so you can indulge in your favorite dishes at the Lone Star State’s top joints.
Why Is Mexican Food Famous Worldwide?
Mexico is a country renowned around the world for its food. In fact, since 2010, UNESCO has recognized its gastronomy customs and techniques as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Everything from planting crops to cooking comes under UNESCO’s protection, with food’s role in the day-to-day and as rituals and symbols in festivities.
Pre-Hispanic recipes — those that originate before the arrival of Spaniards and other Europeans — use staples like chocolate, maize (corn), turkey, and chili. Europeans brought cattle and ingredients like cinnamon, wheat, cheese, and flour, which eventually found their way in various Mexican recipes.
What Are the Seven Regional Cuisines of Mexico?
Contrary to what some people might think, Mexican food is not just tacos and burritos. The vibrant and diverse country has seven primary food regions, each with their own distinct ingredients and way of cooking.
Norteño (North): Burritos, tortillas, spicy ceviche (aguachile) and a skate stew called cahuamanta are popular.
Oaxaqueño: Moles dominate here in a variety of styles, alongside a squash-vine soup called sopa de guías and — wait for it — chapulines, which are fried grasshoppers.
Veracruzano: This predominantly coastal area has strong European and African influences in its fish-heavy cuisine. Popular dishes include thick seafood soup called chilpachole and the region’s trademark pescado a la veracruzana, with tomato, capers, and olives.
Yucateco: Food from Yucateco can feel Caribbean and distinct to other parts of Mexico. Here you’ll find cochinita pibil, roast pork marinated in sour orange, deer salad, pickled turkey (pavo en escabeche) and a tangy tortilla soup called sopa de lima.
Poblano: The iconic chocolate-based sauce mole poblano hails from Puebla, located in this region. This dish is a must for most visitors to Mexico.
Jaliscense: Here, you can find spicy lamb and goat stews called birrias and a fish soup called caldo michi, among many other treats.
Baja Californiano: Birthplace of the Caesar salad and margarita, seafood like grilled lobster, ceviche, and fish and prawns in tempura are popular in this area.
What’s the Difference Between Tex-Mex and Mexican Food?
Tex-Mex and Mexican food are similar, and boundaries often blur, especially as chefs on both sides of the border continue to innovate and create fresh dishes.
That said, you can differentiate what you are eating with ease. Tex-Mex dishes often contain tortillas, chicken, beef, pork, cheese, black beans, sweet corn, and peppers. For example, a Tex-Mex taco comes in a flour tortilla with ground beef and yellow cheese.
Traditional Mexican food uses a lot of maize (corn), white cheese, whole corn cobs, and pinto beans as staples, and complex spicing creates deep flavors. A traditional Mexican taco — sometimes called “street taco” — is served in a corn tortilla with barbecued meat or slow-roasted pork and topped with onion, lime, and cilantro.
However, there’s always a lot of overlap between Mexican and Tex-Mex food.
Does Texas Serve Traditional Mexican Food?
The Lone Star State has no shortage of traditional Mexican food and Tex-Mex eateries.
Why? Well, Texas has the second-largest Hispanic and Latino population in the United States. More than 40% of Texas’ population, over 11.87 million people, identify as Hispanic or Latino.
Texans love their tacos too. A study showed that tacos dominate Mexican food menus in Texas. The ratio of tacos to burritos on menus is as high as 84% in favor of tacos in San Antonio and Dallas — a national high — then 78% in Austin and 75% in Fort Worth. No matter the numbers, one thing is clear: Texas loves its Mexican food.
What Are the Best Mexican Food Places in Texas?
By now, your taste buds have been activated and your stomach is rumbling after reading about Mexican recipes. Fortunately, the Lone Star state has so many options. Let’s look at some classics and up-and-coming Mexican restaurants to satisfy the most demanding palate. Here are a few places to whet your appetite.
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, Houston
This pillar of Mexican food opened in 1973 and claims to be the birthplace of the fajita, which it initially labeled “Tacos al Carbon.” Ninfa’s catchphrase is “The Best Mexican Food in Texas Since Texas was in Mexico!” The menu is packed with classics aside from the fajitas. Caesar Salad, quesadillas, mole enchiladas, and octopus make this a must-visit.
El Mana Food Truck, Austin
A mother and daughter team serves up fantastic Mexican classics to go from this Austin food truck. Wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth meats and homemade salsas keep a loyal clientele returning.
Fonda San Miguel, Austin
Fonda San Miguel started in 1975, offering authentic Mexican cuisine from the Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz, and Yucatan areas. The chefs here have even written two best-selling cookbooks, and staff regularly travel to Mexico for inspiration for new dishes. Fonda San Miguel remains excellent for the classics like mole poblano and cochinita pibil.
Mi Tierra Café y Panadería, San Antonio
In 1941, Mi Tierra was a three-table cafe for farmers. Now, it seats 500 and has become a San Antonio icon. You’ll find a mix of Mexican classics and popular Tex-Mex plates, and Mi Tierra is open from breakfast to late-night dining.
Tacos La Bala, Houston
Tacos La Bala is a down-to-earth place serving authentic Mexican food at accessible prices. Reviewers love the fajita tacos and the specialty Tacos La Bala with the meat slow-cooked for tenderness.
Avila’s Restaurant, Dallas
This family-run restaurant has been going for over 35 years and has kept ahead of the changing face of food. Avila’s offers gluten-free dishes and locally-brewed beer alongside its traditional Mexican servings. There’s a Mexican version of shrimp scampi and a croissant-based bread pudding.
Little Mexico Restaurant, Palestine
The aptly-named Little Mexico family-owned restaurant puts more than half a century of experience into its fajita nachos and enchiladas. Try their chile con carne.
Joe T. Garcia’s, Fort Worth
Joe T. Garcia’s has been serving folk since 1935. The restaurant can seat hundreds on its spacious patio, where people like to relax with margaritas. Specialties include chicken and beef fajitas, quesadillas, and tacos, using recipes from when the place first opened.
L&J Cafe, El Paso
L&J’s Cafe — also known as “the place by the graveyard” — has a colorful history dating back to 1927, a story that includes a liquor-smuggling mule and hidden slot machines. Still run by the same family, its modern incarnation focuses on traditional Mexican food.
The Best Mexican Food Across the United States
Mexican food is not limited to Mexico and Texas. People across the nation, and indeed the world, regularly indulge in Tex-Mex or Mexican food, whether it’s dining in or for takeout. In the United States alone, the Mexican food and drinks market is worth $77 billion annually and employs more than a million workers.
The craving for Mexican food has brought a rush of successful franchises. Famous Mexican or Tex-Mex chains operating in the United States include Baja Fresh, Chipotle, Qdoba, Taco Bell, El Pollo Loco, Chuy’s, Chili’s, Taco Cabana, and Pappasito’s Cantina.
How Many Mexican Restaurants Are There in Texas?
Mexican restaurants are growing in popularity throughout the United States, with an average annual growth rate of 2.4% in the last five years.
California has the most businesses associated with Mexican restaurants at almost 75,000. Texas comes next with just over 45,000 companies operating in the field, topping New York by around 500 operations.
In 2017, Houston led the Lone Star State’s Mexican restaurant industry with 205 establishments, the fourth-highest of any city in the United States. San Antonio and Austin were also in the top 10, but Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles led the way in pure numbers.
Fun fact: The humble city of Humble, in Houston’s metropolitan area, has the highest number of non-chain Mexican restaurants in the United States, with 7.3 restaurants per capita. You’ll never be far away from a tasty Mexican treat in Humble.
What State Has the Best Mexican Food?
The state with the best Mexican food is very subjective and always changing. Keep in mind that in 2010, tortillas started to outsell hot dog buns. So while we may not know the exact answer, we can reveal Americans’ food preferences.
A study by Chef’s Pencil looked at Google searches for restaurants, recipes, and other gastronomic metrics to filter each state’s food desires, at home or to eat out. The most popular ethnic cuisine is Chinese, followed closely by Mexican and then Italian at a more distant third.
The southern states lead the Mexican love affair, with Arizona folks ranking highest in their appreciation of Mexican food. Texas comes next, followed by Nevada, Arkansas, and New Mexico.
Drilling down a bit further, San Antonio in Texas is the city that holds Mexican food most dearly. Interest only really starts to wane to the country’s north and east. Vermont is where Mexican food is least popular, according to the study.
Does California or Texas Have Better Mexican Food?
As we’ve seen, California and Texas are hotspots for Mexican food. Both states have their versions, too, called Tex-Mex for Texas and Cal-Mex for California.
The decision about which is better comes down to a diner’s tastes. What generally holds is that California has more establishments and a greater variety of Mexican food. Cal-Mex food tends to feature more fish and vegetables than Texan menus. Also, you’ll often get whole beans in a Cal-Mex dish rather than refried beans.
What City in Mexico Has the Best Food?
Mexicans are rightly proud of their culinary traditions and histories and want to share. Traveling through Mexico gives visitors an insight into the variety of ingredients and dishes the country offers.
The country is blessed with fantastic restaurants and fabulous at-home chefs. Food is essential to many Mexican celebrations, from Cinco de Mayo to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and people pull out all the stops on these special days.
Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, is renowned for representing all seven culinary regions throughout its vibrant streets. Foodies make pilgrimages to try Puebla’s complex moles and chiles en nogada recipes. Still, for many, Oaxaca is the place to visit. If you like the intense flavors of goat stew and pozole, then Guadalajara is for you.
Finding the Best Mexican Food Places in Texas
Mexico and Texas have a long and interwoven history that you can see from people to customs and, of course, the food. Like a good bowl of nachos, sharing always feels better.
Finding the best Mexican food places in Texas is something in which friends and family can partake — and it has two stages.
Firstly, it will be easy thanks to so many restaurants. And secondly, your task will be rewarding thanks to the delightful flavor combinations and beautiful, colorful dishes.
All that’s left is to head out into the Lone Star State and sample different Mexican and Tex-Mex foods to find your personal favorite.
Brought to you by amigoenergy
All images licensed from Adobe Stock.
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