There’s Mexican food, as in food they serve in Mexico, and then there’s Tex-Mex, which, of course, was invented in Dallas. You’ll know it’s Tex-Mex, because there’s more beef, less leafy stuff and lots of refried beans.
Can you say ubiquitous?
There’s really no trick to finding good Tex-Mex in Dallas. From food trucks to several local chains to mama-y-papa-gas-station-taquerias. Tex-Mex is everywhere and most of it’s good. However, if you’re chasing the history of Tex-Mex, come with me.
Miguel Martinez Creates Tex-Mex.
The Martinez family of Dallas claims the honor of inventing Tex-Mex back in 1918. The El Fenix website explains that Miguel Martinez started the tradition of feeding Dallasites from a site near El Fenix’s current downtown location in 1916, but they only served Gringo Food. In 1918 he added the Mexican Style dishes that became the basis of what the world now calls Tex-Mex. That’s also when he changed the name of Martinez Café to El Fenix Restaurant.
Miguel was not satisfied with merely creating a culinary sensation. He also invented the tortilla machine and sold it to one of the founders of FritoLay. Imagine what life would be like if we still had to make all our tortillas by hand! But the entrepreneur wasn’t through yet. After moving around the corner to the larger, current location, he bought the space next door in the mid-1930’s and created the El Fenix Ballroom where dancers were entertained by the El Fenix Orchestra.
By chance, that downtown location is where my love of Tex-Mex began. We followed my Dad’s job throughout the South, but North Texas was home. On a vacation to visit relatives in 1966, my uncle took us to the already famous El Fenix and I had my first taste of the chips, enchiladas and refried beans I still compare everything else to. Thankfully, in the same year, my dad was transferred to Dallas so I could feed my new addiction.
Mariano Adds Frozen Margaritas to the Tex-Mex Tradition
If you can’t imagine Tex-Mex without Frozen Margaritas, then you’re beholden to Mariano Martinez of La Hacienda Ranch. His original restaurant, Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine, in Dallas’s Old Town Shopping Center, served the first frozen margaritas from a machine, back in 1971. I’ve heard several legends about the invention of the Margarita, but according to the La Hacienda Ranch website, Mariano created the machine that made multiple Frozen Margaritas possible. Said machine is now in the collection of The Smithsonian Institute, so who could argue with that. Margaritas, frozen and otherwise, continue to be the best accompaniment to your Tex-Mex meal.
The rest, as they say, is history. El Chico came to Dallas in the 1940’s to give El Fenix a run for its Tex-Mex dollar, though the first El Chico recipe tamales were sold by Adelaida Cuellar at the Kaufman County Fair in 1926. And though their website doesn’t mention it, I remember Desperado’s on Greenville Avenue added Tacos Al Carbon to the Tex-Mex vocabulary in 1976 and On the Border began its Fajita Kingdom on Knox Street back in 1982. Today, Tex-Mex is a national sensation. I’m just glad I live where it all began.