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Before we get into the specific dishes themselves, it’s worth defining what constitutes Tex-Mex cuisine and why it’s different from Mexican dishes. The history of Tex-Mex is rich and delicious, but relatively short, with the term Tex-Mex only coming into a more widely used existence in the 70s after being used as a term in an influential cookbook.
Immigration from Mexico to the U.S. was a hugely influential factor in the creation of Tex-Mex cuisine because, as the name implies, it’s a hybrid of predominantly northern Mexican cuisine and Texan specialities that have come together to form a fusion genre of dining that has since captured the hearts and stomaches of the masses worldwide.
However, the ingredients used in Mexican and Tex-Mex food are what distinguish the two. First of all, ground beef is one of the most common Tex-Mex components, given that the cuisine was refined in areas with many Texan ranchers and an abundance of cows. Mexican dishes tend to use pork and chicken instead of beef.
Cheese is another factor; yellow cheese is barely used in Mexico (where white cheeses such as queso cotija, queso Oaxaca, queso panela, etc. are far more common). Tex-Mex cuisine, on the other hand, douses its dishes in Velveeta cheese and gives it an extra handful of cheddar for good measure. Long story short, Tex-Mex is yellower and cheesier.
Spices and flavoring are all important, too, when it comes to distinguishing between Mexican and Tex-Mex. Mexican favors spice, while Tex-Mex relies more on spices, notably cumin, which is rarely an element in Mexican cuisine proper. Jalapeños are also far more heavily used as a key component, rather than an optional addition, in Tex-Mex cooking.
And finally, sour cream is not the same as Mexican crema; the latter is runnier and, funnily enough, not as sour.
Overall, due to the use of far more fresh ingredients, corn rather than wheat tortillas, and significantly less cheese, Mexican cuisine is also actually much healthier than Tex-Mex.
Burritos are one of the dishes most associated with Mexican cuisine in countries such as the U.S. and the UK. However, we’re sorry to disappoint, but the burritos you probably enjoyed today (filled with rice, beans, cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo and meat) are distinctly Tex-Mex. While burritos do exist in Mexico, they’re very different. For a start, they’re far more loosely wrapped – only in northern states will you find the tightly packed and wrapped burrito of your Taco Bell dreams.
Delicious? Yes. Mexican? No. There is nothing quite as Tex-Mex as a plate of nachos piled high and topped with runny, yellow cheese sauce, jalapeños, ground beef and black beans. It is quintessentially fusion and incorporates practically all of the ingredients that sets Tex-Mex apart from Mexican cuisine. As an aside, the name for what many would consider to be ‘nachos’ in Mexico (triangular and crispy chips) is actually totopos.
Enchiladas straddle between being Tex-Mex and Mexican. In origin, they’re Mexican and the versions of enchiladas you’ll find south of the border and far lighter and healthier than their northern counterparts. They use corn tortillas bathed in sauce and loosely rolled or folded around the typical chicken filling before they’re topped with lettuce and crema. Tex-Mex enchiladas, on the other hand, are far cheesier and use ground beef and a dark red sauce topping.
Verdict: Both Tex-Mex and Mexican, depending how they’re served
Mole fans can breathe a sigh of relief, as this is one dish that’s 100% Mexican. Originating in the south of the country from the states of Oaxaca and Puebla most prominently, there are many variations of mole but the classic is the chili-chocolate flavor combo found in the dark brown mole poblano. Served with rice and chicken, it’s popular in the U.S., too, but doesn’t fall under the Tex-Mex title.
Nothing says Christmas, Easter, or, hell, even just breakfast like a warming tamale, sometimes sweet and sometimes savory. The good news? This is also an entirely Mexican dish, and again, while popular in Mexican-American families north of the border, tamales are not Tex-Mex. However, several variations on the Mexican tamale can be found in countries across the Caribbean and Latin America. Check out this article for more information.
As with enchiladas, tacos come in many forms, shapes and sizes, some of which are Tex-Mex through and through and others that have got your friendly street-side taquero written all over them. The Tex-Mex iterations are those hard-shelled, crispy abominations that are often filled with beef, cheddar and lettuce. We’re sorry Tex-Mex fans, but Mexican tacos are superior in so many ways; the lightly greasy corn tortilla topped with hot meats like al Pastor and accompanied by onion, cilantro and salsas just can’t be beaten.
Verdict: Tex-Mex lays claim to hard shell tacos, but soft tacos are Mexican
Chili con carne is another dish whose Spanish name leads many to believe that it must be Mexican; however, the fact of the matter is that a warming bowl of chili con carne, complete with ground beef, kidney beans, tinned tomatoes and cumin flavoring is classic, signature Tex-Mex. Sometimes topped with cheese or accompanied by rice, chili con carne actually has its roots in Native American dishes.
Tex-Mex quesadillas generally use two flour tortillas on top of one another with a gooey cheese and meat filling, plus lettuce and other vegetables. The Mexican quesadilla is simply a corn tortilla doubled over around a white cheese filling, with very little else added. However, they would never have lettuce or sour cream. That’s not to say that the definition of a quesadilla is fixed even in Mexico – in Mexico City, they don’t even include cheese as standard!
Verdict: Tex-Mex if accompanied by numerous added extras, Mexican if not
Ah, the humble chimichanga. It’s a staple of many Mexican restaurant menus and yet it is distinctly Tex-Mex. While you can find versions in northern states such as Sonora or Sinaloa, this burrito-esque dish is baked or deep fried before serving, and uses a large flour tortilla and is sometimes topped with melted cheese, guac and sour cream before serving.
Finally, the much-loved fajita is the one dish that rather than having roots in Mexico before becoming a classic of Tex-Mex, is actually entirely a U.S. invention. A boiling hot skillet is the final resting place of sliced strips of pepper, onion and meat (typically skirt steak), which are then served with flour tortillas. Sour cream and guac are usually included as optional condiments.