By John Brewer
Houston Press food writer Robb Walsh is ready to fight for Tex-Mex food. Not only is it delicious, he says, it may be the country's oldest regional cuisine, dating back to the 16th-century missions of South Texas. He is touring with his new book on the subject and is as adept at sketching skirt steak on a reporter's notebook as he is at handing somebody his shirt when they call Tex-Mex "bastardized Mexican food."
"I know what you're thinking about Tex-Mex: It's shitty. But don't you like margaritas? Don't you like nachos? Let's give it up. It will exist after you are dead," he declares.
Thanks to Walsh's previous books, mainly Legends of Texas Barbecue, I've been cooking and eating smoked pork shoulder, beef ribs, chicken breasts, cabbage, tomatoes, and tomatillos for the past month. I imagine at this point I smell like a smoldering piece of mesquite, but I have no complaints: Walsh's writing is part cookbook, part historical document, and totally entertaining. When I pick up The Tex-Mex Cookbook, I worry that I may not be ready for weeks of crispy corn tacos and Velveeta-based chile con queso. Still, I'm going to have lunch with the guy, so I take the plunge.
Walsh and I are supposed to meet at the Acapulco Drive Inn. It's not open when we arrive, so the al fresco beer and rich nachos I had been counting on will have to be replaced by Taco Haven fare - and neither of us has ever eaten there. He picks a small booth by the window, we order tacos, and start talking.
"I was a foodie in California," he relates. "I cooked. This was like religion to me. I'd travel with a chef's knife and an iron skillet. I was ripping mussels off a rock and cooking them." This was in the early 1980s, after Walsh had graduated from UT Austin and worked in San Francisco as a writer for commercial films. In the west, he witnessed the arrival of Southwestern cuisine. He thought people in Texas would like to know about what was happening, so he submitted a story to the Austin Chronicle. He was paid $10 for his effort.
He continued to pick up assignments, but he wasn't sure how he could make a living at it. Then came a book proposal: travel Jamaica with a native and write about the food. The result was Traveling Jamaica with Knife, Fork, and Spoon. It didn't have a huge printing, "but people who travel love it. It has a map, so they can use it to travel the island and then eat all these foods. And then they can take it home and read it."
The Nuevo Latino movement inspired his next book: Nuevo Tex-Mex. Walsh admits that he may have been ahead of his time on the subject, but his writing was, well ... it makes him shudder to think about it. Still, it sold around 30,000 copies.
He helped to co-author another cookbook and then hit it big (receiving a third James Beard Award nomination) with his Legends tome. This guy talks straight about food and writes even straighter.
"If you play '10 Best,'" he says, referring to the journalistic practice of paring down a city's restaurants to the 10 Best, "you're excluding places where you think readers' cars could be broken into. Subconsciously you start editing."
Walsh defends Tex-Mex, but he isn't apologizing for crappy Tex-Mex. "I don't have to defend it so much because it's a debate that's barely been joined."
Restaurants hide from the Tex-Mex label, and critics and Mexican food purists (Diana Kennedy in particular, who, if she walked into Taco Haven, would be in for quite a throw down) deride it because it is considered the bastardization of one culture by another. There is plenty of evidence to back up these claims, but Walsh says it comes from one place: "It's a bunch of white folks fucking up Tex-Mex. The solution is to accept the word Tex-Mex, but supply our own definition of it."
"The time has come when the food community is embracing this term," Walsh adds, encouraging me to try my taco with the green table sauce. He pools a bunch of it on my plate. He pulls out a takeout menu from Bruce Auden's and Lisa Wong's new venture, Ácenar. Across the page they've printed "Modern TexMex."
Walsh says, "I think this is where we're going."
"If you want to find good Tex-Mex," Walsh concludes, "you have to go to the place that calls itself 'authentic Mexican.'" He points back to the restaurant. High on the wall of Taco Haven it reads, "Best authentic Mexican Food in San Antonio." •
By John Brewer