Is New York Having a "Texas" Moment?
Everything's bigger in Texas, but nothing is bigger in the Big Apple right now than the Lone Star State. Over the last few years Texas-inspired BBQ joints have spread like wildfire through Downtown and Brooklyn: Hill Country, BrisketTown, Fletcher's, Hometown and Mighty Quinn's just to name a few. And now, the latest Lone Star trend to spike: Tex-Mex cuisine. In the last few weeks alone NYC has seen the opening of two new Manhattan eateries, Javelina and El Original Tx Mx, that are elevating the often-disparaged cuisine with authentic recipes and high-quality ingredients, joining the ranks of popular Brooklyn spots like Gueros, Koloache and Lobo. "Tex-Mex is kind of a misunderstood cuisine," says Javelina owner and Texas native Matt Post, whose recently opened Flatiron eatery commands hour-long waits most nights of the week. Tex-Mex has often gotten a bad rap for bastardizing true Mexican food, but in 2004, a cookbook published by Robb Walsh called The Tex-Mex Cookbook defends the American subsection of Mexican cuisine that includes puffy tacos, queso and even nachos (see a primer of dishes here).
Photo by Michael Tulipan
Most Americans who grew up in the '70s or '80s came to regard "Mexican food" as what was essentially Tex-Mex. "There were a lot of places that opened in the ‘70s and ‘80s as excuses to serve frozen margaritas and guacamole," Post adds. In Texas during this time period, it wasn't entirely clear to Texans what "real" Mexican food really was either, says L'Apicio chef-owner Gabe Thompson, a Texas native and Italian chef who created a Tex-Mex pop-up called Hondo for the Bravo TV show Best New Restaurant. "Everyone growing up called it 'Mexican,' when a real Mexican place opens up which they call 'interior Mexican.' It’s the kind of food you eat all the time without even knowing it."
Opening today in Hell's Kitchen is El Original Tx Mx, the first restaurant from award-winning writer Lisa Fain, creator of blog the Homesick Texan. Formerly a magazine editor, Fain started her blog to post beloved recipes she ate growing up, which very recently turned into a real-life restaurant concept when she was approached by two longtime fans of her blog who would become her partners in El Original. "The dearth of good Tex-Mex food has been the theme of my life," says Fain.
So why now is Tex-Mex cuisine becoming a "thing"? "I think there are the expats here longing for it, plus everyone kind of in a way begrudgingly loves Texas," says Thompson, who almost signed a lease for a Tex-Mex spot of his own two years ago (issues with the lease have put his plans on hold). "When I went traveling in Europe 12 years ago and I told everyone I was from Texas, they were like OMG. There’s a real connection there that few states have worldwide." Its comfort-food status and sense of nostalgia may be another factor. "I think nostalgia is a great way to describe it," says Fain. "It is kind of throwback-y. It’s not fancy and it just makes you feel good."