3/19/2012 03:50:00 PM

Regional Mexican Smackdown: Which Style Is Numero Uno?

Baja-style fish tacos; Image via Flickr/little blue hen
Whether it's Tex-Mex in Texas, or Southwestern in New Mexico, the parts of the country that share a border with Mexico (and some that don't) have their developed their own regional take on Mexican cuisine. Not only that, but residents of those areas have pretty strong feelings about their hometown grub, so it's no surprise that Mexican styles are hotly debated among food lovers nationwide.

But which regional style reigns supreme? To get to the bottom of things, we’ve highlighted some of the differences and chatted with a few chefs to get their take. Shout out your thoughts in the comments.


What it is: Arizona and New Mexico are on the border of the state of Sonora, which makes their particular type of Mexican food pretty darn similar. Southwestern, unlike other Mexican-American cuisines, is known for its use for local chiles and, in some instances, offal like tripe and brains are more widely utilized.

At most Southwestern restaurants, items like refried pinto beans, blue corn tortillas, as well as Christmas sauce, a combination of red and green salsas are common. You’ll find your plates topped with lots and lots of cheese. Instead of chalupas or flautas, the sopapilla is the stuffed (usually with beef and cheese), fried snack of choice. Oh, and did we mention green Hatch chiles? They’re on everything from the sauce that smothers the burritos to hamburgers; talk about a Mexican-American mash-up.

Why it's the best: Original Garcia’s is a New Mexican mini-chain that focuses on New-Mex Mex, with all dishes made completely from scratch (no canned chiles here). Dan Garcia, the friendly vice president of Garcia’s emphasizes that the green chile, “which actually turns into a red chile after you take them out of the ground,” as what makes this spin-off of Mexican best. Also the flour tortillas (his are hand-rolled making them “nicer, thicker, fuller and more filling) and sopapillas, “kinda like fried bread, they’re puffy,” are key items as well.

Pueblan Mex/NY
What it is: No, New York does not share a border with Mexico. Nor does it have any geographical tie to Puebla. The link? Pueblan cuisine is prevalent in New York because there is a high concentration of people with ties to the Mexican state.

Tacos, enchiladas, suaderos, torta sandwiches and its fried cousin, the cemita, are all common items. Chicken is a popular protein filler in everything from tamales to quesadillas (which you may be surprised to know are not an American creation but a Mexican one) and chicken tinga (a tomato-chile sauce) is typical.

Why it's the best: Chef Cosme Aguilar’s new restaurant, Casa Enrique, is located in Queens, NY, but the chef grew up jumping from state-to-state in Mexico, including an extended time in Pueblo. Though it took some probing to get the toque to dish up any criticism, he did reveal “in the north of Mexico, they eat kind of the same thing as Tex-Mex. I would not compare my food to Tex-Mex, it’s completely different. I don’t say Tex-Mex is bad but it’s not my thing.” And how does he feel about putting avocados and black olives in Mexican food? He laughs, of course. “I have a friend who’s Japanese, she says that there they don’t put avocado in sushi. It’s the same thing.”


What it is: Fresh-Mex, Baja-style, Cal-Mex, whatever you want to call it, Californian Mexican food is pretty distinct. It's a lighter, fresher version (this is the state that made salads a thing) than Tex-Mex or Pueblan. In the Golden State you’ll find avocados and black olives in tacos and rice in your burritos.

Fish tacos are huge and can be found at beachside taco trucks and food carts. The fish can be fried or grilled and is topped with cabbage dressed in a mayo-and-lime “white sauce.” Tamales are much larger than those in Texas and can be spiked with Anaheim chiles as opposed to Hatch or jalapeno. Also, fruit may be hiding in the salsa - you’ll probably never find mango-avocado pico de gallo elsewhere.

Why it's the best: We spoke with Christine Vega Fowler, who is not only president of Sherman Oaks’ Casa Vega but also gets into the kitchen to work the line and wrap tamales a few times a week. She says: “People are very health-conscious in California. (There’s) so much assimilation that it's taken on its own Cali-Mexican food, with the better products that are accessible to them.” And as for her thoughts on the other area? “Tex-Mex has a lot more smoked chipotle flavor that comes from the flavors that Texans cook with. Tex-Mex is more of a commercial food: nachos, quesadillas, nachos and tortillas...We do have Sonoran tacos. That area is great but has less seafood. It’s more inland.”


What it is: Though the grub varies from city to city (making it difficult to generalize the food) the meat, cheese and red-salsa combinations are fairly consistent. Some would argue that what most Americans consider "Mexican food" falls under the Tex-Mex categorization. Nachos, queso dip - made of Ro-Tel and Velveeta cheese - and chili con carne are a few classic items from the region. 

Why it's the best: According to Juan Carlos, manager of Hecho En Mexico in Austin, Texas, the local Tex-Mex cuisine is “better because of the way it is prepared. Different ingredients. There are much more spices and chiles.” He also notes that he doesn’t mind eating dishes that are popular in other regions like the sopapillas of New Mexico, but “they’re sort of similar to buñuelos. Without the sugar. I like the sweet better.”

1 comment :

  1. Pueblan is clearly the best. I think the others are only in the running because their Mexico's neighbors.