HOUSTON — This city’s Second Ward is full of temptations for Adán Medrano, a writer and chef who lives just a few miles southeast.
The Mexican-American neighborhood is home to the perfect flaky tortillas at Doña María Mexican Cafe, scratch-made in flour or corn, and ready to be folded around eggs with the fine threads of dried beef called machacada. It has the off-menu roasted tamales at the Original Alamo Tamales, with blackened husks and caramelized edges of masa and meat. And there’s Taqueria Chabelita, where the owner, Isabel Henriquez Hernandez, makes pinto beans whose smoky intensity comes not from pork fat, but from a slow char in a hot pan.
For Mr. Medrano, who grew up in San Antonio with generations of relatives on both sides of the Rio Grande, this is all his comfort food, his culinary heritage, his comida casera, or Mexican home cooking.
Just don’t call it Tex-Mex, he said. He prefers to describe it as Texas Mexican, which is also how he describes himself.
Texas Mexican is the indigenous cooking of South Texas, according to Mr. Medrano, 71, whose second cookbook, “Don’t Count the Tortillas: The Art of Texas Mexican Cooking,” will be published in June by Texas Tech University Press. It’s the food that’s been made by families like his on this land since before the Rio Grande marked a border, when Texas was a part of Mexico, and long before then.
Don’t get him wrong: Tex-Mex is a cuisine that should be respected and celebrated, he said. It’s just that Tex-Mex standards like queso and combo fajitas piled high with chicken and shrimp don’t speak of home to those whose Texas roots go back some 12,000 years.
“That’s not our food,” said Mr. Medrano, who has spent the better part of a decade defining his cuisine, inspiring a growing number of Texas Mexicans in the process. “We don’t eat like that.”
You can find Texas Mexican here at Mr. Medrano’s Houston go-tos, and at decades-old San Antonio West Side lunch spots like Old Danny’s Cocina, or even newer favorites like El Puesto No. 2 down the street. It’s at Maria’s Restaurant in downtown McAllen and at Cafe Amiga in Brownsville, both run by granddaughters of their founders.
It is dishes like chicken poached with striped green squash and corn, the tomato-noodle soup called fideo, and gulf shrimp and cactus stewed in a mix of dried red chiles. It’s the simple ground beef picadillo or the beef-and-potato stew called carne guisada, both subtly seasoned with a pounded paste of black peppercorn, garlic and cumin, which Mr. Medrano describes as the Texas Mexican version of the Cajun holy trinity.
It is what Juan Hernandez, of Doña María Mexican Cafe, has always described as “mama-style cooking”— the mama in this case being his wife, Anna Hernandez, who grew up a block away from the restaurant and is a co-owner. Mr. Hernandez would never call the food she makes Tex-Mex; in fact, it inspired Tex-Mex.
That began in the early 1900s, when local Mexican-American home cooking was first adapted in restaurants run “by Anglos for Anglos,” Mr. Medrano said. In the 1970s, writers started referring to that hybridized cuisine as Tex-Mex: refried beans as smooth as pancake batter; chili made with powdered spices and stock, instead of the carne con chiles based on whole dried red chiles; fajitas with anything other than the skirt steak that gave the dish its name; and extra cheese on everything.
The idea of distinguishing Texas Mexican from Tex-Mex came to him after he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America program in San Antonio in 2010, after careers in producing and writing for television, and awarding foundation grants to nonprofit arts and education projects. Mr. Medrano, who also founded San Antonio’s annual Latino film festival in 1977, originally took the classes for fun, he said, but they led him to an epiphany: After decades in the shadows, his food needed not just a champion, but a name.
Mr. Medrano didn’t want to use the word Tejano, because it is sometimes used to highlight Spanish colonial ancestry rather than native heritage, and because spelling Texas with a J instead of an X is a European practice.
He came up with a better term after learning about the distinct regional cuisines of Mexico, realizing that he had essentially grown up with one of his own. “You have Oaxacan Mexican, you have Jaliscan Mexican,” Mr. Medrano said. “Why not Texas Mexican?”
His initial research on the history of this food became his first cookbook, “Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes,” published in 2014.
Since then, Mr. Medrano has traveled the region, cooking, lecturing at schools and museums, and gathering knowledge from chefs, anthropologists and home cooks, many of whom are quoted in “Don’t Count the Tortillas.” (This summer he will even make carne guisada tacos at a Fourth of July celebration in Moscow, at the residence of the United States ambassador to Russia.)
Mr. Medrano is also the executive producer, writer and host of a forthcoming bilingual documentary, “The Roots of Texas Mexican Food,” slated for release this fall. (He is pitching it to TV providers in the United States and Latin America.) The film focuses on Texas’ archaeological and historical sites, and on the women who have been the primary architects of the cuisine.
His work has been revelatory for restaurateurs like Sylvia Casares, a well-known Houston chef who operates Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen. “I had been searching for 20 years for how to describe my food,” said Ms. Casares, who is originally from Brownsville, at the state’s southeastern edge.
Ms. Casares met Mr. Medrano after he recommended her restaurant to a Houston reporter as a place to taste hallmarks of the cuisine, especially her enchiladas. Her crew makes hundreds a day the Texas Mexican way, each tortilla bathed in chile sauce and softened in hot oil before being rolled around its filling.
And what about the blanket of cheese on top? “There’s a little on there for looks,” Ms. Casares said.
Ms. Casares said Mr. Medrano’s work corrects both a lack of vocabulary and a lack of knowledge about history, even for some Mexican-Americans. “The problem with most people is they can’t get their heads around Texas’ indigenous foods,” she said.
Like many Mexican-American restaurateurs, she puts both Tex-Mex and Texas Mexican items on her menu. (Some dishes can overlap, or fall somewhere in between.) Most of her customers assume those that appear more traditionally Mexican were imported.
Yet these are not “south-of-the-border” creations, said Mr. Medrano: “Texas Mexican didn’t cross the border, the border crossed it.”
Until the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, much of southern Texas was Mexico, and for centuries before that part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. That’s why, to Mr. Medrano, the heart of Texas Mexican culture is an area that includes southern Texas — the Rio Grande Valley, Corpus Christi and greater San Antonio and Houston — but also part of the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas.
Those lie on the other side of the Rio Grande, but they share the same terroir, which includes mesquite and pecan trees; thickets of yucca and prickly pear cactus; staples like squash, beans, potatoes, chiles and corn; and seafood from the river and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a subtropical zone that also supported thousands of head of cattle that followed the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
In his research, Mr. Medrano was elated to find scholars who had occasionally used the term Texas Mexican, or had interviewed others who did. One of those was Mario Montaño, an anthropologist at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, whose focus is on food near the border. (His thesis was on barbacoa de cabeza, a cow’s head traditionally slow-cooked in a pit with hot stones, which Mr. Medrano’s family recently prepared on camera for his documentary.)
When Mr. Montaño grew up along the river in Eagle Pass, Tex., the water “was not a cultural separation,” he said.
Mr. Montaño describes this area’s cooking as influenced by centuries of mixing influences from trade, colonization and migration from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as well as by Mexicans living in southern regions moving north.
Yet Texas Mexican food is rooted in the cooking of the nomadic Indigenous groups that moved around both sides of the river for centuries before the Spanish arrived. Many of those peoples — who are now collectively known as Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation — moved into the Roman Catholic missions founded in San Antonio in the 1700s.
“What was here has given birth” to what Texans eat today, said Mr. Vasquez, noting that his ancestors were the ones doing the first hot-stone-and-pit cooking, often with unwanted cuts of meat like the cow heads left to them by Spanish.
The park has just added a 10-acre farm, which Mr. Vasquez hopes to help plant with native species, many of which are highlighted in Mr. Medrano’s new book. (It also includes a recipe from Mr. Vasquez’s mother for bison with blackberries and pecans, along with family recipes from the Texas artist César Martínez and the El Paso-born chef Rico Torres, of the modern Mexican restaurant Mixtli in San Antonio.)
This rich and living history is the reason San Antonio was awarded the rare City of Gastronomy designation in 2017 by Unesco. The city tapped Mr. Medrano to help create its application.
The recognition is a remarkable turnabout. The missions, after all, are only a few miles south of the plaza where Texas Mexican woman were blocked from selling carne con chile from open-air stands in the early 20th century, while the dish itself was co-opted into chili. This is also where Otis Farnsworth, a Chicago transplant, opened his highly successful Original Mexican Restaurant, one of the first places serving what would become known as Tex-Mex.
Today, Farnsworth’s restaurant might be called out for cultural appropriation, or what Mr. Medrano calls “cultural poaching.” And Mr. Medrano does get angry at the lack of respect for his culture, the many ways in which Mexican-Americans have been wronged throughout history.
But he is generally driven by love for their cuisine, which delights him every time he sees a tortilla puff on a griddle, or catches the mingled scent of black pepper and cumin.
“We need to share the beauty of the food,” Mr. Medrano said, “and if we do, the world will be more beautiful.”