The Ecphorizer

The Beginner's Guide to Texas Eating
Mark Kres

Issue #35 (July 1984)



If you're going to be in Texas longer than the time it takes to change planes, you'll be confronted with the problem of finding something to eat. Little, if any, of your California experience will be helpful here. Your best bet is to keep an open mind and look on this experience with the same willingness to experiment as you would any other foreign cuisine.

The following is not an all-inclusive guide, but should serve as a useful orientation:

(1) It's helpful to know some things are not hard-core Texas cuisine. Contrary to what many Californians think, Texas is not really a Deep South state. True, it's not especially hard to find restaurants here that serve such items as fried chicken, grits, turnip greens, catfish, etc., etc., not to mention more exotic varieties of soul food. However, foods like these aren't nearly as plentiful - or nearly as good - as they are in true Southern cities like New Orleans or Atlanta. Whether you've been anticipating an encounter with Southern cooking or cringing from it, you're better off postponing it until your travels take you further East.

(2) Thus forewarned about what Texas cuisine isn't, you can proceed to what it is. You should start with what Texas Monthly magazine calls "the three great staples of the Texas diet - beef, beef, and beef." Let's face it: vegetarian restaurants in Texas are about as common as synagogues in Syria. It's best if you don't look at your stay in Texas as a burden but as an opportunity - namely, an opportunity to indulge in any carnivorous fantasy you ever had this side of Jaws without once getting a case of eco-enviro-holistic-all natural guilties. After all you're just making a temporary sacrifice in the name of cross-cultural understanding. Even if you've long since come to accept indigestible bean sprouts arid tasteless tofu as unavoidable fixtures of California life like earthquakes and spring floods - a little time off will do you no harm. Some specifies:

BURGERS No doubt about it - the hamburger in Texas is awarded a respect it enjoys almost nowere else. Except for franchises (beneath mentioning here), it isn't rushed off an assembly line or ruined with such items as synthetic soybean patties, whole-wheat buns, bean-sprout garnishes, and other health-food looniness that was never meant to desecrate the basic beef-grease-salt taste of a truly inspired burger. In any self-respecting bar or steakhouse in the state, you can choose from a vast array of sizes and toppings, all of which deliver the taste seldom found anywhere else. What's more, many of the best burgers in the state are located on just two streets. If you can't find the ultimate burger of your fantasies on either Greenville Ave. (Dallas) or Westheimer Road (Houston), you're not likely to find it anywhere else in the solar system, either.

BAR-B-QUE Anyone who lives west of El Paso tends to approach this subject with some apprehension, and needlessly so. This may be due to the fact that good bar-b-que is rarely franchised so you keep taking chances on unknowns. The best bet is to do some research. A little organized poll-taking arrong the locals will do you more good here than with most other foods. Besides, Texas bar-b-que lacks the spiciness and heavy sauces you'd find in deep South bar-b-ques, and so is easier for a novice to get used to.

CHILI No visit here is complete without sampling at least one bowl of "Texas red," preferably accompanied by a cold beer or two. At its best, Texas chili is a meaty, pungent concoction. It bears no known resemblance to the watery, tasteless glop nost restaurants outside of Texas try to pass off as chili. There's no guarantee you'll like it - chili being an acquired taste if there ever was one - but it's worth a try. You'll give yourself better odds of finding good chili if you stick to restaurants or bars that specialize in it.

MEXICAN FOOD The Californian visiting Texas may already have some familiarity with Mexican food, depending on which part of California he lives in and how long he's lived there. It's hard to make recommendations here - if you don't like the Mexican food you've found in California, you probably won't like the Texas varieties either. There is one rule of thumb to keep in mind, though, and it's probably known to every Mexican food aficionado whether it's ever expressed out loud or not: the quality of the best Mexican restaurant in town varies inversely with the distance of that town from the border. This law holds true in California as well. If you get the urge for Mexican food anywhere in the Southwest, you might keep these equivalents in mind if you're wondering whether to seek it out or not:

City Best Quality Available
Comparable to:
San Antonio
El Paso
Excellent The best you'd find in LA or San Diego
Houston
Austin
Almost as good
Almost as good
Dallas
Ft. Worth
Not bad
The best you'd find in the Bay Area or Sacramento
Oklahoma City Tulsa
Don't ask
The best you'd find in Susanville

CHICKEN-FRIED STEAK As its name suggests, this is a tenderized patty of beef, breaded and deep-fat fried like chicken. It is usually served half-submerged under a pint or so of cream gravy, though only God and native Texans know why. To be sure, it isn't recommended for light or delicate appetites. Its origins can probably be traced back to frontier cooks who had to come up with some way to prepare otherwise inedible slabs of tough, half-wild range beef. It's more appetizing today (most of the time, anyway), but remains in no danger of ending up in any Nouvelle Cuisine cookbook. Still, when viewed in its proper context - as a working-folks food, meant to sustain a hard day's labor - it has its appeal and shouldn't be sniffed at.

WARNING: You may consider getting in shape for your trip by eating at restaurants promising "Texas-style cooking" in the Bay Area. Forget it! Out of homesickness, I ate at many of these places and regretted them all. The tame, wishy-washy versions of Texas food that these pretenders serve up will no more prepare you for the real thing than eating a dozen cans of anything from La Choy or Chun King would prepare you for any good restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Speaking of which, it seems appropriate to rention:

ORIENTAL RESTAURANTS (surprise!) - both Dallas and Houston have bigger Asian communities than any Californian would expect. Since the late 70s, both cities have acquired scores of Chinese arid Vietnamese restaurants that are good even by West Coast standards. The Californian who firmly refuses to go native in Texas can do pretty well here, though I can't help thinking that it's like the American tourists who land in Paris and head straight for McDonald's. Still, you might keep this in mind if homesickness should strike during an extended stay here.

So, to sum up, there are a lot of interesting easting experiences waiting for you in Texas if you're willing to give then a chance. Who knows? You might find yourself liking some of the stuff. You might even be inspired to start cooking some of them from time to time. It's not likely that any of them will dethrone quiche or spinach salad in California, but they might satisfy your occasional craving for something exotic. (I think exotic is the right word. Most Californians seen to find Texas food as strange as any recipe from Peru or Malaysia.) Good luck and good eating!

* P.S. By the way, if you're only there long enough to change planes, the chili dogs at DFW are very good members of their genre.

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Mark Kres




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