How many traditional Mexican restaurants are in Austin?
"I can name eight or 10 restaurants," says Tom Gilliland, owner of restaurant Fonda San Miguel.
His response might surprise some, but the key is "traditional."
Austinites who enjoy breakfast tacos, fajitas, chips and salsa tend to confuse these Tex-Mex delights with the misunderstood and scarce traditional Mexican food in this city. Mole, for example, is incorrectly called "chocolate sauce" because chocolate is one among more than 20 ingredients in mole negro, or black mole, but it is not included in all the more than 200 types of moles in Mexico.
Diana Kennedy, an authority in Mexican food, made a distinction between traditional and interior Mexican food and the food served at the "so-called Mexican restaurants in the United States" in her 1972 book "The Cuisines of Mexico."
Because of cooking techniques and ingredients, "Mexican food and Tex-Mex food are as different as Chinese and French food," says Gilliland, who with chef Miguel Rávago was one of the first to bring traditional Mexican dining to Austin 35 years ago.
Some experts, however, see Austin as a mecca of Mexican cuisine. That reputation was instrumental in Austin being tapped as one of only five cities to host an event highlighting the authentic cuisine. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami were the others selected by Sabores Auténticos de México, a nonprofit organization backed by the Mexican government that certifies traditional restaurants around the world. Monday night's gala dinner at the Long Center will be prepared by 11 Mexican food chefs from Texas. The event is being coordinated by Roberto Santibañez, former chef at Fonda San Miguel and a member of Sabores Auténticos.
Others say Austin has a ways to go when it comes to accepting traditional Mexican cuisine, judging by the number of establishments here that offer traditional dishes 35 years after Fonda San Miguel opened its doors with the help of Kennedy, who created their first menu.
"When we first opened, we thought once we educate people about real authentic Mexican food, that challenge will be over," Gilliland says. "But we were really wrong about that because we (still) educate people every single day that our door is open."
To start a Mexican restaurant without automatically including chips and salsa in the menu and to then suggest fine wine pairings to the Mexican dishes was a risky venture in the '70s. "I wasn't sure we would be able to stay open," says Gilliland. Among those with palates able to appreciate the differences were frequent travelers to Mexico and University of Texas faculty who became loyal customers.
Both cuisines include enchiladas, hot salsas, tacos and tamales. The big differences?
"Mexican cuisine does not serve rice and beans with every dish," explains chef Iliana de la Vega, a native of Mexico City who moved to Austin in 2007 after many years of running a well-known restaurant in Oaxaca. De la Vega, who also works as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, opened El Naranjo, a food trailer on Rainey Street, earlier this year.
Other differences, she points out, is that though Mexican food has an enormous variety of chiles, both fresh and dry, Tex-Mex is limited to a few such as guajillo (or colorado), jalapeño and Anaheim; traditional is not as spicy as Tex-Mex and Mexican tortillas are usually thinner than those available in Texas.
Experts explain that cumin, for instance, is not used as widely in Mexico as it is in Texas. Red meat is more common in Tex-Mex, too. But perhaps the dominant difference between the two cuisines is starch — the abundance of nachos, tacos and tortilla wraps is simply not as common in Mexican cuisine.
"A lot of beans, cheese and flour tortillas distinguish Tex-Mex food, while deeper in Mexico, you only find corn tortillas," says Gilliland.
Though many Tex-Mex plates are made to please the American palate, most of them were created by Mexican immigrants in South Texas who had no access to original ingredients, according to some historians. Although the number of gastronomic regions in Mexico varies between three and 20, depending on the expert, it could be argued that Tex-Mex, which includes North Mexico and South Texas, is another region.
Traditional ingredients like huitlacoche (corn smut), epazote and papalo (herbs) or huazontle (an edibe plant) were difficult for chef René Ortiz, a native of San Antonio, to find when he opened his restaurant La Condesa in downtown Austin two years ago.
He took risks with his menu and at one point included tacos de chapulines, or crickets (a delicacy in Oaxaca). He also added huaraches, which are like large oval gorditas or tostadas, to his offerings because of the difficulty finding the street food, common in Mexico City .
Traditional cuisine is flourishing in Austin, Ortiz says: "Austin is a growing city and it is definitely accepting changes." Although starting his restaurant was risky, "it was 50-50; they either hated or loved us," he says of the customers who dined at La Condesa.
Prices and portion sizes were another barrier for his new customers. "There is a general perception that Mexican food is cheap, greasy, ordinary and spicy," says de la Vega. She disagrees with this perception, noting that although some ingredients are inexpensive, the cooking techniques are elaborate. "There are no shortcuts. You have to start from scratch" for a recipe to be authentic, she says.
De la Vega and her husband and partner, Ernesto Torrealba, have faced difficulties since they started their trailer business last March. De la Vega tried to introduce a different type of mole every day, but changed her plans when she noted, for example, that her green mole was not a best-seller.
"Some restaurants introduce Tex-Mex dishes in their traditional Mexican menu to please all types of customers," says chef-owner David Garrido of Garrido's, which opened in downtown Austin last year.
But chefs like de la Vega are committed to remaining faithful to traditional recipes. "I'm stubborn enough to prepare Mexican food," she says, no matter how quickly Austinites embrace her offerings.
Mexican cuisine is not pretentious, either, explains de la Vega. Some people try to change or fuse Mexican cuisine with French techniques and feel the need to add a white tablecloth, "but Mexican cuisine is sophisticated enough in its traditional way," she says.
Mole, for example, is an experience that evolves on the palate with each bite, and it includes sweet and herbal tones, she explains. "We use the same ingredients as fine restaurants like Jeffrey's, Uchi or Vespaio, but we happen to be Mexican," says Ortiz. "Mexicans like nice things, too."
Though some of the authentic restaurants have been successful, owners continue to be challenged by the popularity of Tex-Mex dishes.
"Tex-Mex food is a tough opponent," says Gilliland. People assume that Tex-Mex is Mexican and they're unwilling to venture to new tastes. When it comes to Tex-Mex versus traditional dishes, "one is not better than the other; they are just different."
Learn about the food
Want to know more about the history of Mexican food? Mexican culinary expert and chef Iliana de la Vega will give a presentation on watershed moments in Mexican gastronomy at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 601 River St. The event, part of a yearlong series of talks on the foodways of Mexico, is free and will feature samples of some of the dishes covered during de la Vega's presentation.
Next week, it will have been 200 years since a Mexican priest named Miguel Hidalgo uttered the famous Grito de Dolores battle cry, launching a war against the Spanish that resulted in the country's independence.
As part of a year of festivities, the Mexican government selected five U.S. cities to host Sabores Auténticos de México events celebrating the flavors of Mexico. Former Fonda San Miguel chef Roberto Santibañez is helping coordinate the dinners in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Miami, and on Monday, it's Austin's turn to host.
'All of Texas has wonderful Mexican cuisine, but Austin is becoming a culinary capital right now,' says Anjanette Gautier, spokeswoman for MexNet Alliance, the Austin nonprofit organizing the event. Hundreds of guests will fill the Long Center for a gala that will feature food from some of Texas' top chefs, including David Garrido and Miguel Ravago from Austin. Gautier says that 17 restaurants from across the state, including six in Austin, will be receiving an honor from the Mexican government for preserving Mexican culinary history. (Tickets — $250 or $400 for VIP, which includes a reception with Diana Kennedy — are still available online at www.thelongcenter.org.)
In honor of Mexico's bicentennial and Austin being selected to host this event, we're dedicating this week's section and Thursday's food pages in Austin360 to distinct sabores of Mexico. Buen provecho!
— Addie Broyles
Diana Kennedy coming to Austin
Diana Kennedy will be signing copies of her new book, 'Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy' at the Blanton Museum Shop, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16. She will also be a speaker at the Texas Book Festival, Oct. 16-17.