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Monday, April 19, 2010

'Where Can I Get Tex-Mex Food?'

Posted By on Mon, Apr 19, 2010 at 12:25 PM

Tamales at Green Chile Kitchen: Closest S.F. comes to Tex Mex? - AMACEDO/FLICKR
  • amacedo/flickr
  • Tamales at Green Chile Kitchen: Closest S.F. comes to Tex Mex?
This week's reader question comes from E.T., who moved to the Bay Area from Houston a few years ago:
I totally have a question, but after three and a half years of asking it, I'm beginning to suspect that the answer is "no." Is there any restaurant in the Bay Area that serves serious Tex-Mex food?  I'm specifically interested in ground-beef enchiladas smothered in chile gravy and yellow cheese, with larded-up refried beans on the side.
Well, E.T., I'm sorry, but I can't really help you out. And let me tell you why I don't feel bad about it.

There are no restaurants in the Bay Area that currently advertise themselves as Tex Mex, and after the great Southwestern boom and bust of the 1980s, only NOPA's Green Chile Kitchen claims to serve New Mexican food. (For your sake, I checked it out last week and found it to be heavily Californiated.) You can find Texas-esque nachos at Green Chile Kitchen; its new sister restaurant, Chile Pies, serves Frito pie in the bag. For that matter, you can also find Frito pie at Da Beef, the hot dog stand on Folsom and Seventh Street. And Bruno's chef, Ryan Ostler, is a native Texan who puts the occasional Tex Mex dish on his menu and imports the Texan post oak he uses for some of his barbecued meats.

Scant findings, I know, and no enchiladas. The problem is that Tex Mex

― although it's finally being recognized as a regional American

cuisine, not "fake Mexican" ― conflicts too much with our homegrown

synthesis of California and Mexican cuisines. There's little chance

that's going to change, now that regional Mexican and upscale

pan-Mexican restaurants like Chilango and Oakland's Tamarindo are on

the rise. You're better off buying a copy of Robb Walsh's Tex-Mex Cookbook and ordering any ingredients you can't find here from Amazon. Impress your friends with your authentic Texan con carne.

Nostalgia aside, here's why I think you should halt your cheesy-enchilada search.
Not to devalue the pain you're feeling about being separated from the foods of your beloved homeland, E.T., but more and more, the whole "Why can't I find any good X here?" complaint leaves me cold. Believe me, I would love nothing more than to have easy access to LA's Persian restaurants and New York bagels. But you know what? I'm content to let them be foods I search out when I travel. During my four years working as a restaurant critic in Seattle, I spent a lot of time whining to friends about how much I missed good ceviche and Cantonese seafood; every trip to the Bay Area would begin and end with a burrito. Now I find myself thrilled to be surrounded by all of these dishes ... and I miss my favorite takes on kitfo, banh mi, and croissants,  foods that Seattle, with its unique demographic makeup and culinary lineage, do much better than San Francisco.

Instead of being disappointed by subpar ground-beef enchiladas, hunt down great Cal-Mex food. Make it a project to search out the best burrito you've ever tasted and then drunkenly defend it at parties. Ride around San Francisco and Oakland hitting every taco truck you spy. Take a weekend road trip to the Santa Maria Valley to gorge on tri-tip steaks grilled over white red [gah!] oak and long-braised pinquito beans. Splurge a little on meals at higher-end places like Colibri, Nopalito, and Tamarindo to appreciate their California spin on "authentic" (another hugely problematic word ) Mexican food. Fall in love with what San Francisco does best, so that if you should ever move back to Houston, you can spend the first month gorging on enchiladas and then find yourself emailing Californians, "God DAMN, why can't I get a good burrito in this town?"

Have a question for the critic? Email me at
or Tweet me at @jonkauffman.

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