Just as Tex-Mex food is traditional Mexican fare with a Texas twist, Cal-Mex food is traditional Mexican fare with a California twist. Simple, right?
…Not necessarily. What, exactly, is a “California twist?” How (and why) would a taco made in Los Angeles be different from one made in Dallas? Is it possible to find Tex-Mex food in California? Is there any way to obtain Cal-Mex food in Texas?
Though the lines between the two types of cuisine can be a bit blurry at times, we’ll try to answer the above questions to the best of our ability in today’s post. For simplicity’s sake, we’ve divided the differences between Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex into three broad categories: ingredients, preparation, and overall culture.
While you’ll probably notice similar components in both Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex foods, some ingredients are more common in one cooking style than the other:
- If the menu says that your meal comes with a side of beans, most Tex-Mex places mean refried (pinto) beans. If you’re eating in a Cal-Mex place, they probably mean black beans, or possibly even some kind of white bean.
- The yellow cheese that is nearly ubiquitous in Tex-Mex food is less common in California. On a similar note, Californians who love finding black olives in their food will be disappointed by a distinct lack of olives in Tex-Mex dishes.
- Grilled fish and plain avocado slices grace many Cal-Mex Platters. Tex-Mex tends to favor red meat or poultry over fish by a significant margin, and we generally like to eat avocadoes in the form of seasoned guacamole.
- When beef is used in Cal-Mex dishes, it’s usually lean cuts and the meat is “shredded.” With the exception of fajitas, Tex-Mex recipes normally call for seasoned ground beef— and we don’t mind fattier cuts because they have more flavor.
The following aren’t hard and fast rules, and it’s not like you definitely won’t be able to get your food prepared your favorite way if you’re in the “wrong” state. Still, it helps to know what the local customs are, lest you feel extremely confused when your food is placed in front of you:
- In both Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex cuisines, tacos (and similar dishes) are typically dressed with lettuce, tomato, and cheese. However, Cal-Mex tends to go heavy on the lettuce and tomato and easy on the cheese. In Tex-Mex cooking, the opposite is true.
- Unless otherwise specified, Cal-Mex tacos are usually served on crispy corn tortillas. Tex-Mex tacos often default to soft flour tortillas.
- Cal-Mex cooking is primarily associated with grilled or “fresh” food, especially if the protein du jour is fish. Tex-Mex entrées, on the other hand, are more likely to be fried or baked. More on that in just a moment…
Here are some various characteristics that don’t really fit in the previous two sections:
- Overall, Californians gravitate toward healthier options when it comes to their food. This accounts for the tendency of Cal-Mex entrées to be fresh and/or grilled instead of fried. Meanwhile, Texans view Tex-Mex as comfort and/or party food. We know that most of our favorite dishes aren’t particularly healthy, but we’re okay with that.
- Los Angeles is the birthplace of the (modern) food truck trend, so it makes sense that Cal-Mex entrées are often designed to be portable—or, at the very least, to not make a huge mess if you try to eat them in a cardboard bowl while walking down the street. This isn’t the case with Tex-Mex fare; we typically like to load up our plates with so much sauce, beans, and recipe that food is practically spilling over the sides. When you order Tex-Mex, you may or may not need a fork, but you’ll probably need to sit down while you’re eating!
Tex-Mex versus Cal-Mex: is one necessarily “better” than the other? Well, our knee-jerk response is obviously going to be, “Yes; Tex-Mex is the clear-cut winner!” Would you have expected us to say something different…?
In the interest of fairness and open-mindedness, though, we will admit that Cal-Mex has a lot to offer. If you’re an avowed fan of Tex-Mex food, it might be fun to occasionally try Cal-Mex dishes. Conversely, if you adore Cal-Mex food, then why not give Tex-Mex cuisine a try? Regardless of where you’re from or what you’re used to, you may “discover” a fun, delicious variation on one of your favorite meals.
The bottom line: at Mattito’s, Tex-Mex will always be first in our hearts. But the California twist isn’t too bad, either!