Ask 10 different people what their favorite Tex-Mex food is, and you might end up with 10 different answers. At the same time, though, there are certain ingredients that seem to show up over and over again, regardless of the dish in question. Here are four tried-and-true ingredients that are all but essential for a great Tex-Mex meal:
A lot of us can’t imagine a taco, a burrito or an enchilada without a generous serving of yellow cheese—either cheddar or Colby Jack—tossed into the fray. Neither cheese is Mexican in origin; cheddar comes from England and Colby Jack is an American invention. In fact, authentic Mexican food is far more likely to use white cheeses like queso fresco, queso añejo, or manchego over their brightly-colored cousins. Whichever cheese you think is the “best” is, obviously, a matter of personal taste and opinion. But Texans (and, really, a lot of Americans) really love their yellow cheese, so those are the varieties that have become practically synonymous with “Tex-Mex.”
There’s no denying that avocados are enjoying a huge surge in popularity right now. From sandwich shops to breakfast bistros, more and more establishments are now offering slices of the stuff as a condiment or topping in order to put a new spin on some classic dishes. While there’s nothing wrong with jumping on the avocado bandwagon now, it should be noted that Tex-Mex (and Cali-Mex) connoisseur have been eating them for decades in the form of guacamole. “Guack,” as it’s affectionately referred to, has long graced our entrées and dip bowls. So even after the trend of putting sliced avocado on everything fizzles out, guacamole will still be a prominent Tex-Mex ingredient.
Traditionally, Tex-Mex entrées are served with a side of rice and beans. But not just any rice and beans: we’re talking about refried beans and a scoop of orange-colored rice that’s been flavored with tomatoes, garlic and onions. There are usually peas and diced carrots in there, too. Curiously enough, this kind of rice is not served in Spain, and it’s also fairly uncommon in Southern Mexico (where plain white rice reigns supreme). However, the closer you get to the Rio Grande, the more likely you are to encounter what Tex-Mex lovers call “Spanish rice.” This side dish may not be “true” Mexican food, but it sure is delicious, and it goes with nearly everything!
“Now, wait a second!” you may be saying. “A lot of Tex-Mex foods are made with chicken or pork, not ground beef!” But the vast majority of non-beef dishes will still have beef versions, and a lot of entrées (including old favorites like tacos and fajitas) are usually made with beef—other proteins are considered variations. We’re mainly including ground beef on this list because it’s one Tex-Mex staple that’s not extremely common in Mexico, except in the very northern regions of the country. South of the border, chickens and pigs are much more popular candidates for animal husbandry, and Mexican food typically reflects this fact. But we Texans love our ground beef and sliced steak! Thus, a cooking style that’s meant to blend together the cuisines of Texas and Mexico is naturally going to spotlight this particular protein.
What’s your favorite Tex-Mex ingredient? Is it one we mentioned on our list, or does the phrase “Tex-Mex food” take your mind to an entirely different set of “fixins?” That’s one of the great things about this style of cooking; there really is something for everybody. So let’s take a moment to appreciate our favorite Tex-Mex ingredients. Even if they’re not “true blue” Mexican foods, they give Tex-Mex the unique flavor profiles that we all crave!