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Thursday, December 09, 2004

Something that has been intriguing me...

...apropos of nothing, is the way in which individual periods become excised from the flow of history and preserved in amber. A good example is the way that immigrant communities preserve the memories and mores of their former country, whereas the original country continues to grow and evolve. It's a common story. In Houston, the Vietnamese community was founded by people who fled deadly oppression at the risk of their own lives, and as a result, they landed in Galveston knowing that they could Never Go Home Again. They divorced themselves from the flow of that history, and "preserved" the Vietnam of the latter half of the 1970s. To native Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh City is a repressive and cold city just beginning to enter the new Asian boom, but to these refugees, it will always be Saigon, bustling with the energy of graft and innovation. The refugees themselves have been quite particular about preserving their "culture" by encasing it in amber, whereas their children have been eager to add Vietnamese spices to the American melting pot.

What got me thinking about this was a Tex-Mex lunch I had on Tuesday.

In Houston, there are now three different kinds of "Mexican" restaurant, each representing a different period, preserved in amber and catering to the tastes of a particular generation.

The "Mexican restaurants" -- always in quotes, because the term is so slippery -- that are currently thought to be "best" are so-called interior Mexican restaurants. That is, they actually serve the food that is typically served in Mexico, and thus are "authentic." Those restaurants are a reaction to the ocean of excellent "Tex-Mex" (as opposed to "authentic") restaurants around town, each of which sells a unique cuisine native to Texas but not to Mexico. It is a constantly evolving cuisine, as Rick Bayless and others try to introduce new notes of "authenticity" -- they change it, but not to make it "authentic" anything. All they end up doing is redefining the standards of Tex-Mex. Generally, they make it spicier.

But on Tuesday, I got my first taste of what the Houston Press calls a third separate cuisine, with its own "Best of" category: "retro Tex-Mex." As they explain, when Felix opened "Felix's Mexican Restaurant," he didn't serve anything authentically Mexican. He took his best guess at what all the gringos would want to eat. And he hasn't changed the menu since the 1940s. As a result, it's like stepping into a time capsule.

For instance, I'm going to print the recipe for Felix's famed queso, which some think is the best in the city:

FELIX'S QUESO

4 oz. Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 packet Old El Paso taco seasoning

Heat cheese until just soft. Add taco seasoning and stir. Serve lumpy, with a film of taco grease on top.

And I could offer some speculation on their "Spanish rice" recipe, too: Minute Rice with some spaghetti sauce on it. In fact, you have the choice of Spanish rice or spaghetti.

What is fascinating is that Felix's is not some end-of-the-line restaurant that has been bypassed by the much-better "modern" Tex-Mex restaurants. It is the two-time winner of the "Best of Houston" "retro Tex-Mex" category. It has a strong following of people that think it's better than "modern" Tex-Mex -- not as kitsch, not as irony, but genuinely believing that it is good food. If you like the "modern" Tex-Mex, and see other restaurants (say, Molina's) as a natural evolution of and improvement on the cuisine, the only way to reconcile Felix's in your mind is to carve it out and call it something separate.

It's not so crazy. There are chefs that spend their whole lives learning how to make food in the "classic" French style -- a style that has long since died, but which is preserved in amber for people to remember. Even as New Orleans has begun to experiment with its classics, the notion of a "classic" Creole cuisine is being cordoned off so that future generations can continue to insist on its "authenticity," even if the actual Creoles have moved on to the excellent Italian and Asian restaurants in the city. Perhaps someday, "retro Tex-Mex" will have its own aesthetic, one not based in kitsch, but rather in an earnest attempt to aspire to a particular goal. A particularly bland goal.

I don't know where I'm going with all of this, and I suppose it's a bad idea to start an essay without knowing where you're going with it. But I do know this: I haven't had lunch yet, and there's a good Tex-Mex restaurant around the corner.


 1:19 PM

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