I Had to Know: What’s the Difference Between Mexican and Tex Mex Food?

When I was on my RV trip from California to Texas, one of the things I thought about often was getting some real Tex Mex food. I’m not sure what I thought it was going to be but I was positive it would be something wonderful. Color me confused when I arrived in Texas and had “Mexican food” a couple of times. I was expecting this elusive Tex Mex cuisine and what I got was food I was used to getting in Mexico or some Mexican restaurants in California. Color me shocked when I researched the difference between Mexican and Tex Mex food.

Beans, enchiladas and rice with text overlay: Mexican Food vs. Tex-Mex, What's the Difference?

I grew up in southern California and ate probably more than my fair share of Mexican food. It is a cuisine I could live on. Mexican restaurants are in no short supply there: large chains like El Torito; small mom and pop places; and fast food like Taco Bell. I loved them all. I was always in search of the best little hole in the wall place and I had a couple of favorites.

Village Inn street tacos

Even in California, street tacos are pretty authentic

When I arrived in Texas and started getting food that seemed more authentically Mexican to me, I had to find out what the difference is between Mexican and Tex Mex. Imagine my surprise when I learned that most of the Mexican food I’d been eating all my life in California is really Tex-Mex! Although Tex-Mex did get its start in Texas, it is now what is typically called Mexican food north of the border.

Casa Azteca Mexican Bar and Grill tacos - Mexican or Tex-Mex?

This was my first Mexican meal in Texas. Where’s the cheese? Where’s the lettuce and tomato? Where’s the sour cream?

So, what is the difference between Mexican and Tex Mex food?

Tex-Mex Dishes that Might Surprise You

  • Fajitas
  • Crispy tacos
  • Nachos
  • Burritos
  • Chili con carne
  • Queso dip
Rene's nachos - Mexican or Tex-Mex?

Nachos with yellow and white cheese and crema

The Difference is in the Ingredients

The main difference between traditional Mexican dishes and Tex Mex boils down to a few key ingredients. Click To Tweet

Cheese

  • One of the most obvious of differences is the color of the cheese on your plate. If it is yellow cheese, you are eating Tex-Mex. Mexican dishes use white cheeses such as cotija. Cheese is also a much more heavily used ingredient in Tex-Mex, like in cheese quesadillas and cheese enchiladas, or everyone’s favorite, nachos smothered in molten yellow cheese. The queso dip (Velveeta & Ro-tel) was created by a Mexican restaurant owner in Arkansas.
Palenque Grill carnitas parrilladas

Another non-Tex-Mex meal in Texas

Protein

  • The proteins commonly used in Mexican food are chicken and pork, or seafood along the coast. Beef is rarely used in Mexico, except along the US border where cattle ranching is prevalent. A favorite dish in many US Mexican restaurants is fajitas, a Tex-Mex creation. Although you can get them today with other kinds of meat, the name comes from the word “faja” which means strip and refers to the cut of beef used. Chili con carne is a Texas creation and is the state dish of Texas.
Las Vegas Cafe steak fajitas - a Tex Mex creation

Although these steak fajitas are a Tex-Mex creation, they came what I would call “Mexican style.” No cheese, sour cream or guacamole.

Tortillas

  • Are your tortillas made of corn or wheat flour and are they soft or crisp? If your taco is wrapped in a flour tortilla or in a crispy corn shell, you are eating Tex Mex. Tacos in Mexico are always made with a soft corn tortilla. Ground beef in a crisp tortilla, which Taco Bell brought into the mainstream, is a staple in Tex-Mex cooking. Burritos wrapped in a wheat tortilla are a Tex-Mex adaptation.
Taco truck tacos al pastor - authentic Mexican

Typical Mexican tacos al pastor on corn tortillas with onion, cabbage, cilantro and lime

Palenque Grill chips and dips

Crispy corn tortillas are for dipping, not tacos

Spices

  • You may associate the spice cumin with Mexican cooking but it was introduced to North America from India. It is not a traditional Mexican seasoning but is heavily used in Tex-Mex dishes. You may also think that chili powder comes from Mexico but it was created in San Antonio in the 1870s by a German immigrant. His recipe was a mix that included cumin, ancho chilies, oregano, and black pepper.
Blanquita's chile relleno

Chile relleno

Sauces and condiments

  • Sauces and condiments differ, too. Mole sauce is the national dish of Mexico. There are seven main types but lots of other variations. Sauces on Mexican dishes are usually some variation of mole or a green sauce.  If your sauce is red, cheesy or creamy, you are probably eating Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex dishes often are served with sour cream whereas Mexican dishes use crema, a thinner sauce more like creme fraiche.
Nana's Taqueria combo plate

A combo plate of tacos, a tostada and a torta

Was I disappointed in what I learned about the difference between Mexican and Tex Mex?

Writing this post and looking at the photos, I realize it has been a really long time since I’ve had Tex Mex with lots of ooey, gooey cheese and sauce. The truth is, these days, the lines are becoming quite blurred as American ingredients are more available in Mexico and restaurants adapt recipes to cater to the tastes of tourists. What I know is, that even though I didn’t discover a new, delicious cuisine, I can continue to enjoy both the Tex Mex and Mexican food I love, here in Texas as well as when I make my day trips across the border into Mexico.

Do you love Tex-Mex food or are you a die hard purist for Mexican food? Did you know the difference?

Chips, salsa and bean dip with text overlay: Are you eating Mexican Food or Tex-Mex? Learn the 5 main differences
Onions, limes, cilantro and cabbage accompaniments with text overlay: Mexican Food vs. Tex-Mex, Learn the 5 main differences

Until next time…

Read more:
The Difference Between Tex-Mex vs Mexican Food, According to a Texas Native
A Brief History Of Mole, Mexico’s National Dish

 



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10 Comments

  1. Oh Wauw! I never knew this.
    I guess in Europe most of it is Tex-Mex and not Mexican.
    Cumin, sour cream, beef, and wheat tortillas are used a lot.

    Still unbelievable good, but I guess I have to eat real Mexican food quick!

  2. I hadn’t really thought about the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex. I live in southern California, and I just assumed almost everything I ate here was authentic Mexican. It appears I was wrong! Not that it really matters, though, because I love it all!

  3. I knew there are differences because, when we stayed in Mexico for three months last winter, there were none of the familiar Tex-Mex cheesy gooey dishes. More of the dishes not common in US Mexican restaurants like barbacoa, mole, adobo, menudo, pozole, birrhia, etc..

    • Yes, you are sure right about some of those dishes not being available here, even in “real” Mexican restaurants. Haven’t seen any mole since I was in the Yucatan.

  4. This must be a burning question in America. I wondered the same thing as we were preparing to visit San Antonio, Texas, and I have a similarly titled blog post drafted. Ha! ~ Sage Scott, the Everyday Wanderer

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