Your Official Tex-Mex Guide: Defining Traditional Dishes

Tex-Mex food is not quite Texan and not quite Mexican. It is a special blend of the two that occurs in the Lone Star State and other border states like New Mexico, Arizona, and as far north as Colorado where authentic Mexican food can be found. Today, this popular cuisine reigns supreme, but a generation or so ago, Mexican food was only found inside family homes in the United States.

It was only when cities started to grow that the Mexican kitchens began to grow, too. Mothers who once made tacos for their children were soon catering dinners for local residents and whose popularity eventually encouraged them to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurants.

In tandem with the expansion in size of Mexican eateries, so too did the types of food evolve. With the availability of certain ingredients and the lack of others in Texas, soon cheddar cheese began replacing the authentic Mexican queso fresco and flour soft tortillas started to become a staple next to the more traditional corn tortillas found in Mexican restaurants.

While there is a debate as to where the home of Tex-Mex cuisine is, what can be said for certain is that each region of Texas has dishes specific to the area. From street food like elotes to more involved Mexican cooking like cheese enchiladas, Tex-Mex has expanded across the country, with places in New York City and Chicago recreating some time-honored classics. So what are some of the classic Tex-Mex dishes? Here are a few that look similar but that, as a true connoisseur, you should absolutely know the difference between.

1. Enchiladas vs. Flautas

enchiladas vs Flautas tex mex
@samantha_orfino/@mixtamal_sangenaro

Enchiladas are an absolute classic. Corn tortillas bursting with a cheese and meat filling, usually ground beef or shredded chicken, and then covered in an ocean of salsa, there is nothing you can’t love about this dish.

However, don’t get them confused with flautas which are also rolled up corn tortillas that are filled with meat and cheese. Unlike enchiladas though, this Tex-Mex classic is fried until crispy. Most authentic Tex-Mex restaurants will whip up a version of the best flautas you’ve ever had.

2. Tacos vs. Burritos

taco vs burrito tex mex
@hangryadventures/@cali_tacos

If you’re in Central Texas, then tacos are clearly the only option. However, in the rest of the state, burritos are key players, too.

Tacos are corn or flour tortillas that are loaded with anything you can dream of and then topped with salsa, sour cream, or guacamole. And for the record, real tacos are always soft like burritos. No Taco Bell taco shells here.

Burritos are essentially the bigger version of a taco and should never be served as breakfast burritos. That is just an imitation of the real-deal breakfast tacos.

3. Fajitas vs. Barbacoa

fajita vs barbacoa tex mex
@consumedbycarlo/@trappezepub

These two dishes are very similar, but there is one defining difference. Fajitas are simple grilled pieces of chicken, beef, or seafood that are often served in a sizzling skillet with onions and peppers. Barbacoa, though, is strictly spiced beef that comes from a cow’s head and is cooked until it is so tender, it falls apart.

Both are served with warm tortillas for taco-making purposes. Barbacoa, similar to Texas barbecue, is cooked low and slow, and can be found across the state in places like El Paso and San Antonio.

4. Huevos Rancheros vs Migas

huevos rancheros vs migas tex mex (2)
@0815bbq/@stfdbz

Huevos rancheros are also known as rancher’s eggs. This dish features fried eggs smothered in ranchero sauce with a side of black beans or refried beans, and corn tortillas. Served for breakfast, it’s sure to stick to your ribs and leave you full for hours. This is Tex-Mex food with a purpose.

Migas, which means “crumbs”, is also a breakfast dish. Often this combination of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, crispy corn tortilla chips, and cheese is seen in breakfast tacos. However, you can also eat it straight off the plate. Flavorful and filling, just make sure you don’t let the chips get soggy.

5. Carne Guisada vs Cabrito

carne guisada vs cabrito
@ the_perfectblend21_bartending/@gerardo_gaya

These are two favorite Mexican dishes designed for comfort. Carne guisada is simply Mexican beef stew. Hearty and warm, it’s the epitome of comfort food with chunks of slow-stewed beef that come in a spiced gravy made with onions, bell peppers, and garlic. It’s particularly good when doused in hot sauce.

Cabrito, on the other hand, is slow-roasted goat that is served with rice, beans, and salsa. Not quite as soupy as carne guisada, but satisfying nevertheless.

6. Nachos vs Tostadas

nachos vs tostadas

@picanteid/@breweryfood

Nachos are what happened when someone accidentally crushed their tostada and didn’t want to waste any of the delicious toppings that had fallen onto their plate.

Essentially, tostadas are the more elegant cousin of nachos, and they taste best with queso fresco, the white cheese you can often find in the specialty cheese section of your grocery store if you don’t live in the border states.

Watch: 10 Famous Queso Spots in Texas