Mexican food, along with Mexican culture in all of its manifestations, is now undeniably a part of the North American daily experience­­—not only in urban areas anymore, either. To my daughter, this will seem like a given and she will be amazed when I tell her that once upon a time you could, in fact, swing a cat without hitting a plate of flautas. In Madison, we enjoy not only a panoply of independent Mexican restaurants but also a homegrown bastion of Southwestern cookery, Pasqual’s. It’s also an established fact that the American restaurant business relies on Mexico for the backbone of its labor pool. And whereas years ago this may have meant dishwashers and porters, Mexican-born and Mexican-American chefs are assuming their rightful place in the American professional kitchen, now to be found at the head of fine dining establishments in many North American cities.

I have long perceived a parallel between Mexican and Italian food in North America, at least in my own experience and in my own understanding of the soul of cooking. Both are cuisines of cash-poor immigrants, characterized by strident flavors and a sort of native genius for taking a relatively small set of mundane ingredients and coaxing out their very essence, resulting in uncomplicated but infinitely satisfying preparations. Both have gone through substantial changes under the North American sun, evolving in response to new ingredients, the scarcity of some traditional ones and, for restaurant cooks, the preferences and demands of a new population.

Just as pizza has been resident in this country long enough for different styles to be indelibly associated with certain cities or regions of the United States, so the cooking of Mexico—much more naturally, owing to the proximity and long history between the two nations—has undergone some stylistic evolution in the U.S. It has assumed forms that are now distinct enough from the native traditional cuisine to be called by names of U.S. origin. Though I don’t usually plump for the timeless topic of “authenticity,” preferring a less abstracted standard of quality (i.e., how does it taste?), here I’ll look at some of the differences in these styles and how they came to be.

Tex-Mex

To extend the Italian analogy, a common thread running through comparative discussions of “real” Mexican food vs. United States variants is the amount of cheese used in the cooking. If you saw the movie “Big Night,” perhaps you remember the opening scene featuring Stanley Tucci shaving an endless shower of Parmigiano over a boorish diner’s pasta—a subtle intimation of the way the cooking of other nations can lose its freshness and delicacy when answering to the ravenous sensibilities of the American diner. This seems to be an overarching factor in defining “Tex-Mex” food—much as a heavy plate of lasagna fettered by gobs of ricotta and mozzarella might give a native Italian pause, so the meat, cheese and red salsas so indispensable to Tex-Mex food might seem very out of place in Mexico itself. The term “Tex-Mex,” incidentally, was coined originally in the late 19th century as a nickname for the Texas-Mexican railroad, but as a food term dates only from the 1970s when Diana Kennedy used it to distinguish North American Mexican cuisine from the original.

It may come as no surprise to learn that fresh vegetables play a much more prevalent role in the original version of Mexican cooking than they do in North America. Combine our famous national appetite for meat with the sometimes much shorter growing seasons and you have a recipe for a much heavier, greasier kind of cooking. One testimonial I read identified the signature Tex-Mex dish as cheese enchiladas with chili gravy—so essentially no fresh or uncooked produce involved. In Mexico, expect the cooking to be lighter, fresher, and more contingent on excellent fresh produce than on dairy, meat or starchy ingredients.

Calexican

A subset of Mexican-American food that shares the above characteristic but has thrown in some attractive new twists is “Calexican” cooking, which, as the name might tell you, evolved in California and heavily features the fantastic seafood available in that state. The fish taco, which has rightfully taken the world by storm, reputedly originated in the Baja, California region. These are available at Tex Tubb’s Taco Palace on Atwood and, while I don’t think it’s possible to truly cook any California-based cuisine this far inland, most of the Mexican restaurants in town do feature at least one fish or shrimp dish. (Worthy of a special trip are the Camarones Diablos at Cielito Lindo in Milwaukee.)

Southwestern

Lastly, there is Southwestern cooking, also referred to by some as New Mexican cooking. The green chile is the signature ingredient of this style, but there are other, more subtle differences like the substitution of potatoes for rice as a key starch and decreased use of cumin and jalapeños in contrast to the Tex-Mex style. Again, though, this style makes greater use of beef than native Mexican cuisine—this emerges as a thread in the Mexican-American styles. We like a lot of beef up here and Mexican food isn’t the only style to get the meat-heavy treatment when it crosses our borders. Lastly, avocados do not do well in the semi-arid climate of New Mexico and the Southwest and thus do not feature as an essential part of the native cooking style.

What it boils down to is this

Many of the basic elements that Norteamericanos associate with Mexican food—tortillas, chile peppers, fresh tomato salsas, cilantro—remain the same through these variations. As is always the case when food evolves through travel, a basic idiom came into contact with new ingredients and new people and changed to suit the circumstances. No doubt it will continue to change, like all living things do, and the changes that make the most sense and taste the best will be the ones that stick through the passing of time. If you’re looking for the closest thing to the native article, best seek out restaurants and groceries located in or near strong immigrant communities—take a spin down S. Park Street to Mercado Marimar and El Pastor or out Monona Drive to Super Tienda Latina. If you find yourself in Milwaukee or Chicago, you’re on a whole new plane of possibilities as well. And if you get down to Houston, don’t miss the Spanish Rose. Buen Provecho.