Texas Comfort Food
No self-respecting Texan would be caught dead eating Mexican food anywhere outside the state lines—except maybe in Mexico. American regional cuisine that combines northern Mexican peasant food with Texas 785 Texas cowboy favorites, Tex-Mex got its start from Tejanos, who cooked up a mix of Mexican and Spanish dishes .
In the 1880s, the famous San Antonio Chili Queens sold tacos, tamales, and chili con carne in the town’s Military Square, but the food didn’t get its current moniker until the 1940s. To eat the very best Tex-Mex, go to its San Antonio origins, where true Texas heritage is served on a plate in places like Mi Tierra in Market Square
Whereas Tex-Mex is characterized by fajitas and heavier, cheesier creations, foods from Mexico’s interior tend to display more nuances and layering of flavors that reflect the refined preparation processes from various regions of the country. San Antonio offers a number of fine places to sample such artfully wrought dishes, starting with El Mirador, a festive place just south of downtown, serving unforgettable dishes like red snapper crusted in crushed tortilla chips, served atop tomatillocorn salsa, yellow rice, and green vegetables. Other seafood treasures include the lobster taco with spinach and the shrimp-stuffed poblano chile. Alternatively, for a beautiful garden setting and a taste of all Mexican food worlds, head to La Fogata, where favorites include marinated pork with squash and corn; chile relleno stuffed with spicy beef, almonds, and green olives; and chicken in mole sauce .
El Mirador: Tel 210-225-9444; elmirador restaurant.com. Cost: dinner $20. La Fogata: Tel 210-340-1337; lafogata.com. Cost: dinner $25. Best times: May 5 for Cinco de Mayo; late May weekend for the Return of the Chili Queens festival; Sept 16 for Diez y Seis (Mexican Independence Day); Sept 15–Oct 15 for Hispanic Heritage Month .
Unlike barbecue in some states, which can easily be pigeonholed (beef in Texas; pork in Tennessee), Alabama barbecue offers vast regional variety. Each has its own special spices, seasonings, and devoted following.
And it’s all good. In northern Alabama, you’re likely to find pork drenched in a peppery vinegar bath or chicken glazed with a mayonnaise base, while barbecuers to the south slather their meat in tomato-based sauces. The best-known of Alabama’s barbecue joints is Dreamland in Tuscaloosa (home to the football-crazed University of Alabama), which has been making heavenly pork ribs since 1958, when brick mason John “Big Daddy” Bishop Sr. opened his café .
Big Daddy is gone, but Dreamland (with locations statewide) remains the lip-smacking ultimate for barbecue buffs, who swear by the meaty spareribs that have been salted and soaked in spicy vinegar sauce before being slowly grilled over hickory-wood flames.
A white barbecue sauce may sound like an oxymoron, but those who hail from the northwest corner of the state will beg to differ. Decatur claims to be the birthplace of barbecued chicken with a mayonnaise-based sauce. Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, a fourth-generation eatery in business since 1952, is named for a railroad worker who loved entertaining in his backyard, where he hand-dug his own roasting pit. As legend has it, Gibson concocted the white sauce of vinegar and black pepper, adding mayonnaise to keep the chicken from drying out on the barbecue spit. At Miss Myra’s Pit outside Birmingham, tomato-based barbecue sauce over pork and chicken is also on the menu, but white is the sauce of choice for those who know better.
Gibson isn’t the only “Big Bob” in Alabama barbecue history. Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in Bessemer (look for a cartoon pig on the roof) has been famous for its pork ribs since 1968. The family still carries on the late Bob’s tradition of his two-fisted, pickle-topped “Big Bob” sandwich of succulent pulled pork—the tender meat pulled from the bone and chopped up. There’s barbecued chicken, too, and plenty of great sides, such as baked beans and handmade onion rings.
Barbecue in the bayside city of Mobile can only mean the Brick Pit, where you’re invited to etch your signature on the popular restaurant’s walls (or ceiling, if you can reach) while patiently waiting for tender pork ribs cooked for at least 12 hours, while pulled pork roasts for up to 30 hours, over pecan- and hickorywood fires. Whether you choose the spicy or sweet sauce, don’t forget to use that slice of white bread to mop up your plate.