OPINIONFood

Inside the tasty evolution of Mexican food in the U.S.

State of the Plate: RB menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse explains how Glen Bell’s “tay-kohs” walked so birria and other authentic dishes and flavors could become runaway hits with American diners.
Birria
Birria is the latest Mexican dish to have caught on with American diners. | Photo: Shutterstock

State of the Plate

Data recently released by the Pew Research Center revealed that one in 10 restaurants in the United States serves Mexican food and that 85% of all counties have at least one Mexican restaurant. These findings prompted a Pew analyst to note without hyperbole that, “Anywhere you have people in this country, you are bound to find a Mexican restaurant.”

That’s a lot of chips and salsa.

And while these numbers signify the continuing impact of immigration and globalization and travel and tourism on the American diner, they also represent a major opportunity for restaurant operators.

This wasn’t always the case. Outside of the inhabitants of border states and Chicago’s Cook County, which were historic landing spots for Mexican immigrants, most consumers in the mid-20th century were unaware of south-of-the-border cuisine.

It took some pioneering chains to open their eyes to its appeal, one of which was Chili’s. In 1984, the brand launched the Tex-Mex fajita into a dining mainstream that immediately sparked to the irresistible combination of grilled steak and an audible sizzle. Its influence was immediate and long-lived.

At about the same time, the Chi-Chi’s Mexican dinnerhouse chain was in expansion mode with a menu geared to allay the fears of heat-resistant consumers. It featured a helpful, if inaccurate, “Glossary for Salsafied Living” that defined enchiladas as the oldest known Mexican food and maintained that “quesadilla literally means cheesecake.”

While the brand gained traction and opened more than 200 units, it was ultimately derailed by a perfect storm of overexpansion, questionable management decisions, burgeoning competition and worst of all, the largest outbreak of deadly hepatitis A in U.S. history. Its doors closed, but its packaged-goods line remains on supermarket shelves.

Quick-service chains were emerging throughout the period as well, of course. Taco Bell’s company history says that when entrepreneur Glen Bell opened his first eponymous store in 1962 in Downey, Calif., what his customers called the unfamiliar “tay-kohs” were an immediate hit.

Times and tastes have changed. While most of the Mexican-influenced dishes offered in the early days were unapologetically modified to suit American tastes at that time, they offered a critical first step in broader acceptance of Mexican cuisine and a jumping-off point for wider experimentation to follow.

The current menu newsmaker in the category is birria. A right-thing/right-time, next-gen dish, it’s based on quesabirria, a traditional Mexican stew that marries three sure-fire elements: braised meat, melted cheese and consomé, the savory cooking broth.

Emerging from the West Coast, the item has roared across the country and up the charts with a bullet based on its appeal to comfort-seeking diners and the versatility it affords menu developers.

Last year, Taco Bell rolled out the Grilled Cheese Dipping Taco that was “inspired by birria” and paired braised shredded beef, touted as a new protein offering at the chain, and a three-cheese blend with zesty red and nacho-cheese dipping sauces.

Other operators have also stepped up and mashed up, as at Del Taco, where the Shredded Beef Birria Ramen conveniently adds the meat right into the heavily noodled broth.

Nouvelle Brewing in Minneapolis puts birria on a pizza crust, along with pickled red onion and cilantro; the Cinco de Mayo special is served with the requisite side of consomé for dipping and a wedge of lime for color. Nearby in the Twin Cities, the “slightly off-kilter” menu at Stepchld  features Ethiopian Birria Tacos made with characteristic berbere spice blend.

And speaking of mash ups, brunchers at Hash Kitchen can choose from a beefy birria hat trick that includes Birria Bao Buns, Birria Frittata and the modestly positioned Best F#*%ing Birria Hash.

Some operators are going back to basics. Corn is the quintessential New-World crop. Domesticated centuries ago in southern Mexico, it remains fundamental to the nation’s cuisine.

It also became emblematic of the expanding Mexican restaurant segment in this country, which was propelled forward in no small part thanks to the reassuring crunch of corn taco shells and nacho chips.

Mexican-accented corn dishes have steadily evolved on menus here. Elote, which made a major splash a few years back, is grilled corn on the cob slathered with mayo, coated with cotija cheese and finished with chile, cilantro and lime. Now the quintessential street food is being reimagined by chefs.

First Watch’s Elote Mexican Street Corn Hash was served with eggs, chorizo, avocado and chipotle crema, while at Hash Kitchen, the Elote Benedict is topped with chile-braised beef, elote corn fritters and Tajin hollandaise.

It sits atop the long-running Elote Pizza with a lemon-pepper reduction at Zalat Pizza, and it graces the Mexican Street Corn Guac with cilantro-lime aïoli, cotija and Tajin at Condado Tacos.

Elote blew up the internet more recently thanks to the TikTok-generated corn ribs craze, in which ears of corn are quartered vertically into planks. In The Cheesecake Factory’s version, the Street Corn appetizer finishes fire-roasted corn “ribs” with Parmesan, chile-lime mayo and cilantro in an attractive presentation.

Cheesecake Factory Street Corn

The Cheesecake Factory's Street Corn small plate. | Photo courtesy: The Cheesecake Factory

Finding its inspiration in another part of the globe, upscale-casual Carson Kitchen offers an Italianate dose of corn-fed comfort with Mexican Street Polenta with cotija and poblano that is delivered to the table in a suitably rustic pan.

Carson Kitchen's Mexican Street Polenta

Carson Kitchen's Mexican Street Polenta. | Photo courtesy: Eugene Dela Cruz, OneSeven Agency

The pantry is expanding. Avocados have gone way, way beyond guac. Consumption of the fruit tripled to more than eight pounds per capita from 2000-2022, according to the USDA. It is seemingly everywhere, as at Mendocino Farms, where it gets title billing in the Turkey Avo Salsa Verde Sandwich that also includes cotija cheese and jalapeño salsa aïoli.

On the subject of salsa, we’ve also come a long way from Chi-Chi’s Glossary explanation that “salsa means sauce … and may be red or green.” Ingredient call-outs and signature salsas are common, as at Condado Tacos, where the options include corn, pineapple or tomatillo salsa.

Dairy-based crema is becoming more prevalent. Just like its sour-cream counterpart, it provides a smooth finish and rounds and offsets heat levels. Flavored cremas are popping up all over. At The Smith, which operates four units in New York City, Chicago and Washington DC, Charred Cauliflower Tacos come with spiced pepitas and lime crema.

And Tajin, the chile-lime-salt seasoning, has been getting a lot more play. Tajin-spiced pumpkin seeds turn up in Just Salad’s Dirt Candy Salad and Wing Zone offers a Lemon Pepper-Tajin dry rub. It is an ingredient in Baskin-Robbins’ frozen Mangonada beverage, and it’s used to rim margarita and Bloody Mary glasses.

Independents are gaining recognition. A clear testament to their indelible influence, the recent list of James Beard Award semi-finalists is chockablock with Mexican restaurants from around the country. Notable examples include Tuxpan Taqueria in Central Falls, R.I., which dishes up street food like Pozole Verde, a traditional hominy-based stew, and Oro by Nixta in Minneapolis, which uses heirloom corn and time-honored techniques to make its artisanal tortillas.

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