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Robb Walsh Takes Tex-Mex Grilling Past Fajitas

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At the beginning of Robb Walsh’s “The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook” (Broadway Books, $18.99), there’s a photo of Fidel Castro eating Texas barbecue while on a goodwill tour that took him to Houston in 1959. A pair of detached-looking officers stand guard behind him. It’s a humorous slice of history that fits in with the sensibility of the author who has given us the indispensable history of “The Tex-Mex Cookbook.”

Grilling and smoking meat, after all, are what people from all walks of life, regardless of income, have done for millennia to prepare their food. So, a plate of smoked brisket would certainly appeal to the egalitarian nature in Castro. The rest of us would likely just hanker for more.

Yet it’s a perfect illustration of the ways in which Walsh is seeking to preserve as much of Texas’ culinary history as possible, in image, in story and in recipe. In this volume, he balances the three in savory style. “Grilling has long been a part of the lifestyle of the cattle raisers who settled this region,” he writes. “And while it was most replaced by frying and stewing in early Tex-Mex, grilling has experienced a revival. Since the 1970s, fajitas and other grilled meats and seafoods have slowly replaced combo platters as the most popular food in Tex-Mex restaurants and cantinas.”

All this occurred, Walsh says, while the rest of America was discovering its connection with the grill. So, it’s a perfect way to teach the rest of the world what we in Texas and its environs have known best for years, namely how to handle meat and fire to the best results imaginable. The answer could be as simple as Tookie’s Ground Beef, in which 6 ounces of bacon is ground into a mixture with 2 pounds of chuck, round or sirloin, or as succulent as Garlic Grilled Oysters.

It could also be a recipe as involved as knowing how to select the best, freshest cabrito and then how to fix it. “Great cabrito isn’t the easiest thing to prepare,” Walsh writes in a preface to his recipe for Grilled Cabrito. “Goat quickly develops a gamy aroma, so defrosting a frozen cabrito or buying a fresh cabrito a few days in advance and storing it in the fridge is a bad idea. Regios (people from Monterrey) meet the goat rancher at the farmer’s market and get their cabritos slaughtered a few hours before they intend to cook them. The closer you can get to this ideal, the better your cabrito will taste.”

That means I will likely never cook goat, but I hope to remember his tip when I dine out. If I see cabrito on the menu, I will ask just how fresh it is before ordering.

San Antonio plays its part in the tale, which includes our favorite bean burgers as well as the fajitas at La Margarita in Produce Row.

Tex-Mex grilling isn't just for fajitas.

As usual, Walsh incorporates his personal agenda into the text. And I say, more power to him. For years, he has attempted to elevate Tex-Mex to the status of other regional American cuisines, such as the Cajun-Creole dishes of Louisiana and the Southwestern fare popular in Arizona and New Mexico. but it hasn’t been easy. He has had to overcome decades of resistance to the fare. The blame he lays squarely at the feet of Mexican culinary icon Diana Kennedy, who “trashed the ‘mixed plates’ that were sold as Mexican food north of the border,” he writes. “Kennedy’s dim view of Tex-Mex was endorsed by her friend Craig Claiborne at the new York Times. Knowledgeable food lovers began to demand authentic Mexican cooking and to snub Tex-Mex. And as a result, countless Mexican-American families watched their restaurants go out of business.”

On a more lighthearted note, Walsh extends his story beyond barbecue and culinary politics to include, naturally, what we consume while the fire’s getting hot. So, expect tales of beer, including Blanco’s premium Real Ale, as well as a discussion of the importance of frozen margaritas in Tex-Mex culinary culture. (These sticky sweet icy drinks may not be my favorite, but they have made a lasting contribution that must be recognized.) There are also tales of great tailgating events in Houston, where the quality of the food will likely surprise you as much as it did Walsh.

Only toward the end, when discussing side dishes and salsas, does the text seem padded. Yet the author makes up for that with an excellent array of recipes, such as the Carrot Pepper Salad with Tex-Mex Ranch Dressing (don’t wimp out like I did and skimp on the pepper needed to fire up the homemade ranch), Texas Red Grapefruit Salsa and Grilled Tomato Guacamole.

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