On this National Chili Day, we’d like to give it up for the originator of Tex-Mex, our state’s official dish, and San Antonio’s pride. While Tex-Mex has spread around the globe as a fast food mainstay, its roots in South Texas are not common knowledge. Carino Cortez of La Familia Cortez Restaurants says it’s time to change that. She believes that Tex-Mex is a culinary tradition on par with the other great traditions around the world.
Carino Cortez (Left) and Jorge Cortez (Center) enjoying La Gran Tamalada in Market Square in 2017. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“Chili con carne is one of the historical dishes of San Antonio and one of the cornerstones of Tex-Mex cuisine,” says Carino. “I would say it’s the dish where San Antonio created Tex-Mex.” And it all started with the humble practice of “guisar” or “stewing.”
The concept of “guisar,” was inherently tied to hospitality. This was a Mexican culinary tradition and at home families were always expected to have something cooking so they could provide for loved ones and guests alike. This tradition featured heavy use of ancho chilis, a lighter touch of the available meats, and sparing use of “queso fresco” or white cheeses.
In the growing town of San Antonio in the Mexican State of Coahuila y Tejas, this tradition was destined to take on new life. The “chili queens” were responsible for bringing the practice out of the home and into the public square, such as Main and Military Plazas. The queens served a hungry community from their large pots of signature creations.
Del Mexican Dinner at Mi Tierra. Courtesy of La Familia Cortez.
As time passed, borders changed, and an influx of European and American immigrants defined a new confluence of communities in San Antonio. In the early 1900’s, the chili queens moved to the area that is now Market Square, which provided the community with its major source of produce. In these changing conditions, the city’s signature dish also began to change. To satisfy a more diverse array of palettes, the dish featured a lighter touch of chilis, heavier use of meats (especially beef), more bone broth, and the addition of vegetable toppings such as onions, jalapeño, and cilantro.
Chili Queen Burger from Viva Villa. Courtesy of La Familia Cortez.
While cheese was used in Mexico, this “queso fresco” was light and used sparingly. With an infusion of European immigration, cheddar cheese became the choice of local chili makers in San Antonio. They added it on their chili and one of the most defining ingredients of Tex-Mex found its home. From there, chili was utilized as a topping for everything from tamales to enchiladas. Each of the families in Market Square stewed chili in their own style. This included La Familia Cortez, who opened the now iconic Mi Tierra at Market Square in 1941.
Mi Tierra still uses the same practices it did when it was founded. This ain’t your drive-thru Tex-Mex. Carino explains that their cheese is aged for 120 days, they butcher and grind their beef by hand, they make their own bone broth, and toast their own chilis. “We need to own Tex-Mex, be proud of Tex-Mex in San Antonio because we are one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities of Gastronomy,” Carino explains. “What is the history of our cuisine if not this rich history of chili queens?”
Viva Villa's Chili Queen Enchiladas and Chili Queen Burgers. Courtesy of La Familia Cortez.
So, on this National Chili Day, chow down on some hometown pride and know that you are taking part in a culinary tradition that goes back to nearly the beginning of our city. FYI, Carino’s favorite way to eat chili: On a charred corn tortilla, topped with avocado and diced white onion. There are tons of spots who serve this signature dish, but check out some of our staff picks: