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Dallas Restaurant Critics Battle Over City’s Mexican Cuisine Scene

Tlayudas at Xochi in Houston

Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner has always been a little weird about Dallas’ interpretation of Mexican cuisine. Last year, she proclaimed that queso, the city’s most beloved appetizer, was terrible. Now, she’s making the arguably misguided case that Dallas should be the epicenter of modern Mexican cuisine.

“I wish we were seeing more outstanding Mexican cooking, and from others,” writes Brenner. “With such a vibrant Mexican-American community here, and such close ties between Dallas and Mexico, a fervent embrace of the flavors of Mexico would be natural.” She also argues that Dallas diners should be willing to pay more for upscale Mexican cuisine, citing the success of Enrique Olvera’s Cosme in New York City and Hugo Ortega’s Xochi in Houston.

But at the Dallas Observer, critic Brian Reinhart says that Brenner’s got it all wrong. “Leslie Brenner wrote 841 words about Mexican food in Dallas without mentioning Oak Cliff,” he writes. “Here's an idea: If you want to try Mexican cooking, go to an area where Mexican people live, and go to a restaurant where Mexican people eat.”

Ouch. Read more from Reinhart’s clapback here:

The basic fallacy of Brenner’s article is that there’s a dichotomy between “humble tacos” (her words) and “modern,” “creative” Mexican food (her words again). Lurking unspoken behind that sentiment is the dangerous view, one I assume Brenner would repudiate, that humble Mexican food isn’t creative, inventive or modern unless some chef (probably white — Brenner cites Randall Warder, Michael Martensen and Stephan Pyles) makes Mexico fit into the old, Anglo-French culinary order and serves the result in a neighborhood where cosseted foodies feel safe valeting their BMWs.

How to refine Dallas’ version of Mexican cuisine — and who gets credit for it — is certainly a complicated question, one that probably won’t be answered by posturing editorials. As Brenner urges Mexican eateries to serve pricier, more complicated fare, restaurants across the country are simplifying their menus in order to contend with rising food costs. As Reinhart defends Dallas’ Mexican restaurants, he ignores thriving Mexican food scenes in places like Los Angeles and Houston, where upscale, creative cuisine is woven into the fabric of the broader restaurant culture as opposed to flying under the radar.

Time will tell whether or not D Magazine critic Eve Hill-Agnus will feel compelled to weigh in on the great Dallas Mexican food debate. But one thing is for sure: as the debate rages on, Dallas’ consumption of queso and “cheap, humble” tacos isn’t going to decline anytime soon.

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