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Before Robb Walsh started writing about Tex-Mex, Taco Bell burritos and Chi-Chi's-style fajitas defined Mexican food for most American eaters.

Now, with Walsh's definitive Tex-Mex cookbook in its 11th printing, American cooks are armed with the knowledge that much of the "Mexican" food served in the U.S. isn't really Mexican. It's Tex-Mex, and lamely constructed at that -- pale imitations of the rich, spicy meals found in Texas and the Southwest after Northern Mexican traditions collided with Texas cookhouse cuisine.

In "The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook," the Houston-based writer uses his reporting skills to trace the roots of hit dishes like fajitas, margaritas and tacos. Today's cooks might not be keen for braised cow's head that Mexican ranch hands called barbacoa. (The name lives on in its Americanized form, barbecue.)

The recipes are tantalizing, but the remarkable part of the book is meeting the inventors or experts in the eats and drinks Walsh presents. Their tales of discovery provide clues to enthusiasts far from Texas who are trying to conjure up the feel and flavors of the eats and drinks. In Walsh's hands, their stories make great sauce.

Not to mention a fascinating read. Where did the taco truck come from? How did tailgating first gain widespread popularity? How did tacos al pastor become perhaps the greatest contribution of Lebanese immigrants to Mexican street food? Let Walsh tell you some history, then offer the recipes crucial to fighting the cravings he's caused.

Walsh's recipes, like Beef Shortribs in Ancho-Molasses Sauce, provide plenty of modern ways to taste the Tex-Mex tradition. Ambitious but intriguing dishes include Barbacoa de Borrego, spiced lamb shoulder chunks that are grilled, smoked and braised to tenderness, served with rice and beans and stuffed into tacos.

Try the grapefruit-marinated chicken fajitas, served with Walsh's Texas Red Grapefruit Salsa, for a lighter dish.

There are lots of seafood and vegetable choices included, though the Deepwater Horizon oil spill may mean you'll have to get replacements for the gulf shrimp Walsh grills with pineapple kebabs, and the red snapper in his fish tacos.

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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>The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook

By Robb Walsh

Broadway

256 pages, $19