FOOD: Transforming the American Table

The Tex-Mex Invasion

After her family migrated from Mexico to Texas in the 1890s, Adelaida Cuellar began selling her handmade tamales at her county fair. In 1928, she opened a neighborhood restaurant, which her family expanded in the 1950s into the El Chico Tex-Mex restaurant chain. By the 1990s, the Cuellars owned more than 100 El Chico restaurants from Dallas to Dubai, where American oilmen could enjoy a taste of home.

The Cuellars were among the early entrepreneurs who helped transform Tex-Mex food into the most popular and widespread form of Mexican American cuisine. Hundreds of Tex-Mex-style restaurants opened across the United States, competing with other regional variations such as Cal-Mex, Sonoran Mex, and New Mex–Mex, and with fast-food chain outlets such as Taco Bell. Central American restaurants also added familiar Tex-Mex dishes and drinks to their menus.

Promotional sign, about 1990

Promotional sign, about 1990

Courtesy of Archives Center, National Museum of American History

El Chico was one of many companies marketing its own brands of canned and frozen foods to be distributed through grocery stores.

El Chico packaging, around 1960

El Chico packaging, around 1960

Gift of Carmen Summers

Can label, around 1960

Can label, around 1960

Gift of Carmen Summers

These menus from restaurants in the El Chico chain illustrate how the Cuellars, in step with a growing interest in diverse food traditions, expanded their offerings to include variations from other regions in the American West and Southwest. In the 1970s, they combined the original Tex-Mex staples, such as nachos, enchiladas, and tacos, with regional specialties from New Mexico (sopapillas), California (burritos and fish tacos), Arizona (chimichangas), and other regions in Texas (fajitas, from Houston). In the 1980s, the Cuellars started experimenting with more upscale Mexican fare, drawing on regional Mexican specialties such as the moles of Oaxaca.

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Tex-Mex in the freezer section, 1970

Tex-Mex in the freezer section, 1970

El Chico products were widely available in supermarkets, especially in Texas and the southeastern United States. 

Courtesy of Archives Center, National Museum of American History

The El Chico Cookbook, about 1975

The El Chico Cookbook, about 1975

Gift of Fifi Caballero Benson

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Commonly worn in Mexico, this China Poblano style was also worn from Texas to California by Mexican American women to express a continuing affinity and identity with Mexico. Bearing the colors and Aztec eagle design of the Mexican national flag, entertainers wore the dress during promotional events at El Chico restaurants. Many of the restaurants offered music and dance performances along with the food, often on special days such as the celebration of Mexican Independence.

Mexican-Style Dress, about 1960

Gift of John Cuellar

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