There are a lot of wonderful things that happen when two cultures come together, and it’s nowhere more obvious than in the south Texas town of McAllen, where the Mexican and American cultures have combined to create some truly unique food.
From experiencing Pan de Campo—a staple at cattle drives—at the upscale restaurant Salt American Table, to chomping down on the Nuri Taco (seared Cecina steak, chori-queso, Oaxaca cheese) at a local food truck gathering, this melding of food and culture makes a delicious combination.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially if you start at Delia’s Tamales, where you can find authentic pork, chicken, beef, and bean tamales—as well as spicy versions—at this Rio Grande Valley favorite. From her start selling tamales door-to-door, Delia has parlayed her cooking prowess into six locations in and around McAllen, but don’t be surprised if you show up and have to stand in line—the place attracts way more locals than tourists
Locals also flock to Costa Messa for authentic Mexican cuisine as well as its Tex-Mex offerings. While the restaurant does serve an impressive array of items for lunch and dinner, they serve breakfast, and I was impressed with their ability to give even a straightforward meal a little sass. My Eggs Benedicto, while remaining true to the poached egg/hollandaise sauce/Canadian bacon concept, featured tomatoes and green peppers and something that gave it a slightly spicy and oh, so good taste.
For lunch, Bodega Tavern & Kitchen provides eclectic, locally sourced, regional Texas cuisine. With everything on the menu from blackened chicken and grits to braised beef enchiladas and even a Mexican street (hot)dog, you have the chance to explore some items you won’t find in typical restaurants. Chef Adam Cavazos often changes up the menu—in part so he won’t get bored—though there are some favorites, like his truffle fries and chicken sandwich with black garlic hot sauce that hopefully won’t be going anywhere soon. The restaurant is also open for dinner, and though I didn’t have a chance to make it back for that, I can tell you that their cocktail bar—which specializes in mescal and tequila drinks—is worth an after-work stop.
Salt American Table is always a treat, and there’s always something on the menu that I’ve never heard of—much less tried. Braised Texas rabbit or quail knots, anyone? I was really blown away by something fairly simple the last time I visited—the restaurant’s upscale take on Pan de Campo, which is basically corn bread that cowboys eat out on the range. This “official state bread of Texas” was paired with two types of honey provided by a 78-year-old local beekeeper; one was almost floral in its aftertaste; the other featured peach and pear notes.
I will add that if you’re visiting Salt, you have to sample the mac and cheese, made with bacon, homemade pasta, béchamel sauce, American, aged cheddar and smoked Gruyere cheese. To die for.
I was never a big fan of the food truck trend until I tried the Devine Swine (Asian pork belly, pickled red onions and carrots, and ponzu sauce) from Nuri’s food truck, which you can find in the McAllen Food Park, located between the city’s arts and cultural districts. Take some friends and try all of the Mexican-Korean fusion choices, including Korean Karnitas, Yard Bird, and kimchee fries or rice; you’re just cheating yourself if you’re not trying more than just one of these unique concoctions.
Cook Your Own
If all of this fantastic food has you wanting to channel your inner chef, you might want to visit McAllen Culinary Academy, run by Chef Marcel. Originally from the Netherlands, he moved to McAllen with his wife, a city native, and they owned a French-style bistro for almost 11 years. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, they closed the restaurant to spend more time together, and now that she’s recovered, they serve her favorite menu items for lunch at their restaurant—The Lunch Box on 10th—where they run the cooking school at night.
It was enlightening as well as entertaining to work with Chef Marcel, who laughingly shared such sage advice as, “The knife is sharp. The stove is hot.” Our class created a pretty fabulous meal consisting of heirloom tomato salad with anchovy vinaigrette, prosciutto wrapped pork loin with béchamel sauce, risotto, and a homemade almost-instant bittersweet chocolate mousse. I must say I excel at salads, though the patience required to make a perfect risotto escapes me.
When everything is made with the freshest ingredients, literally sourced from local farms and herb gardens that morning, it’s no wonder that the meals—Tex-Mex combinations and more—attract foodies from both sides of the border.
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