Real Tex-Mex is hard to find anywhere north of the Texas hill country, which is why anyone who expects to be hungry soon should book a flight to Austin immediately. Taco Cabana, arguably the world's finest fast food, casts its fluorescent pink glow on half of Austin's street corners; inside is a long line, potato-sausage tacos, and a condiment bar with real cilantro. Downtown is the ancient Las Manitas, where no se habla ingles and you have to traipse through the kitchen to find the bathroom. Here the state capital's governing bodies scuff their lizard boots in the queue for migas -- eggs scrambled with tortilla crumbs, cheese, chorizo and salsa. For the epicure, Austin's undisputed epicenter of fancy Texican cuisine is Jeffrey's; their fried-oyster nachos will change your life.
If for some reason your eating tour of Austin must be postponed, there are still a couple of avenues open to you. I've said it before and I'll say it again: For the only local approximation of Taco Cabana, make haste to Nachomama's in Rock Hill, where you can luxuriate in faithful interpretations of all the classics for cheap.
Another option is to find a copy of the inspirational Nuevo Tex-Mex, by David Garrido and Robb Walsh (Chronicle Books, 1998), and make your own. Walsh is a James Beard Award-winning food writer, and Garrido is the visionary head chef at the aforementioned Jeffrey's. Together they unravel for the gringo a passel of mysteries, from translations of border patois, to the checkered past of fajitas, to tips on cooking beans for a socially acceptable aftermath.
Recipes for lamb chops in banana-mint mole or duck enfrijoladas blancas may sound exotic, but Nuevo Tex-Mex isn't gimmicky fusion cooking. Garrido is a Mexican national, and he stands firmly attached to traditional techniques. His unique achievement is that he breathes new life into Tex-Mex cuisine without corrupting it. His guacamole, for example, is fairly standard, but an ingenious substitution of sauteed onion and chile for raw lifts it to a more delicate plane.
Garrido's pedigree includes an apprenticeship with celebrity chef Stephan Pyles. Pyles' excellent cookbooks, New Texas Cuisine (Doubleday, 1993) and the companion volume to his eponymous PBS series New Tastes from Texas (Crown, 1999), are for serious cooks only; even if you manage to dig up ingredients like smoked dove and squash blossoms, prep work for his fussy recipes borders on the insane. Garrido, on the other hand, takes a more democratic approach. He limits cooking times and only uses ingredients that are widely available even in St. Louis. A trip to La Tropicana grocery in Southtown, which is some kinda fun in itself, will bridge most gaps left by the supermarket. Once you're home, you'll be sinking your teeth into crispy pork, guacamole and chile-pecan tacos inside of an hour.
Nuevo Tex-Mex and New Tastes from Texas are available from amazon.com. In Austin, you'll find Las Manitas at 211 Congress and Jeffrey's at 1204 W. Lynn.
-- Jill Posey-Smith