Redefining Tex-Mex

Many operators are expanding and experimenting with their menus to reflect this cuisine’s growing popularity.

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Tex-Mex, one of America’s oldest regional cuisines, has become incredibly popular across the United States. This is particularly true among students in elementary schools, secondary schools and colleges, and operators are responding.

Jerry Clemmer, director of residential dining at the University of Richmond, in Richmond, Va., says his team launched a comprehensive Tex-Mex station last summer after noticing the popularity of singular units such as taco, quesadilla and burrito stations. “When first conceiving this station, our chefs didn’t want this to be a plain and ordinary Southwestern station that could be found in any shopping mall or strip center,” explains Clemmer, whose Tex-Mex station incorporates all three options.

By using specialized equipment, such as a fast-steamer for tortillas and a five-inch circular Mongolian grill for quesadillas, students can customize their orders with high-quality, unique ingredients such as marinated and slow-cooked beef barbacoa seasoned with Mexican oregano adobo sauce. Clemmer also has found success with revamped sides, such as black beans with flame-roasted corn, tomatillo sauces and cilantro rice, served alongside such items as lime cilantro shrimp, blackened tilapia, and a variety of cheeses including Monterey Jack and cheddar.

To kick off this new station, Clemmer hosted a dinner complete with grilling stations, margarita-infused cupcakes, housemade chips, salsas, tamales and sopaipillas, a Southwestern deep-fried pastry.

“The station became a student favorite because of the variety of high-quality ingredients and the set-up, which allows students to design their own meals with ingredients tailored to their tastes and dietary preferences,” says Clemmer, who emphasizes the importance of an ingredient display unit that can handle the volume of customers. Likewise, Clemmer recommends developing a number system that allows the cooks to keep track of which entrees they’re preparing.  

Through the university’s instant feedback system, Text and Tell, dining services has received extremely positive feedback from students, with some even requesting Tex-Mex every day.

In other locations, such as Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Fla., operators are capitalizing on the Tex-Mex craze by adapting Tex-Mex staples to their customers’ own tastes. Ben Guggenmos, district chef at Hillsborough, says he has riffed on the city’s love of Cuban sandwiches by transforming them into quesadillas.

Cricket tacos?

Zena Maggitti, director of dining services for Chartwells at Washington College, in Chesterton, Md., says that quesadillas, tostadas, fajitas and tacos are some of the most popular items at the college. So, Maggitti decided to take a chance and use a Tex-Mex dish—tacos—to educate students. As part of the school’s annual Food Day, a partnership with the Center for Environment & Society and the Anthropology Department to celebrate local, sustainable, healthy food, Maggitti’s team swapped out the typical taco proteins—beef, pork and fish—for a more exotic one: crickets.

“Food trucks and tacos are so popular, we decided to make our own food truck to educate guests about the nutritional aspects of crickets, which was a big success,” reports Maggitti.

To educate students about the insects, Maggitti’s team created materials detailing the health benefits of crickets—they have twice as much protein as beef, as much vitamin B12 as salmon and 15% more iron than spinach.

The crickets were sourced from Next Millennium Farms, a Canadian purveyor. They were lightly seasoned and quick-fried in zero trans fat cooking oil. Homemade guacamole and freshly grilled corn tortillas completed the dish. By the end of the event, dining services had served 300 cricket tacos, compared to only 25 bean tacos.

Maggitti thinks the success of the cricket tacos was due to their originality. “To be creative, it’s not necessarily thinking outside the box,” she says, “but trying to redefine the box.”

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