From fresh and fast to nuanced and nostalgic, Mexican cuisine is more popular than ever before. Though Americans sometimes think of “Mexican food” as having one distinct flavor profile, traditional Mexican cooking encompasses a tremendous range of ingredients, styles and flavors.
Today, leading-edge chefs are satisfying the appetite for authentic foods and flavors and showing that traditional Mexican cooking can reflect an almost endless variety of ingredients and creative interpretations. In addition, over the years, as cooks in the U.S. interpreted beloved Mexican recipes, interesting hybrid flavors and forms emerged and coalesced into regional styles of cooking.
One of these American regional cuisines is Tex-Mex, a subtype of Southwestern cuisine that originated with the Tejano people of Texas. Tex-Mex food is known for a heartiness and distinctive flavor associated with a heavy use of shredded cheese, “ranch meats” including beef, pork and goat and the addition of non-traditional spices such as cumin to traditionally used Mexican peppers and spices.
As Tex-Mex was evolving in the Southwest, another cuisine was on the rise in a state known for setting the trends that spread across the country. In contrast with Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, a fusion of California cuisine and traditional Mexican cooking, is known for fresh and seasonal ingredients, lighter proteins and plant-forward dishes, as well as new takes on Mexican regional dishes like tacos gobernadores, tlayudas and alambres.
Just as “Mexican chiles” advanced in the American culinary imagination from jalapenos and habaneros to chipotles, pasillas, ghost peppers and more, in Cal-Mex dishes, dairy is a star ingredient that has helped Cal-Mex cuisine evolve beyond the old-school “smothered in melted Cheddar” approach to encompass a growing variety of Hispanic-style cheeses and cremas. These dairy ingredients are the perfect complement to the lighter fish, seafood and meats, brighter citrus flavors and fresh fruits (including avocados, melons, mango, kiwi and papaya), so often featured in Cal-Mex’s reinvented Mexican dishes.
Just as the ranches in Texas were a foundation for Tex-Mex cooking, the California dairy industry—in existence for more than 250 years—played a symbiotic role in the development of Cal-Mex-style cuisine. Today, California is the leading U.S. producer of Hispanic-style dairy products, providing flavorful products with consistent quality in varieties like semisweet requeson (a Hispanic version of ricotta used in Cal-Mex salads, dips and cooked foods and desserts) and asadero (a mild and firm cheese eaten “as is” on Cal-Mex sandwiches and melted in cooked dishes). With healthier menus on the rise, Cal-Mex classics such as fish tacos with cotija and crema can now be found on menus from West to East and, though not considered a Hispanic-style cheese, Monterey Jack, a popular variety of cheese that originated in California, is an indispensable ingredient in Cal-Mex quesadillas and enchiladas. Other California Hispanic-style favorites commonly used as the cornerstones of Cal-Mex cooking include queso fresco, queso blanco, panela and Oaxaca.
From community favorites to cutting-edge concepts, diners can now find Cal-Mex restaurants throughout California, and, increasingly, across the country. With them, California Hispanic-style cheeses are becoming more and more popular as Cal-Mex gains an increasingly important voice in the culinary conversation.
This post is sponsored by California Milk Advisory Board