Take a trip to your favorite Mexican restaurant and browse the menu, and you’ll encounter plenty of items that sadly aren’t Mexican at all. There’s a big difference between authentic Mexican fare and the “Mexican” dishes that you find at your local spot, and some of your favorite dishes aren’t, in fact, Mexican at all.
While you might find something called a burrito filled with meats or vegetables wrapped in a tortilla in parts of Mexico, those gargantuan flour tortillas packed with all sorts of meat, beans, rice, and salsas is a purely American invention, first appearing in California in the 1930s.
Chili, or chili con carne, is a purely Texan invention, dating back to the cuisine of the Tejanos and ranchers of the region. It’s about as Mexican as pizza.
The vast majority of the time, tacos in Mexico are made with two small corn tortillas, topped with meat and possibly a sprinkling of onion and cilantro and a drizzle of thin salsa. This whole Ortega hard-shell taco with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and shredded Cheddar? American.
While nachos were in fact invented in Mexico in 1943, they were created by the maître d’ of a restaurant just across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, for the wives of American servicemen after the restaurant had closed. The name of the inventor? Ignacio Anaya, or Nacho for short. Their popularity spread through Texas before reaching California and the rest of the country.
In Mexico, if you order “queso” (which just means “cheese”), you’ll receive a casserole dish of queso fundido or queso flameado, stretchy melted Oaxaca or Chihuahua cheese served bubbling and usually topped with ground chorizo. The thick and spicy bright yellow or orange liquid we call queso in America would be completely foreign to Mexicans.
The word “fajita” actually refers to a cut of meat, the skirt steak, and in Mexico the only time you see that word will be in reference to that cut of meat (and rarely so; the word itself didn’t appear in print until the 1970s). Fajitas as we know them — sliced steak, chicken, and shrimp served with peppers and onions on a sizzling platter, with tortillas on the side — can trace their roots to the Depression-era Mexican cowboys of South and West Texas, called vaqueros, who were given “throwaway” cuts of meat like the skirt steak to cook directly on a campfire or grill. For much of the country, fajitas as we know them today didn’t make an appearance until the 1990s.