Chile con carne was first introduced to the American public at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair: a bowl of highly spiced beef in a rich red sauce laced with onions and cumin. From that point on, there was no stopping it, and soon chile parlors had sprung up across the country. The dish originated around San Antonio earlier in the 19th century, sold by colorfully dressed women known as chile queens; it constituted the centerpiece of a local style of cooking that eventually became known as Tex-Mex.
The cuisine resulted when immigrants from northern Mexico arrived in Texas, and, not finding all the ingredients they’d been accustomed to, made substitutions. Tortillas were concocted of supermarket flour rather than corn masa, yellow American cheese replaced white queso fresco, and instead of the complicated roster of chilies available to Mexican cooks, the new immigrants often made do with canned jalapeños and serranos. While goat and pig ruled back home, now there was cheap chicken and ground beef galore. As more newcomers arrived, the cuisine evolved, with many of its signature dishes—like fajitas, nachos, and chimichangas—being developed during the mid-20th century.
Until the late 1980s, when a prolonged drought in southern Mexico drove tens of thousands of campesinos to emigrate here, Mexican dining in New York meant Tex-Mex. But now that we have hundreds of authentic Pueblan taquerias, and dozens of pan-regional Mexican places, Tex-Mex is a gastronomic dodo in danger of extinction. Which is a shame, because in its cheesy and chile-sauced magnificence, the cuisine is worth preserving.
Luckily, El Cantinero remains. Overlooked by all but its young, margarita-gulping adherents, the place was founded in 1990, but it seems more like 1890. A darkened warren of dining rooms lit by strings of Christmas lights occupies the ground floor, and a steep stairway leads you up past beer pennants, Aztec sacrifice posters, and Mexican flags to an even darker bar where couples furtively dance. In the back, a skylit patio is where you should sit.
The action is mainly in the entrées, but—given the 160 seats that El Cantinero boasts—your main course may not arrive for some time. That’s OK, because a pitcher of frozen margaritas appears instantaneously, as if Montezuma had ordered it especially for you (half-pitcher $19.95, full pitcher $24.95). The guacamole is edible, though it lacks sufficient cilantro. The nachos deluxe ($7.25) is the thing to get—not the frat-boy version of stale chips thrown in a bowl and squirted with everything in the fridge, but newly fried chips arranged in the shape of a circular Aztec calendar, each chip carefully topped with chorizo, cheese, and jalapeños and toasted in the salamander. In much the same configuration, the dish was invented by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya at a bar near Eagle Pass, Texas, in 1943.
But mild dissatisfaction with the apps evaporates once the steak fajitas sizzle up the stairs on a cast-iron platter and swerve into view: a giant wad of entangled skirt steak, purple onions, tomatoes, orange slices, and cilantro, emitting clouds of fragrant grease. The dish was supposedly invented 37 years ago at Mama Ninfa’s in Houston, though culinary historians point out that fajitas have their antecedents in the chuckwagon cooking of the Wild West. El Cantinero’s splendid rendition ($18.95) comes with several sides: guacamole, yellow rice, red beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, and warm flour tortillas wrapped in a napkin, which are used for do-it-yourself tacos.
Other Tex-Mex standards you won’t want to miss include chimichangas—ground beef or chicken wrapped in flour tortillas—and ground-beef enchiladas mired in a gravy that will send you back to the days of the chile queens. The chile reyenos are also splendid, two substantial peppers filled with rubbery cheese fried in an egg batter, then immersed in a plainish tomato sauce. All entrées come with bland refried beans and yellow rice that miraculously retains its moisture. Douse with the bottled habanero hot sauce as necessary.
Then we have the combination platter. This is the heart and soul of Tex-Mex. From a list of antijitos that includes tacos, tamales, enchiladas, tostadas, burritos, flautas, and quesadillas, one can select one ($12.50), two ($13.50), or three ($14.50) choices, which come sluiced with chile gravy and chile con queso. Engulfed in brown and yellow sauces, the plate may look like a polluted estuary, but the city offers no better interlude between frozen margarita pitchers.