The quintessential Tex-Mex recipe in virtually every Tex-Mex restaurant in the state is the cheese enchilada plate. It’s generally the first recipe that comes to mind when you ask a Texan to tell you what Tex-Mex food is.
You’ll likely find it as Dinner #1 on the menu at your neighborhood “Mexican” restaurant.
The Tex-Mex cheese enchilada plate certainly isn’t Mexican, but Texans of Mexican descent absolutely invented it. They invented it specifically to appeal to the Southern Anglo palate and they were so successful that they launched an entire cuisine of their own with worldwide appeal.
In creating this new cuisine, they understood that brown gravy was a staple for Southerners, as well as orange cheese. (Cheddar is an English cheese that’s dyed orange to differentiate it from Mainland European cheeses.)
Southerners like a good melting cheese, though, and the oil in Cheddar tends to separate when heating it. This preference for liquid orange cheese is where Velveeta (or American) cheese came in.
Finally, instead of just sticking with the typical brown gravy you’d find on a Southerner’s dinner table, they added dried chile peppers to the brown gravy, then poured it over that molten orange cheese wrapped in a fried corn tortilla, and viola, what everybody knows today as Tex-Mex cuisine was born.
Those famous cheese enchiladas are almost always accompanied with some guacamole, Mexican red rice, refried pinto beans, and a stiff American version of sour cream—altogether a primarily brown and orange pool of heavy comfort food.
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Sometimes a little shredded iceberg lettuce and some diced tomatoes (at the fancy joints, some pico de gallo) are piled onto the plate to add a bright crispiness.
If you want to learn more about the history of Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas and how they came to be, the best resource you’ll find is The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh. Walsh did such an excellent job with his Tex-Mex history/cookbook, there isn’t much more to say on the subject. Just read his book and you’re done. No need to buy another.
His book ought to be on every Texas cook’s bookshelf.
My Version of Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas
Now, with my version of Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas, I don’t necessarily stick to what you would historically find in a Tex-Mex restaurant.
I don’t really like Velveeta-style cheese. It’s too salty for me. Instead, I use Longhorn Colby cheese. It melts better than Cheddar but doesn’t have the saltiness of Velveeta.
If you want to use Velveeta in yours, by all means, do it. Just substitute a like quantity of Velveeta for Longhorn Colby and you’re all set. You don’t need to change anything else.
To really make this the classic Dinner #1, you’re gonna need a few more recipes:
Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas
Tex-Mex Chili Gravy
- 1/4 cup pork lard - or, substitute vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups beef stock
- 2 tbsp. chili powder
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 tsp. onion powder
- 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tsp. Mexican oregano
- 12 oz. Longhorn Colby cheese - about 3 cups of shredded cheese
- 10 yellow corn tortillas
- 1/2 cup pork lard - or, substitute vegetable oil
- 1/4 diced white onion
- 1 1/2 cups guacamole
- 1 cup pico de gallo
- 1 1/2 cups Mexican red rice
- 1 1/2 cups refried beans
Tex-Mex Chili Gravy
- Heat the lard over medium-high heat, then add the flour whisking constantly until it turns the color of peanut butter. About 5 minutes.
- Add stock, whisking constantly, then add the seasonings. Whisk until smooth and starting to thicken.
- Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Add more beef stock, if necessary, to maintain a gravy-like consistency. Keep hot until you're ready to use it.
Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Add 1/4 cup of lard to a small pan and preheat over medium heat (about 350 degrees).
- Once the lard is hot, fry the tortillas one-by-one, without letting the edges get crispy. About 15 seconds per side. Drain on paper towels and blot with another.
- Once you've finished frying all of your tortillas, remove the pan from the heat, then, one at a time, dip the tortillas into the chili gravy, add 1/4 cup of cheese, roll, then place in the casserole dish, seam-side down.
- Pour the remaining chili gravy over the top, then sprinkle with the remaining shredded cheese. Bake uncovered, on the center rack, for about 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and beginning to bubble.
- Serve immediately, on a warm platter, with your choice of sides and toppings.
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