Cal-Mex Fast Food Light Years Ahead of Tex-Mex Chains

I’m about to piss off a ton of Tex-Mex fans.

When Americans speak about Mexican food, the predominant Tex-Mex is referred to lovingly, with Cal-Mex cooking being given the stink eye by Texans for the preponderance of seafood and cilantro, heaviness on lime juice, and being less, well…cheesy.

Believe me, after moving to Texas from New England, a virtual desert of Mexican anything, Tex-Mex was my introduction to the cuisine in general… and I thought it was amazing. Chips and salsa brought to the table before you order food? Unheard of. After years of visiting and dining at Pappacitos, El Fenix, La Hacienda de las Morales, Los Cucos, Lupe Tortilla and the original Ninfas on Navigation in Houston, I’m here to tell you: Tex-Mex is a sodium laced siren that will dash you against the culinary rocks, and is made for lard asses. Literally. Then I moved to California and got some south of the border food religion.

Everything in Tex-Mex chain dining is over salted and smothered in “queso” (think a version of Velveeta and Rotel tomato dip with some ground beef added in some cases) poured over various entrees, shrimp wrapped in bacon, served with the ubiquitous carb-y fatty re-fried bean and rice sides. They even deep fry avocados which are stuffed with cheese and chopped over-seasoned carne asada or carnitas with cheese smothering that too if you elect that option.

Not to mention the laziest bartenders on planet Earth when it comes to making margaritas. Remember that I’m not talking about the fancy pants high falutin’ Mexican restaurants on the main drag artery of Westheimer in Houston who might be doing it all right and with love, I’m talking the sprawling Tex-Mex chains who live and breathe by their frozen margarita machines, which should be banned. How hard is it to juice fresh limes, people? Houston needs to be cut off from the high fructose corn syrup margie mixers!

So for you people out there who are not American, or perhaps from Maine, know that Mexican Food served up in the United States is as diverse as our barbecue. Texas barbecue is light years from Memphis, which has no resemblance to St. Louis or South Carolina and on and on.

The Yankee adaptation of Mexican cuisine is pretty diverse along the long border between the two countries. The food of the southwestern state of New Mexico and the dishes of many of the Native American peoples of the southwestern USA also employ similar dish names to many Tex-Mex and some authentico Mexican dishes, but use different flavorings and cooking techniques.

A proper authentic Mexican restaurant will not serve you melted queso in a bowl for your tortilla chips.

Dishes like chili, fajitas, salsa, tortilla chips, corn chips, chimichangas, quesadillas, burritos, and nachos are all American inventions. Even dishes that exist in Mexico like enchiladas, tacos, and tamales are prepared and presented differently in the United States.

los cucos

A Los Cucos creation-note the cheese.


Americans love dairy and use prodigious amounts of cheese, either shredded or melted, on nearly every dish, with a heavy hand to with salt and spiced meat that makes you feel like you need to go on an immediate cleanse as soon as you polish a plate off.

North of the border portions are larger, plates crammed with dishes that tend to run one into the other. In Mexico, the soft corn tortilla performs the function that bread on the table performs in the United States. In places like Texas and California, tortillas become an ingredient in nearly every dish. However many LA area restaurants serve up freshly made flour and corn tortillas in lieu of the basket of chips, like the historic Casablanca Restaurant in Santa Monica, CA.

Which brings us to the green glue that hold many a Mexican American plate together: guacamole.

I adore my Texas relatives, but we have wildly different approaches to making a proper guacamole. This simple side is comprised of (ideally) avocados, garlic, jalapeno, light amount of minced onions, fresh cilantro and salt and spices and dressed with lime juice. People have served me guacamole made with mayonnaise (a punishable offense) or add too much cilantro (any cilantro is too much for most Texans) or otherwise botch this simple dish.  The Mexican way will have the preparer using a traditional lava stone mortar and pestle called the molcajete, first grinding the chiles, garlic, onions and cilantro together with salt before gently folding in slices of the avocado, then adding lime juice and maybe MAYBE some diced tomato (I am not a fan of this).  Either way, fresh is the cardinal rule here, everything MUST be fresh and blended in good proportions.

To purists for the Mexican cuisine, there are mole sauces, with many varieties in genuine Mexican cuisine that has never caught on fire with the general cheese loving Joe Q. American public. The sauce is created by grinding dried chiles, nuts, and spices (anise, sesame, cloves, coriander) which are then mixed with Mexican chocolate (a very sweet variety tinged with cinnamon). Like making home-made tamales, mole is a multi-step time consuming affair.

Finally we have the growing phenomenon of faster, lighter Cal-Mex, which tends to use fresher ingredients and are on the healthier side with more seafood and way less cheese laden. Tex-Mex is far heavier on the cheeses, beef and salt.  There are several chains in California (Chipotle, Rubios, Baja Fresh), but none match the quality of Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill, a chain that is bringing real quality back to a low cost, faster way of delivering excellent meals in a sit-down restaurant experience.

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Making a difference with food was the premise behind the explosion of the new fast-food sit down chain, Sharky’s is purely a SoCal phenom that began in Sherman Oaks, California in 1992.  Will it expand past the Cali borders to Nevada, New Mexico and Texas? It depends on people demanding better quality food.

The founder, Steve Paperno, loved to travel through Mexico, and learned innovative recipes that jibed nicely with his California passion for healthy living.

A preponderance of salsas was key to his vision for Sharky’s:

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Steve was all about eating organic and natural food, and he wanted to change the way people dined out.

The result is an innovative menu that strives to use fresh, natural and organic ingredients combined with unique cooking styles for enhanced flavor and the promise of excellence and satisfaction. Read: A lot less cheese.  If you are a tourist and visiting California, make sure to slot in a meal, as this restaurant is affordable and located in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties.

What you get is all natural chicken breast with no added preservatives, hormones or phosphates. Natural Angus beef which is antibiotic free, also with no added hormones. Also loads of seafood options: Wild Caught fish premium grade catch of the day with no added phosphates. Wild-not farmed-salmon! BAP-certified shrimp! GMO-Free Corn and Oil GMO-free organic corn for both corn tortillas and chips. They also cook with Non-GMO project verified canola oil in their restaurants.  You will also find rBGH-Free Cheese and Sour Cream Dairy products free of rBGH often used to increase milk production. In short, fantastic clean tasting Mexican food done Cal-Mex style with your health in mind.

Think about this, a low cost chain restaurant with comfortable interiors that uses locally grown yams, broccoli, onions, cilantro, peppers, romaine, baby spinach, baby greens and baby kale.  They also serve up basil infused watermelon lemonade, sangrias and local craft beers and wine too!


We recommend:


Fajita Bowls Loaded with organic non-GMO Rice and Beans, some Locally Sourced Grilled Veggies, Onions, Handcrafted Guacamole, Freshly Chopped Pico de Gallo, rBGHfree Sour Cream with choice of All Natural Chicken Breast, Steak, Big Shrimp or non-GMO Project Verified Organic Tofu. Calories: 879-967

Superfood Salads Sharky’s Quinoa A perfect Vegan Salad of Organic Red and White Quinoa, Baby Spinach, Cabbage, Green Onions, Jicama, Cucumber, Sweet Peppers, Cilantro, tossed in an Avocado Vinaigrette and topped with Avocado Slices and a Sprinkle of Toasted Flax and Chia Seeds. Vegan. Calories: 402

Harvest Quinoa Organic Red and White Quinoa, Organic Baby Greens with Apples, Strawberries, Dried Cranberries, Blueberries, Golden Raisins, Pecans, Almonds, Goat Cheese, a Sprinkle of Toasted Flax and Chia Seeds, tossed with a Sweet Lemon Vinaigrette. Vegetarian. Calories: 606