If there’s one thing Texans love (even more than being a Texan, that is), it’s iconic and delicious Texas foods. While many places across the U.S. each have their own regional and local favorites, Texas eats are unique in that they pull from Southern, Western and Mexican influences— making for a delightfully indulgent (if not always healthy) meal, no matter where you find yourself in the Lone Star state.
From here are just a few essential and iconic food favorites among Texans.
A list of Texas foods would be remiss without mentioning the arguable king of all Texas cuisine— barbecue. Whether you’re a Texas native, transplant, or tourist, there’s almost no way you can’t eat barbecue here (though whose barbecue you choose to eat— a highly contested topic— we’ll leave up to you).
From Memphis to Kansas City to the Carolinas, each region of the U.S. has its own preferences of meats, spices, rubs, sauces and fixings they claim make theirs “the best.” Texas, however, is partial to beef brisket and various pork products. Even more specifically, BBQ variations and specialities differ depending on which area of the state you’re in.
Central Texas barbecue is partial to a simple dry rub, typically smoking their meat for many hours at low temperatures over mesquite, pecan or oak wood. Also, the meat rarely comes on sandwiches and is usually presented on a plate. East Texas barbecue also involves slow smoking over long periods of time, but is known to “fall off the bone” and tends to come marinated in a sweet tomato-based sauce. South Texas barbecue features a sweet sauce, favoring a molasses-based barbecue sauce. Because the region is heavily influenced by Mexican cuisine, barbacoa is also a popular barbecue staple here. West Texas barbecue, unlike its other Texas counterparts, is traditionally cooked with direct heat over an open flame and is specifically associated with mesquite wood, one of the few tree species that thrive in the area’s climate.
When the weather cools, there’s one dish that’s sure to be on the menu state-wide— chili. One tale of the dish’s beginnings in Texas dates back to the mid-1800s, when a group of women known as the “Chili Queens of San Antonio” served the dish in the city’s Military Plaza. In early Tex-Mex restaurants, chili was ladled over tamales and used as an enchilada sauce. Later, with the rise in popularity of the Frito corn chip (another Texas-based creation), “Frito pie” was born. No matter the dish, one staple that seems to have stood the test of time in Texas chili is this: no beans.
Texans love their chili so much, in fact, that they made it the state’s official dish. Since 1967, chili makers of all stripes have gathered in West Texas for the state’s famous Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff. What makes Texas chili unique from other chilis is that it omits both beans and tomato sauce (or any tomato product), relying heavily on two flavors— chili peppers and beef (typically a cubed roast).
Chicken Fried Steak
While this comfort food dish feels distinctly Southern and hasn’t been proven to originate in the Lone Star state, its Texas roots still run deep. Many historians claim that German and Austrian immigrants who settled in Texas during the 19th century most likely influenced the meal, basing it off of a native Austrian recipe called “wiener schnitzel” (veal or pork, dipped in eggs and bread crumbs and pan-fried).
No matter its origins, the dish has become a favorite among Texans, combining two hallmarks of Texas cuisine— beef and fried food. Typically prepared alongside buttery mashed potatoes and topped with white peppered gravy, different areas of Texas seem to have their own special ways of cooking up the dish, with a dry coating favored in the western part of the state and a thick, egg-rich style more popular in the east. However you like it, be sure to grab a plate on October 26, Texas’ official “Chicken Fried Steak Day.”
Texas Sheet Cake
Made with a single pan and a few choice ingredients, Texas Sheet Cake was designed to be both delicious and simple. The classic dessert is a combination of chocolate sheet cake with gooey fudge icing, topped with crunchy pecans or walnuts— and big enough to feed a crowd. For this reason, the cake has become a common fixture at funeral potlucks, earning its nickname as a “Texas Funeral Cake.”
Though many point to the recipe’s use of local specialties, such as pecans and buttermilk, and its size as signs of its Texan heritage, it’s official origins are debatable. Mentions of Texas Sheet Cake recipes are, however, noted in newspapers such as the Galveston Daily News as early as 1936 and in the Dallas Morning News in 1957.
From chili con queso to cheese enchiladas, Texas is synonymous with Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes. Tex-Mex is a distinctly Texas regional cuisine and is closely tied to the history of the state. When Texas declared its independence from Mexico and became a part of the U.S. in 1845, many Mexican flavors, spices and ingredients worked their way into restaurants and gained popularity.
Today, Tex-Mex cuisine can be found within Texas’ borders and beyond, gaining further popularity in chain restaurants such as Chipotle, Chuy’s and, of course, Taco Bell. Chances are, if you’ve eaten any sort of popular “Mexican” dish, it may have technically been a Tex-Mex dish: chili con carne or chili con queso, fajitas, nachos, refried beans and breakfast tacos, to name a few. Important distinctions between traditional Mexican food and Tex-Mex is that Tex-Mex food is rooted in Texas’s Tejano culture and typically includes the heavy use of cheese, cumin, chili powder and beef.