While, in retrospect, it seems obvious that Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic), at the apex of his Polynesian food empire, would branch out into the popular food culture phenomenon of ‘Tex-Mex,’ the origins of what prompted that action are more nuanced. Living in the 21st century, it seems unthinkable that the synonymous nacho platter could ever have been a foreign object to the American palette. And yet, the term ‘Tex-Mex’ as a culinary indicator was only introduced into the popular lexicon as early as 1963 by the New York Times. Coincidentally, the same year as Elvis Presley’s smash hit musical Fun in Acapulco. And so, when Trader Vic decided to open his chain of Mexican-themed restaurants called Senor Pico’s in 1964, you get the sense that he’s trying to get in on the ground floor of the latest culinary trend, much like he did with the Tiki craze of the 1930s.
This is not to say that Tex-Mex cuisine was not a popular food culture prior to the early 60s. It had been building and evolving for decades as the regional cuisine of the Tejano peoples (Texas-born, Mexican-descent). However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that this regional cuisine began to gain traction in America at large (most like a result of America’s ‘Jet Age’ revolution). Interestingly, Diane Kennedy, in her book The Cuisines of Mexico (1972) is often cited as the authoritative voice that distinguished between authentic Mexican food and the Tex-Mex fusion that had become popular throughout the States. However, Bergeron clearly states in his cookbook/travelogue Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook (1968), that his inspiration for the menu at Senor Pico’s came primarily from the border states and not from Mexican proper, clearly delineating between the two.
Like much of Victor Bergeron’s empire, Senor Pico’s was not to last, however between 1964 until the late 70s, Senor Pico’s sold more tequila than anywhere else in the entire world. That’s impressive. With his characteristic inventiveness, Bergeron applied himself to creating a host of tequila based cocktails to accompany his new restaurant chain including the Durango, El Diablo, and Spanish Moss which still have reverberations to this day in the modern iterations of ‘tropical’ themed mixology.
So, how do the recipes hold up over time? Surprisingly well. Despite the fact that some of the recipes are simplistic to the point of austere by today’s standards, the entire collection of recipes are delicious, varied and serve as a pretty satisfactory compendium as ‘the-only-tex-mex-cookbook-you-will-ever-need’ (as though that’s ever possible!). All the classics are covered: nachos, quesadillas, guacamole, emapanadas, tamales, enchiladas, frijoles refritos, huevos rancheros, and, of course, tacos! Many of the recipes relying on a perfectly functional homemade red enchilada sauce as the base that you can freeze and use as needed. But, the book also provides recipes for some interesting lesser known recipes, as well, like picadillo, stuffed poblano peppers and chilaquile pie. All furnished with some lovely vintage food photography.
And so, without further ado, I bring you my abbreviated, can’t lose, tex-mex dishes from Senor Pico‘s. Out of a whopping 42 recipes, I have selected my top ten favourites along with a few drink recipes.
- Senor Pico’s Compuesta Salad (with Guacamole and Refried Beans)
- Picadillo Taquitos
- Chilaquile Pie
- Beef Tacos
- Chicken Enchiladas
- Deep Fried Steak with Peppers and Onions
- Stuffed Poblano Peppers
- Salsa & Tomato Table Sauce
- Mexican Rice
- Baked Bananas with Rum Sauce