Cheap Eats 2013: Know Cali-Mex From Hipster Mex?

A primer on the many genres of local Mexican restaurants.

Gen Mex

Definition: Generic Mexican. Remember that Jim Gaffigan joke about every Mexican dish being essentially the same thing, just with a different name? Right here.

Defining restaurant: Cactus Cantina in DC’s Cleveland Park

Iconic dish: Nachos blanketed with orange cheddar

You’ll always find: Laughing hordes of happy-hour drinkers

Salva-Mex

Definition: The classification for a great many Washington-area Mexican restaurants: Mexican food cooked by Salvadorans. Heavier and less bright than regional Mexican.

Defining restaurant: El Tamarindo in DC’s Adams Morgan

Iconic dish: Carne asada, slathered in butter before coming to the table in a sizzling cast-iron dish

You’ll always find: Plantains and pupusas in addition to fajitas and burritos

Cali-Mex

Definition: Mexican food by and for Californians. Looks like the real thing, but you won’t find lard in anything, and no dish or sauce has too much body—ideal for a culture that worships thin.

Defining restaurant: Surfside in DC’s Glover Park

Iconic dish: Grilled-fish tacos

You’ll always find: Surfboards on the wall

Tex-Mex

Definition: Foodies like to sneer at it, but this is an honorable cuisine, a melding of two cultures to produce a third. If you dislike Tex-Mex, it’s probably because you’ve only had bad Tex-Mex. There’s just not a hell of a lot of the good stuff around here.

Defining restaurant: Austin Grill in Silver Spring, Alexandria, Springfield, and DC’s Penn Quarter

Iconic dish: Texas chili

You’ll always find: Frozen margaritas

Regional Mexican

Definition: Just as regional Italian bumped aside red-sauce Italian a decade ago, regional Mexican has, in the food community, replaced Tex-Mex as the genre that defines the cuisine. Think salty cheeses, toasting of spices for moles,and lots of herbs.

Defining restaurant: R&R Taqueria in Elkridge, Maryland

Iconic dish: Chilaquiles

You’ll always find: Mexican women doing the cooking

Hipster Mex

Definition: See Regional Mexican, only presented as if it were a night out at an avant-garde black-box theater.

Defining restaurants: El Chucho in DC’s Columbia Heights, Bandolero in Georgetown

Iconic dish: Cross-cultural tacos filled with foie gras or lobster

You’ll always find: Tattooed cooks and servers