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The Texas Road Food Takeover: Smoked, Fried And Tex-Mex

Recently, a friend and I rode bicycles from Brownsville, Texas, to Oklahoma, 738 miles from the Rio Grande to the Red River, just for the hell of it. Naturally, eating was the highlight of the journey. The trip turned into a 13-mph tour of Texas's evolving food geography.

What we learned is that Texas road grub today falls into three basic groups: Tex-Mex, barbecue and fried convenience-store fare. This trio of hardy cuisines — like the inexorable march of fire ants, grackles and juniper trees — is edging out the state's small-town gastro-diversity.

Time was you could stop for lunch in a cafe on a courthouse square and order chicken-fried steak or a bowl of chili. But these classic Lone Star dishes are becoming harder and harder to find.

Patricia Sharpe, Texas Monthly's food writer and editor, confirms our observation that unique small-town eateries are an endangered species. "If you get off the big highways," she says, "you can find little cafes, but even there a lot of the food is mass-produced. You may think you're getting home cooking, but much of it comes frozen, straight off the Sysco or Ben E. Keith truck."

A collateral benefit of the state's burgeoning Hispanic population is that you can order great Mexican-American soul food most anywhere in Texas now. This is especially true "down south," where history, geography and culture ensure there will be cumin, chili powder and jalapenos in most restaurant kitchens.

"I don't know, the food down here [in South Texas] is just more like it is at home," says Valerie Vasquez, a tattooed waitress at Taqueria El Charro in Beeville, where we pedaled on Day 3 of our cross-Texas odyssey. I had the shrimp and chicken fajita plate with a side of delicious charro beans — spicy pinto beans cooked with bacon.

If we tired of tacos, usually our only other choice for a sit-down restaurant was barbecue, which has gone berserk in this state. It's no coincidence the huge fracking boom that has made Texas one of the world's biggest energy producers has set off a parallel boom in barbecue joints. (The joints — and particularly the beans they serve with the meat — are also a major producer of natural gas.)

"Ninety percent of what the oilfield hands eat is barbecue," says Tommy Rodriguez, owner of Big House BarBQ & Grill in Kingsville. "It's a good meal, it's heavy, and it'll last you — not like Chinese, where you eat it and an hour later you're hungry. Those guys work hard all day in the sun."

Rodriguez, whose restaurant sits across the street from the hotel in Kingsville where we stayed on Day 2, puts his briskets on at 9 p.m., smokes them all night over mesquite coals, then stokes the pits in the morning to finish the meat for the ravenous lunch crowd.

Finally, there's the convenience store — clearly the dominant player in Texas road food. We visited several a day because we were constantly refueling on Gatorade and energy bars.

Some stores feature large taco bars that serve dependably fresh, tasty breakfast tacos. Others have attached Subways, with that unmistakable, plasticene smell of baking bread that fills every franchise.

Nearly every store has one of those machines with heated stainless steel rollers that slowly rotate cylindrical food like taquitos, sausages, franks, egg rolls or a scary Oscar Mayer product called an Inferno Dough Dog. They turn on the warmer all day, and they look like a science fair project for indigestion waiting to happen.

No matter how many calories we craved, my ride partner, Hawk Mendenhall, and I never, ever partook of convenience store roller food.

But it is merely another chapter in the homogenizing of America: chain convenience stores crowding out mom-and-pop lunchrooms. The same cannot be said for the manifest destiny of Tex-Mex and barbecue.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.