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Fail Mail (formerly Errorogenous Zone): Chimi Shelter

Published January 16, 2023

On March 2, we led off the quiz with a nice, easy round on words that begin with the letters C-H-I. In that round, we asked:

Deep-fry any old burrito to get what delicious Tex-Mex heart stopper and go-to joke for Deadpool?

It’s a chimichanga! You got deep-fried, you got Tex-Mex, you got Deadpool, so it’s pinned1 three ways. Easy-peasy, no arguments there, right? Not so fast, idiot! Sessel wrote in with the following gripe:

The question states that chimichangas are a tex-mex creation, when it was created in my home town of Tucson Arizona. It was created in a family owned restaurant named El Charro who just celebrated its 100th year. The place even has a newspaper clipping framed on its wall from 1922. Even Wikipedia says that its origin is from Tucson.

Editor-in-Chief, Aaron Retka, responds:

When I first started looking into this, I assumed I’d be entering the world of culinary apocrypha. You know the one—that shadowy realm of legend where 640 different restaurants have a story about inventing the B.L.T., because President Benjamin Harrison visited one dark and stormy night and the kitchen was closed and all the cook could find was some crispy bacon and tomato and anyway, the rest is history. But that’s not the case here at all! Most sources, like you, point to the chimichanga’s birthplace as Tucson’s El Charro, which you’re very right to insist exists in Arizona and not Texas.

But here’s where it gets sticky. Many of the articles I stumbled across cite El Charro as the undisputed chimi birthplace, and then in the same breath call it “Tex-Mex.” Even the Wikipedia article you cited goes this route. Was El Charro’s Monica Flin perhaps from Texas, slinging Tejano food in Tucson? Nope, she was born in Arizona, and her parents were from France. So the question is: Is the chimichanga, by composition or philosophy, Tex-Mex?

I can’t seem to find a description of what that first chimichanga was like, except that it contained beef and likely was wrapped in a flour tortilla, which are both hallmarks of the Sonoran-Sinoloan cuisine that pervades Arizona. That’s a strike against Tex-Mex-ery. The current menu lists a Carne Seca (check: Sonoran) chimi that you can get “elegante-style,” with what looks like ranchero sauce and white (not yellow!) cheese (check and check: Sonoran). Given the rest of the menu offerings and the family’s long history in the area, I’m pretty comfortable calling El Charro a Sonoran, not Tex-Mex, restaurant, and the dish they invented a Sonoran dish. Why does almost everybody screw that up?

I think it’s laziness, or at least the desire to lump. It’s a way of interpolating these varied styles of regional cuisine, from Baja to Boca Chica, into something digestible. In other words, there’s Mexican Mexican food on one hand, and on the other there’s American Mexican food, which people call Tex-Mex. Never mind that the regional styles were diverse and well established hundreds of years before “Tex-Mex” was ever coined. According to general understanding: Does it include a flour tortilla? Tex-Mex. Ground cumin? Tex-Mex. Beef? Tex-Mex.

Very prickly food writer Diana Kennedy loved the cuisines of Mexico and haaaated Tex-Mex food,  comparing it to the Americanized chop suey-class slop that stood in for “authentic” Chinese food in the 1960s. She once categorized Tex-Mex as “an overly large platter of mixed messes, smothered with a shrill tomato sauce, sour cream and grated yellow cheese preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy deep-fried chips.” Oof. And, it’s worth noting that her book’s official blurb specifically singles out chimichangas for a slagging. Is it American? Is it Mexican? It’s Tex-Mex, according to Kennedy and many others.

I’m not saying it’s fair, or particularly accurate, and I know for a fact that my New Mexican friends would slit my throat for calling green chile Tex-Mex, but it’s the way much of the world understands Mexican-American food.

So to sum up: Was the chimichanga invented in Tucson? Almost certainly. Is it Sonoran food? Absolutely. Is it Tex-Mex? No, but also … sorta?

1. A question is “pinned” to its answer when there are no correct responses other than those the questioner is seeking.

Featured image courtesy of: Marakama, CC BY-SA 2.0.